By: Cassandra Simons
Life before TEFL in South Korea
This time last year, I was just an average college graduate and teacher. I worked at a school that felt like a family: the teachers I worked with were incredibly close and I knew I had a good support system (both professionally and, in some cases, personally) away from home. While I will never try to say that I am a perfect or amazing teacher, I think I was pretty good at my job. I did what I needed to do, and then some. My students could expect to see me at their sporting events and at their concerts and performances; my Special Olympics athletes could expect to see me at almost every practice and escort them to every tournament. I attended faculty and department meetings as required and tried to help out in any way I could.
I lived in the same town I had gone to college in and had an amazing group of friends that stood by me through thick and thin. I knew the regulars at my favorite pubs and restaurants. I had worked at several businesses and knew many of the locals. Life was good.
Then the words every teacher dreads came along: Your position won’t be renewed due to district budget cuts. I was not a tenured teacher, nor did I have much seniority in a school where many people had taught for 10+ years. All of a sudden I was in a position I hadn’t anticipated: no guaranteed job prospects for the next year; my roommate was moving to the other side of the country and I couldn’t afford rent on my own; and bills to pay with no substantial source of income. I decided to move back home with my dad for a few months to figure my life out.
My TEFL Course
Travel has been a passion of mine for as long as I can remember. At age 7, my grandmother and her sister brought me to Disney; at age 13, my aunt and uncle brought 5 of us kids on a cross-country trip in a camper; when I was 14 we went to the Caribbean. By the time I visited England at age 15, I was hooked. Scotland at age 17 just reinforced that. I spent a semester abroad in England and realized that I didn’t have to just take a week or two week trip to be able to see the world.
After finding out my position was not to be renewed, I started exploring my options. I needed a steady income (college in the United States is NOT cheap!) and wanted to go somewhere I had never been. I enrolled in the online TEFL course through International TEFL Academy after two chats on the phone with my admission advisor Matthew and a seminar about working overseas. My instructor, Jennifer, was an amazing resource throughout the course and the Alumni Association was available to answer any questions and help me with any problems from day one. Eleven weeks later, I had finished my online course and was ready for the next step: the job search & deciding to teach English in South Korea.
The Job Search
It turns out the biggest – and hardest – decision I had to make was where I actually wanted to teach. There were so many possibilities! My most serious considerations ended up being South Korea, Taiwan, China, Japan, and Morocco. After many conversations with people who were looking, currently teaching, and had completed contracts overseas, South Korea seemed to be the best choice. I worked through a recruiting agency – Korean Horizons – and had support throughout the entire process. Alistair was amazing! He made sure everything was submitted in a timely manner, helped me with everything from the application to background checks to booking my flight, and met me at the airport when I arrived.
For anyone feeling overwhelmed with the dauntless task of choosing a country, finding an employer, preparing to move, and the countless other tasks that go into the job search: find a recruiter!! Alistair seriously kept me sane through the entire process and was an amazing help.
December 1, 2014: The day that would change my life forever
I arrived in Busan, South Korea on December 1, 2014 after traveling for about 24 hours. I was tired, cramped, felt dirty, and was in a country where I didn’t know a word of the language. The only thing I knew for sure was that Alistair would meet me to bring me to a hotel that night.
The next several days were a blur of sink or swim.
- How do you go grocery shopping when you can’t read the writing?
- How do you ask for bags at the store?
- How does one go about asking for directions when you can barely even say hello in the native language?
- And how on earth did I go about making friends when I was the only foreign teacher in my school?
After about a week in South Korea, I was ready to pack up and go home. I wondered what I’d gotten myself into and if I had made a big mistake: I had spent over $1,500 to get here (not to mention borrowed money and received help from some family and friends). How could I tell everyone back home that Cassie, the fearless traveler who had been talking about this opportunity for months, had called it quits less than a month into my contract?
Thankfully, there is this wonderful thing called social media. Alistair suggested I find the Yangsan foreigners group on Facebook and I posted on there, practically begging for some kind of connection with other foreigners. The response was almost instantaneous. Several people responded with warm welcomes and quickly planned a group dinner for the following night. That first night, I met 6 or 7 other teachers living within the same area as me. I immediately felt like a part of the group, and got my first experience in Korean BBQ. I found a group of people who had gone through the same struggles as I have, who also at times feel homesick like I do, and who – more importantly – made it through that first stage of culture shock. If they could do it, why couldn’t I?
The First Three Months
I have now been in South Korea three months and counting. When I first arrived, it was a just a matter of survival. As time has gone on, I am learning how to do much more than just survive. I am learning to enjoy some of the things I was terrified of at first: ordering food (two phrases I learned early on: no seafood and beer please!); shopping for food; and, most importantly for me, traveling alone. I am no longer afraid to take a day trip into the city to go check out a memorial or museum on my own.
Teaching English has also been a big learning curve for me. A public all boys middle school in South Korea is, in many ways, nothing like my teaching experiences in New Hampshire. I have learned that my students will ask me just about anything – I have had at least three marriage proposals since I arrived – but that they mean no harm when they ask me how old I am or how much I weigh. And they are fascinated by my life back home and what it’s like. I have also learned to have no shame in front of a classroom, especially my lower level students. I have resorted to miming, charades, and using google translate to try to teach them a new phrase or word. I fully appreciate the value of having a good co-teacher in the classroom with me; without them, I would be lost.
My first three months here have given me a confidence in myself I did not have before, and likely would not have gained by staying in my comfort zone. In three months I have visited Seoul, Hong Kong, Taipei, Manila, Busan, as well as a couple of smaller cities in South Korea. I have learned that it’s just as much fun to spend a day traveling alone as it is with a friend or a group. I went on a life changing adventure in Manila, visiting the poorest areas of the city and seeing a world vastly different than my own. I have seen famous landmarks that I’ve dreamed about since I was young. And I have made friends from all around the world that I would never have known otherwise.
This truly has been an experience of a lifetime, and I am only about one third of the way through my first contract. I can’t wait to see what memories and adventures the next eight months will bring!
Cassie is a 26 year old teacher from New Hampshire. She graduated from Keene State College with a B.A. in History and M.Ed in Special Education. Before moving to South Korea to teach English, she taught high school students for 3 years. For more on Cassie's adventures in Korea, check out her article: 10 Things They Don't Tell You About Living in South Korea