Teaching English in Korea | Interview with Waegook Tom

Where do you teach?

I’m currently working in Daejeon, the fifth largest city in South Korea, teaching English to elementary and middle school students in a private academy. I’ve been working there since late February and prior to that, taught in an academy in Daegu for two and a half years.

Goodbye Note from Students for Waegook Tom

What are the perks of teaching here?

South Korea is the one country where you can save a load of money to fund your future dreams and plans, whether your plans involve travelling around the world, paying off debt, saving for a wedding, or settling down in Korea long-term. Living costs are fairly cheap (especially compared to my home country, the UK) and even when saving, you can still afford to have a social life and take the occasional weekend trip.

What are some local expressions one should consider learning?

Apart from the usual – greetings, thank you, how much is it?, where is it? – there are three slang words that I’ve found pretty useful:

  • “daebak” – this is used to express shock, either good or bad. When the students at my new job found out I could speak Korean, this was used a lot – some were impressed, and others were a little scared that I’d be able to understand if they were using colourful language in the classroom.
  • “heol” – used to express shock or disbelief in a negative way. For example, “hey students, we have five pages of homework tonight!” “heol!”
  • “bulgeum” – a good one for the end of the week and best used among friends, this literally means “burning Friday” and is the Korean equivalent to T.G.I.F. – it also implies that there’ll be a heavy drinking session to celebrate.

Can you think of a ‘lost in translation’ moment you experienced?

In my first couple of weeks in Korea, I could only read the alphabet and could barely speak the language. I survived on goodies from (chain bakery) Paris Baguette. After getting sick of the sight of pastry, I decided to finally venture into a local eatery on my own and tried to order. I read the characters carefully and ordered something that had a picture. I said, “kimbap nara” and the woman behind the counter just stared. I kept repeating it – I was certain I was right, and it was – until she came and took a look at what I was pointing at.

While I sat and lamented my poor pronunciation, I looked at the board and every dish had “kimbap nara” next to it. It was then I realised that I’d just been repeating the name of the restaurant over and over again. Oh, and I wound up ordering chilli octopus fried rice. I loathe anything with tentacles. Fails all around!


Are there any noteworthy places or destinations worth exploring nearby?

Korea isn’t a large country, and Daejeon is located smack bang in the centre. Most towns and cities are located within two hours of the city, and you’ll never be travelling for more than five hours unless you head to one of the islands like Jeju or Ulleungdo. My favourite places in Korea are the north-eastern seaside town of Sokcho for its beach and laidback vibe, and the ancient capital of Gyeongju for its gorgeous temples and palaces.

In your opinion, is this a good destination for a first time teacher?

South Korea is the perfect destination for a first time teacher. Those who want guaranteed job security should apply through the public school EPIK programme, as this is government regulated, although now a TEFL certificate is required, and salaries tend to be lower than those of after school academies. Academies generally pay more and have lower job requirements, but have less holidays and are prone to pulling the odd scam.

As long as you’re smart and do your research beforehand, Korea is really the dream destination for the first time ESL teacher. During the job application process if something seems wrong, it probably is. If you’re applying for an academy job, trust your intuition, ask for contact details for the school and who you’ll be replacing. I’ve been lucky enough to work at two fantastic academies – those who aren’t so lucky? Well, whenever I hear their tales, there’s always a fundamental lack of research beforehand.

In your opinion, what qualities do you feel an ideal ESL teacher possesses?

In terms of inside the classroom? You need to inspire kids, and you need them to trust you. I’ll goof around with my little second grade boys, tease my sixth graders and chat about weekend plans and movies with my middle school kids.  Take the time to get to know your students.

Regarding to living in the country – you need to be open minded. People complaining that Seoul isn’t like Houston simply need to go back home and never leave their home country. South Korea isn’t like any other country in the world, and if all you can do is find fault and complain, then you’re in for a guaranteed miserable time. Try new things, keep your mind open, and you’ll find that your positivity will transfer into all aspects of your life. Things are frustrating sometimes but whenever I encounter it, I now just take a deep breath, shrug, and go, “hey, it’s Korea.”

You’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy.

Can you tell us a bit about your travel blog and what readers can expect to find?

My blog, waegook-tom.com, is for the time being centred in South Korea and details my exploits in the country, as well as a few trips outside as well. Readers can expect to find information and (occasionally humorous) anecdotes  about life as an expat in the country in a conversational style, as well as features such as ‘Foodporn Friday’ (hey a boy’s gotta eat) and ‘5 Ideas For’, where other bloggers share their top tips for a particular location.

Can you briefly tell us about your upcoming travel plans?

I surely can! From March 27th 2013, I’ll be jetting off on a round-the-world trip, first touching down in Boston, then heading to Colombia, Toronto, Germany, eastern Europe, Africa, and south-east Asia. Expect adventure, mishaps, cocktails and a whole lot of foodporn!

Tom always had his nose stuck in an atlas as a child, and pretended that the stairs in his home were a magic carpet whisking him away to some faraway country that he’d seen on the map. Now, he’s travelling the world and has taught in Korea, explored snow covered beaches in Poland, partied at Sydney Mardi Gras and almost thrown up from trying durian in Kuala Lumpur. You can keep up with Tom’s adventures through his blog, Waegook Tom, via Facebook, and by following @waegook_tom on Twitter, too.

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