How I Paid Off $50,000 of Debt in 3 Years by Teaching in Korea

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This article features Audrey of ThatBackPacker.com

Audrey was able to pay off her student loan debts as a teacher in Korea by saving a whopping $17,000 USD per year, on average. Thus, if you were to follow this blueprint for 3 years, you could end up saving $51,000 USD in that period of time.

Let’s gain some insights on her journey abroad and see how we can hack our own debt with geoarbitrage.

Please give us a rundown of who you are and what you currently do as an occupation.

I’m Audrey and I recently spent a year working as an English teacher at a private academy in South Korea. During my time there I was able to pay off my student loans and also save up in order to travel. I am currently on a very extended trip which has taken me from Southeast Asia to Europe and back to Asia. I am a travel blogger and I also work as a freelance travel writer from wherever in the world I may be.

Why did you choose to come Teach English in Korea?

It was a combination of wanting to experience life abroad, but also the need to earn enough money to tackle my students loans. Korea offered me the opportunity to earn and save far more than I could have back at home, and it was also a great country to travel around over the course of my year living there.

Please run us through the process of becoming certified to Teach English in Korea.

All you need to teach English in Korea is a bachelor’s degree. It doesn’t matter if you have a degree in music, psychology, chemistry, or English literature. So long as you obtained it in an English speaking country, you can apply to teach English in Korea.

Many young university graduates who are considering this path also choose to get their TESL/TESOL certification. Though it’s not a requirement to get the job, it certainly gives your application a boost, plus you’ll be able to earn a higher pay for having the extra qualification.

What are the top 3 things you wish you knew before you became a teacher in Korea?

– The term ‘vacation time’ can vary from school to school. Some employers may let you take your vacation time all at once (which means you get to go on a long international trip!), while other employers may only let you take two days at a time (which makes it really difficult to travel). Ask your school to clarify what your vacation time will be like before you sign the contract, otherwise you might be in for a bit of a surprise like I was.

– Education is a big deal in Korea and students are pushed to the limit. When I first started working as a teacher in Korea, I was surprised to learn that students had little to no down time. Aside from attending regular school, many of my students were also involved in after school tutoring: math academy, science academy, Chinese academy, piano academy, and of course English academy. Don’t be surprised if you hear your students telling you that they were in class until 10 pm. With this in mind, I tried to keep the lessons as fun and engaging as possible, and I excused the occasional student napping with their head down on the desk. It’s not easy being a kid in Korea.

– The work culture in Korea is very different from Canada and I was surprised by the hierarchy in place. If I had a simple issue that I needed to discuss with my director, I was expected to relay the message to the head English teacher, who would then pass on the message to the head Korean teacher, who would then speak with the director on my behalf. This meant that it took a long time to get an answer on a very simple matter, but that model is part of the work culture.

Please tell us what the recruitment/hiring market is like in Korea. What are the different types of schools that will take an English teacher?

The teaching market in Korea is hot! Perhaps not as hot as it used to be a few years back (some public schools have experienced funding cuts for foreign hires), however, there are still plenty of jobs around.

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In terms of the different types of schools, the two most popular options are teaching at a public school or at a hagwon (학원), which is a private after school academy.

There are also teaching positions available in various colleges and universities across the country, but these posts are hard to come by as they are highly coveted and usually require advanced degrees and many years of teaching experience.

What would you recommend to an aspiring English Teacher who is still in the US or Europe and hasn’t made the move yet? How do you secure job placement before arriving in Korea? Is it better to just show up?

Unfortunately, you can’t show up in Korea without a work visa and land a job. I have heard stories of people who did that about a decade ago, but things have drastically changed since then. In order to obtain a visa to come and teach English in Korea, you first need to secure a position and go through the visa application process in your home country. This means much of the job hunting process is done online.

There are two ways to go about finding a job in Korea: you can either find job postings online and apply to those schools directly (Dave’s ESL Cafe is a good place to start) or you can go through a recruiter who will help you connect with potential employers and schedule Skype and phone interviews for you.

Once you find a position you like and you receive an offer of employment, it’s time to move forward with the visa application.

Please run us through a day in your life – including both the work experience and also other aspects of living in Korea.

I worked at a private after school academy so my day started a lot later than that of teachers in the public school system.

I had the mornings off which meant I could run some errands, do a little exploring around my neighbourhood, and grab lunch with friends before heading over to work.

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My workday started at 1:30 pm. I usually had an hour or two to work on my lesson plans and gather materials for my classes.

I taught anywhere between 4-7 different classes per day and these lasted 35-60 minutes depending on the students’ ages.

If I had any breaks in between classes I would spend that time grading tests, marking book reports, inputting scores in the computer, and conducting speaking interviews for new students enrolling in the academy.

I was usually done teaching for the day around 8:30 pm and I then had an hour do a little lesson planning for the following day.

My day finished at 9:30 pm by which time I was usually ready for bed.

The summer and winter holidays were much busier since parents enrolled their children in additional courses. During the holidays I taught anywhere between 8-11 classes per day. Neither the teachers nor the students really enjoyed that time of year.

Have you been able to pay off some or all of your student loan debt?

I am very happy to say that I was able to pay off my student loans!

(Audrey was able to average savings of $17,000 in a year, thus 3 years would have enabled her to pay off $51,000 with this plan)

Because that was one of my main goals coming to Korea, I was quite frugal with my spending. At the end of the month, I would take whatever amount I was able to save from my monthly salary and transfer that to my bank back at home. Then once my bank received the funds, I would use that to cover my student loan. Voila!

9 -What are the biggest positive and negative aspects of teaching? If you’ve taught in various types of schools, please compare and contrast them.

There are certainly pros and cons to working in a public school versus working at a hagwon. Since I worked at a hagwon while my boyfriend worked at a public school, I’ll go ahead and compare and contrast those two.

For starters, let’s look at the classroom setting. In a public school the class size can be quite large (35-40 students), but you usually have a Korean teacher working alongside you; they ensure that the students are behaving and they also help clarify anything the students may not understand. In the hagwon, you are the only teacher in the classroom but the class size is much smaller (2-15 students).

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The pay is usually better at a private academy than it is at a public school (usually a couple hundred dollars higher depending on your experience). However, if you are willing to take on a rural placement, you’ll receive a bonus working in the public school system.

If you’re after some good vacation time, then go the public school route. My boyfriend was able to get 4 weeks off per year, while I only had 10 days off per year and those days couldn’t be taken consecutively.

Did you pick up any new digital skill sets during your time there that are currently helping you make a living?

I don’t think I specifically set out to pick up a new digital skill. I have always enjoyed travel and writing, so while I was in Korea I started focusing on those things. I enrolled in an online travel writing course, I continued working on my blog, and I also started pitching articles to a number of online publications.

Once I finished teaching in Korea, it was easy to transition over into blogging and writing full time because I had already been doing it on the side for all those months.

Working online has certainly given me a new set of skills in writing, editing, social media, marketing, and even public speaking, so I’m sure these will be useful should I choose to transition into something different.

A lot of people are worried that they will come teach English in Korea and then get pigeonholed into a dead-end career. Do you feel that teaching in Korea can prepare a twenty-something for the job market? How can you market this experience?

If you are interested in making teaching your career, Korea is a great place to work on your resume. I know many new teachers who have chosen to work in Korea in order to gain work experience and become stronger candidates back in North America. Teaching in Korea doesn’t have to be a dead-end job. Many go on to earn their Master’s in TESOL or Linguistics and this affords excellent work opportunities in colleges and universities.

If you decide that teaching is not the right career path for you, you can still use your Korea experience to your advantage. Employers like to see international work experience and it shows a great deal of commitment to sign a one year contract and move overseas for a job.

How did you deal with the culture shock? Is there anything you’d suggest to women in particular about adapting to teaching in Korea?

I honestly can’t say I was too culture shocked. Even though this was my first time living in Asia, I had already spent a considerable amount of time traveling and living overseas.

And since you asked for a tip for women, I’ll say cover up on top! In Korea it’s okay to show a lot of leg, but you should keep your chest and shoulders covered as much as possible.

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