Teaching English in Guri, South Korea: Q&A with Denise Leinonen

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What is your citizenship?
United States

What city and state are you from?
Marquette, Michigan

How old are you?

What is your education level and background?
Bachelor's Degree

Have you traveled abroad in the past?
I was fortunate enough to have studied abroad.

Where did you study?
Hyderabad, India

If you have traveled abroad in the past, where have you been?
Austria, India, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, England, Slovenia, Slovakia, Hungary, Philippines, and Japan.

What sparked your interest in going to teach English abroad?
I enjoy teaching and I love traveling. My major was International Studies, so classes that I took in college also influenced my decision to teach English abroad. I had never been to eastern Asia, so I wanted to experience it.

What were some of your concerns before teaching abroad?
If I would have enough money, if I could teach children, and if I was brave enough to go live abroad by myself. The last one was probably my biggest concern throughout the whole process.

What did your friends and family think about you moving and teaching abroad?
They were supportive and they knew I wasn't going to change my mind. They helped me when they could.

Why did you decide to get TEFL certified and choose International TEFL Academy?
I wanted to have the most choices possible when looking for a job abroad. I was leaning toward teaching in South Korea, and I knew they looked for a TEFL certificate. I chose ITA because I had researched different TEFL courses on the internet and this one had more than the average amount of hours required for a certificate, the website was clearly laid out, they answered back quickly if I had a question per phone and e-mail. They had an option for an in-class course in Chicago, which was closest to where I lived.

Which TEFL certification course did you take?
Chicago In-Person TEFL Course

How did you like the course?
I really liked the TEFL course in Chicago, Illinois. The location was nice and well organized and their equipment was up to date. It was near a subway stop so it was easy to find.

The instructors, Jan and Gosia, were amazing. They were both born outside the United States but have been working as TEFL teachers for a long time. They are both very experienced and are amazing teachers themselves. I loved getting their perspective on teaching English and hearing their own stories about what worked and what did not work when teaching students. They are easy to talk to and really want to help you do your best.

I can't believe how much I learned from them. They would also demonstrate techniques in teaching by using them on us, their students, which was great to be right in the middle of it. We did a lot of hands-on learning, as well as learning the theories of teaching. We did individual work as well as group work in class, so it was nice to change it up throughout the classes.

Our practicum (student teaching) was one of the most useful things about the program.  We taught actual students, from about the age of 18 and up. This was amazing, as we were able to teach students of all different levels of English, as well as students of all different ages and cultures. This really gave us a rounded education in teaching ESL. It was nerve-wracking at first, but Jan was great about giving us tips and helping us if we needed ideas. I benefited greatly from Gosia and Jan, as well as from the practicum.

TEFL South Korea

How has your TEFL training helped you in your current teaching position?

My TEFL training gave me more confidence to go in and teach an actual class. I felt more prepared and had a lot of good ideas in my sleeve to try out in the classroom. I'm glad I was able to teach actual people of different levels so that I was somewhat comfortable with explaining concepts in English to beginners as well as more advanced students.

They also gave me tips on how to interview for a job, which definitely helped me when I was seriously looking for a job. Their job search assistance was phenomenal. 

Which city and country did you decide to teach English in and why?
I am teaching English in Guri, South Korea. I chose this place because I wanted to experience an East Asian culture and I knew I'd be able to save money while I did it. I chose this job because they paid more and my interviewer gave a lot of info about the job.

How long have you been in this country and how long do you plan to stay?
1 year and 3 months. I plan to stay 6 more months until May 2014.

How did you secure your English teaching job?
I went online and signed up for a recruiter (for teaching in South Korea). The recruiter was Teach ESL Korea. They would send me job offers.

What school, company, or program are you working for?
POLY School

How did you get your work visa?
I followed the instructions that my recruiter sent me. There were multiple steps but they sent me forms and laid out the steps clearly. I needed a notarized and apostilled bachelor's degree, as well as official transcripts, letters of recommendation, and my TEFL certification. I kind of started late, so it was a little rushed, but if you start early, there is no problem. Given this experience, my advice to anyone would be to start early... even a year in advance if you know what you want to teach in South Korea.

Tell us about your English teaching job!
I teach English in Guri. I work at a private school (hagwon). It is connected to the Seoul subway system and takes about 45 minutes to get into Seoul.

I work about 46 hours per week. (9:20am - 7:30pm MWF and 9:20am - 5:10pm T,Th) I receive 2.5 million Korean won per month ($2,355 US dollars).

I teach pre-kindergarten to early middle school children (4 years old to around 12 years old). We get 9 days off for summer vacation and 9 days off in winter vacation (including weekends). Really it's 10 days off total (working days) per year. I work with 5 other North American teachers and we each have a Korean teacher for our morning kindergarten classes only.

How did you find somewhere to live and what is it like?
My school provides the teacher with somewhere to live. There are two apartment buildings where our foreign teachers live. I live by myself but have other teachers living in my building. My apartment room (it is just one room, besides another room for the bathroom) is quite small, but it's fine if you are just one person. I have a clean, pretty nice bathroom, and my apartment room has a bed, small fridge, closet, and kitchen. 

Please explain your countries cultural aspects, public transportation, nightlife, social activities, food, expat community, dating scene, travel opportunities, etc...

  • Cultural aspects: In my experience, Koreans are usually somewhat distanced when it comes to foreigners but if you know someone who is friends with native Koreans, they warm up and are very friendly. They are pretty reserved in public, however. Older Koreans demand a lot of respect, as respect for your elders is part of this culture. Watch out for older Korean women throwing elbows to get onto a bus! Korean culture is interesting because it had to rebuild itself very quickly after the war. There is an interesting juxtaposition between the old and traditional vs. the new and modern.
  • Nightlife: Going out in Korea is a given. Clubs and bars stay open all night long. The subways close around midnight, so usually people stay out until 5:30 am, when the subway opens back up. In Seoul, Hongdae is a university area that is good for going out or for seeing live music. Gangnam and Itaewon are other popular areas for nightlife.
  • Social activities: There are language exchanges all around Seoul to practice any language. There are groups such as Seoul Hiking, where you pay some money and go on a cultural trip somewhere in Korea with a group of foreigners (some Koreans go as well). Facebook is good for finding these groups.
  • Food: Most of the food is delicious but there is some that I am not so fond of. Delicious: Korean barbeque, bibimbap, shabu-shabu (a Korean twist on it), kimbap. Not so fond of: some of the sea food served here, fish or squid jerky. Kimchi is an acquired taste. I like some kimchi a lot, but not all of it.
  • Expat community: Quite large. Many can be found in the Itaewon area. Groups such as Seoul Hiking have many expats too, you can find them in most larger cities.
  • Dating scene: It seems like every Korean (of a younger age) is dating someone. For foreigners it's a bit difficult, but possible.
  • Travel opportunities: My job doesn't allow for a lot of travel, but on the weekends I sometimes take trips to around the country (DMZ, hiking, festivals...etc). I have traveled to the Philippines for winter vacation and Japan for a shorter autumn vacation.

What are your monthly expenses?

  • Rent is taken care of by our school, but we must pay utilities. Gas is about $25 US dollars per month and with electric/maintenance, etc. its about $120-150 per month. So around $150-$180 per month.
  • Food is cheap if you go out. It's actually more expensive to buy things to cook at home. Maybe about $150-200 per month depending on where you go/what you eat.
  • Social activities: This is where a lot of your money can go if you like to go out on the weekends.
  • Transportation: The subway is around $1.20 per trip. Transportation is cheap. Buses are around the same price.
  • Phone: I got my first smart-phone ever here (it's convenient to have). I pay $50 per month for unlimited data, and a certain amount of texts. I took over someone's contract when they left, as phones often want a two year contract.
  • Travel: Travel inside Korea is fairly cheap if you take a bus or a non-KTX train. The KTX (fast) train is around $50 one way to Busan, so it depends on where you want to go.

Teach English in South Korea

How would you describe your standard of living
My standard of living is quite good. I am able to send around $800 to $1,000 home every other month. But that's because I need money here because I like to travel and go out with friends. You could easily save $1,000/ month if you were frugal.

In your opinion, how much does someone need to earn in order to live comfortably?
You should earn around 2 million Korean won (around $ 2,000 USD) per month plus free housing and save $ 1,000 of it.

What advice would you give someone planning or considering teaching abroad? 
GET STARTED EARLY! Allow yourself as much time as possible between deciding you want to teach English in South Korea and the month you want to be there. I would even recommend getting started a year in advance, if you can.

  • Do lots of research in advance and make sure to speak with an ITA Advisor.

  • Research the country in which you will be living.

  • Talk to people who are living there, if you know anyone.

  • Get a TEFL certification.

If you are going to Korea... two questions I was asked were, "Are you a vegetarian?" and "Do you drink?" There is a lot of meat eating in Korea, so it's easier for you if you are NOT vegetarian. If you are vegetarian, it's possible, but more difficult. They drink quite a bit here as well, and if you are going out with your school they will expect you to drink alcohol (soju).

As long as you have done your research about what it's like to be an expat in any given place and therefor have the right expectations, you will be fine.


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