Tips on Dealing with English Teacher Recruiters for South Korean Schools and Language Institutes

[Adapted from earlier writings on my 1stopKorea website] There are plenty of professional recruiters out there who will find you a great job. There are also plenty of sleazeballs just looking to get warm bodies on the plane. Never lose site of the fact that recruiters are paid to fill positions. A lot of them may advertise the fact that they don’t charge teachers – what they don’t tell you is that the schools pay them a bounty on each teacher provided. My first trip to Korea netted my recruiter a million Won, worth over $1200 at the time. It was worth it – I got a great job and met some fantastic people, but not everyone is so lucky. Below are some tips to help improve your odds.

It’s nice to feel wanted, but don’t forget to make your recruiter earn their money. Ask a lot of questions and don’t give up until you’re satisfied with the answers. Don’t focus so much on the pay and the benefits, all that will be spelled out in the contract or in the ad that caught your attention in the first place, plus the pay terms don’t mean much if you’re at a horrible school that won’t (or can’t) live up to the contract. For now, focus on getting a feel for the school itself.

Some example questions and things to look (out) for in the answers:

How many teachers work at the school?
Only one or two teachers at the school. It might be a great opportunity to really get into the culture by having few other foreigners around. It also might be a great opportunity to get taken advantage of by a school that has too few students and sees cutting your salary and benefits as the easiest way to reduce overhead.

How many of teachers stay until the end of the contract or sign up for another year/contract?
A lot of teachers leaving early. This is almost always a sign of problems and a place to avoid. Most contracts are worded in such a way that those who leave early forfeit their severance pay (technically illegal), their airfare home as well as their original airfare, and sometimes a monthly ‘security fee’. Anyone willing to give up that much money must really have a good reason for leaving. Conversely, a school that has a lot of second- and third-year teachers is almost always a safe bet. People wouldn’t stay if they didn’t like it.

What are the names and numbers (or e-mail addresses) of a couple of teachers that you can contact firsthand to ask about teaching and living conditions?
The recruiter being unwilling or unable to put you in touch with another teacher at the school. The recruiter either doesn’t know anything about the school or knows enough to want to keep it a secret. Of all the suggestions here, this one is the most important.

Is the boss Western or Korean?
There’s a lot more upside to having a Western boss than a Korean one. Of course, there will probably be a Korean boss somewhere up the chain of command, but on a day-to-day basis it’s much simpler dealing with a boss who speaks your own language and is used to your culture. Generally, the ‘academic director’ is someone who’s been around Korea for awhile and can help you get adjusted and deal with any culture shock. Whereas Korean bosses can be the ones giving you the culture shock! This isn’t to say all Korean bosses are bad (or all Western ones are good), it’s just that you’ll have enough to deal with getting adjusted to your new job, culture, and language. Why add one more challenge?

Who does level-testing for incoming students? (You’d be amazed at how many schools just give this job to a secretary – who can’t speak English.)
Classes with students of mixed levels are a nightmare. The advanced ones are bored and the slower ones are intimidated. Schools that have experienced teachers do the level-testing are much better at getting the students in the appropriate class. Try and get familiar with the program yourself before doing any level-testing, and even then don’t be afraid to ask someone for help.

When is payday?
Paydays (for the previous month) that are late in the month are another bad sign (in Korea, most of Asia for that matter, you only get paid once a month, for the previous month). The closer payday is to the previous month, the better. Schools usually push payday back because they’ve had teachers run out on them right after payday. To minimize this risk, they push the payday back further and further, figuring teachers are less likely to leave if they have to give up two or three weeks’ salary. You should ask yourself what caused these teachers to leave in the first-place. Maybe they’re just unprofessional pricks ruining it for the rest of us, or maybe the school sucks and that was their way of getting even.

Is there a ‘savings clause’ or ‘security fee’ in the contract?
These are contract clauses, under various names, that take a little of your pay each month and set it aside to give you when you leave. This isn’t a bonus or your requisite severance pay – the school is taking money they owe you and holding it hostage. Once again, the idea is that teachers will be unlikely to leave if they have to give up a lot of money. These clauses are nearly always the sign of a school that has had a lot of people break the contract and leave early. Don’t trust them any more than they trust you.

Where do the teachers live?
Ideally, you want your own furnished place in a decent building close to school. Sharing with one other teacher however, isn’t that uncommon. Getting stuck in a ‘dormitory’ (e.g. empty classroom) in the school itself is a bad sign – a school unwilling, or unable, to support it’s teachers.

I hope you have found these general guidelines useful. I have purposely avoided talking about specific pay rates, benefits, etc., because they change frequently and vary widely depending on your qualifications, education, experience, and what part of the country you’re headed to – just check around on Dave’s ESL Cafe for the latest rates. If you’re still not sure, you can always post a comment below and ask.

My goal here is to familiarize you with some of the things you need to ask your recruiter (or potential boss if you’re dealing directly with the institute) when choosing a position. The best sounding contract in the world isn’t going to do you much good if the school won’t, or can’t, keep its end of the bargain. Good luck and have fun.

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