A Brief History of My Teaching Career in South Korea and Japan

I have been teaching English for over six years now—whoa! Time flies, but I still remember my first day of teaching. I was overly keen, excited, and ready to help. I thought I was about to undertake a holy mission—and I still feel this way. Teaching is sacred for me, not only because it’s my choice but also because of my upbringing. 

My maternal grandfather was a teacher. He was the first person to instill in me a love for books by gifting me my first book series before elementary school. He had taught thousands of students and had many fond memories of them during his long life. But my grandfather also had some controversial views about kindergarten. He convinced my mom not to enroll me in one, claiming kindergarten raised lazy kids who only wanted to play.

Photo by Seema Miah on Unsplash

I was always a good student and had excellent grades, but I didn’t warm up to any teacher throughout my entire student life. The only teachers I cared about taught English, although they weren’t necessarily friendly. Nevertheless, from a young age I was determined to learn English, and did my best to win my English teachers’ favor. 

You would have thought I would major in English education or literature during university, but I didn’t, although my family beseeched me to become a teacher. I would have considered it if their reasons were pure. But instead, they only mentioned the benefits of becoming a public school teacher in Turkey, and how I would warm the desks (!) when students were away. 

I majored in journalism, following another passion of mine: writing. And I was good at it, too. I enjoyed collecting information, interviewing people, crafting news, and reporting. By the time I graduated, I had long forgotten about teaching. I even disliked the idea of an education major, as a proper rebel marching to the beat of her own drum or, rather, to Pink Floyd’s drum.

First job in South Korea

One thing followed another, and I ended up living in South Korea. In 2016, I got my first part-time teaching job by chance at a hagwon—a private institute. My students needed to practice speaking English. Most Korean language institutes need foreign teachers to teach English conversation because Korean English teachers usually teach grammar and reading skills only. 

I was in a unique position, as most of the teachers were from English-speaking countries. Students and employers were used to Americans, Brits, or Aussies, not someone from the Middle East. I wasn’t confident enough to apply for a teaching job at first, let alone take a full-time teaching position later. But I did. After my first job, I got the first full-time job that challenged me greatly.

After a trial lesson, my boss believed in my skills and thought I was a great teacher. However, she worried students’ parents would complain because I wasn’t a native speaker. She saw in my CV that I had lived in Ireland as a journalist intern. She asked me to lie to parents and students about my nationality. 

How did this make me feel? Well, I was grateful to have a job, so robbing myself of my identity and pretending to be someone else didn’t matter at first. It took a toll on my self-confidence at times, though. I know I’m not the only non-native English speaker who has been forced to lie about her nationality, but how I wish I would be the last. 

For three years I taught people of all ages in South Korea, but most of my students were elementary and junior high school students. I also taught in kindergarten and loved teaching little ones—they are still my favorite age group to teach. My teaching career was mostly smooth, except for my lying about where I came from. 

One of my kindergarten classes during Halloween 🎃

Most students and parents respected me and helped me become a better teacher. I knew little about teaching English when I started out, but I had the upper hand as an English learner. I could guess what troubled my students most, and could help them map out different strategies to learn tedious grammar topics or new vocabulary. 

I wasn’t just a conversation teacher anymore. I was invited to brunches by my adult students, and had fun parties in school with my elementary and junior high school students. My students were upset when I told them I was leaving for Japan, and some even cried. I understood I made a difference in these people’s lives, and decided to continue teaching. 

Moving to Japan

I have been teaching English in Japan for three years now. I have taught people from all walks of life, but I have struggled more to work full-time in Japan than in South Korea. My students in Japan are as sweet as my Korean students, but I have found the private education system and the market extra tricky and challenging here. 

One of my junior high school classes 😊

I worked for an eikaiwa (a private institute) that put me in a hairy situation where I was overworked. That’s why I work only part-time at a junior high school now. However, I appreciate my part-time job since it enables me to pay my bills and pursue my passion for writing. 

Opportunities are abundant in South Korea and Japan, but the pay and benefits are better in the former. For example, I had free housing and a bonus at the end of my contract in South Korea, but free housing is nonexistent in Japan. Bonuses are rare to come by, too, and they tend to be much less than what one could receive in South Korea.

Have you ever taught English abroad? Would you like to do it?

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  1. Shahbaz Ashraf

    You have comprehensively covered your teaching stints in Korea and Japan. You have narrated it so well! Keep sharing your teaching experience wherever you go.
    Given all the benefits in Korea, why don’t you settle there and make your career in teaching?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Bahanur

      Thank you for your lovely comment 😊 I would love to write more about my teaching career and am glad to hear that someone is interested in hearing it.

      I left South Korea to reunite with my spouse in Japan. It seems like I’ll be in Japan for a while, although we never know how the future might unfold.

      And lastly, I feel better about teaching in Japan because nobody cares about my nationality/passport here! They’re happy to have a foreign teacher and eager to learn about my culture 😊

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Ally Bean

    You got free housing for being a teacher in south Korea? Oh that is wonderful, but so far afield from how teachers are treated in the US that I can hardly believe it. Despite having a couple of college degrees I’ve never wanted to teach because I don’t think I’d have the patience. I admire anyone who can be a teacher, anywhere in this world.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Bahanur

      Thank you for your comment. I’m glad to see you here. Well, most private academies will provide free housing for foreign teachers in South Korea, but I don’t know about the state schools. I’ve never worked for them. I read horror stories about teaching in the US and follow a few US teachers who also go on comedy tours. I don’t blame you for not wanting to teach because teaching is not for everyone. It requires patience, resilience, accepting overtime work, and developing a thick(er) skin in most cases.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Nícia Cruz

    You’re such an empathetic person, and that makes a great teacher indeed. It was great to learn about the differences about teaching English in different countries. When I was young I thought about becoming an English teacher as I enjoyed learning the language, but I also loved writing, so I got my graduation in Journalism as well. But I never got a job on it because I found writing news a little bit boring (I prefer creative writing).

    Also, my maternal grandmother instilled in me the joy of reading by also offering me a great collection of books (it was, still is, my favourite gift in the whole world).

    But life is funny and I had the opportunity to teach Mandarin and also English to Mandarin-speakers, and that was such a great experience! Then I worked on a study centre, and of course I helped the kids on their language skills.

    Teaching is really a sacred job, and now that’s my full-time non-paying (but still super rewarding) job. And I love every second of it. 💛

    (So good to know that we have similar work experiences!)

    Liked by 2 people

  4. kegarland

    I am amazed that someone explicitly asked you to lie about your origins. It’s shocking the lengths people will go to suppress our identities so they feel better.

    I’m also shocked that teaching in South K. is more beneficial than Japan. I wonder why the systems are so different?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Bahanur

      I still wonder why someone would do that 😞 One of the good things about teaching in Japan is that nobody has questioned my nationality or skills so far. My employers were incredibly proud of me because I set an example as a non-native English speaker who achieved fluency in English. I don’t know why my Korean employers couldn’t/wouldn’t feel the same way about me.
      The differences between the two systems are stark indeed. Learning English is a hobby in Japan for most people, while it’s a required skill for Koreans. There are more English schools in Korea than in Japan, as far as I know, for that reason. And the competition is high, and the benefits are better. I should write a blog post about it one day. Thank you for giving me the idea! 😊

      Liked by 1 person

      1. kegarland

        lol you should!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. liam.jamesh

    Wow – Amazing stuff! Thanks for sharing 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Bahanur

      Thank you for your comment 🙏


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