Teaching In Korea vs. Spain: What’s Your Flavor?

Making the jump to relocate your life abroad is no easy task, I won’t sugar coat that. It takes a lot of thought and research, mail sent between you and the government to ensure you’re legally allowed to hang out around kids, back-and-forths with the man at the consulate who is sick of answering your questions, tears at the airport, and then once you land it’s exciting and confusing and there’s words everywhere that you don’t know the meaning of. You’re sitting in your apartment and don’t know where to go or how to hit up the outside world. That was my experience in Korea at least, and a less heightened version of when I landed in Spain.

But all that work leading up to your departure, and the confusion you experience upon arrival really is all worth it for the travels you’re bound to have, the hopefully cool people you’ll meet, and the adorable smiling faces of your students that are going to look up at you everyday.  However, while kids are kids and they’re wild and crazy and adorable the world over, experiences in teaching greatly differ from country to country and even school to school, and for me, the differences are tremendous, which brings me here to impart my two cents on you.

If you’re sitting there staring at your computer and you’re trying to figure out where you want to blast your life off to next, you’re probably weighing your options, and if you’re anything like I was when I first began researching about 8 years ago, you only want to move to Europe. Well, I’m here to tell you that widening that net isn’t such a bad idea. Each locale comes with its ups and downs, and it’s totally up to you to go into wherever you land with an open mind ready to teach AND learn.

So, here goes my hopefully objective take on teaching in Korea vs. Spain so you can weigh your options and see what best suits your style, personality, and future wallet.

  1. Application & Getting There

When I applied for my position with the English Program in Korea (EPIK), I went directly through a recruiter, so I had a nice Korean lady holding my hand through the whole grueling process cheering me on from 9,000 miles away. There was a lot of paperwork that had to be completed and deadlines to be met, and it was reassuring to have someone in my corner assisting with the transitional process. It was so smooth and everything was laid out for me. I got my visa and I was off. When I applied for my position in Spain, I applied to two programs – the Ministerio and BEDA. I ended up accepting the offer with the Ministerio’s Auxiliares de Conversación program over BEDA because of the pay vs. hours ratio, however I really liked that with BEDA I got to interview and be updated by a live breathing human being, whereas with the Ministerio, I was left to my own devices and Google translate to make sure I met all deadlines and understood everything that was being regurgitated in Spanish. It all worked out, but it was slightly annoying to not talk to a human for such an important process.

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  1. Getting Certified To Teach Your Language

This is a big part of the difference between teaching in Korea and Spain. In Korea you 100% have to be TEFL certified in addition to having a Bachelor’s degree in any subject. This can be done online, in person, in a foreign land, however your little heart wants to get it done. But you must be certified in the ins and outs of teaching English as a foreign language, which to me makes it more official and legit. To teach in Spain through the Ministry of Education Auxiliares program, since you technically aren’t ‘working’ but on a student visa, a certification isn’t needed. If you have a Bachelor’s degree from an accredited university and are a native English speaker you can apply to a position in Spain.

  1. Where You’re Gonna Live

In Korea, housing is always provided by the school, and close to your school. It might not be in the most poppin’ location, but you are set up with your own fully furnished apartment from day one. If you decide to stay after the first year, you are able to find your own place and move wherever your heart desires and EPIK will provide you with housing allowance each month. In Spain, that is looked at as a luxury and nonexistent. Finding your apartment is your responsibility and comes out of your pocket each month. Not to mention, the process is grueling and exhausting and 150% competition. My first year in Madrid, I looked for about 2.5 weeks before I found an apartment. On the upside, you get to choose your location, which to me is a huge plus. I hated where I lived out in the boonies my first two years in Korea, and I am in love with my neighborhood in Madrid. You win some and you lose some.

  1. You Want To Remember Your Student’s Faces Forever

I have always been a bit loosey goosey with my camera. I like to take photos of things, I can’t help it. Well, in Korea I went buck wild when it came to photographing, videotaping, instagramming my kids. I think I had almost 500 pictures taken with my kids before I left. They became the cutest, most adorable, and funniest little subjects I could have ever asked for. This was completely allowed, unrestricted, whenever I wanted to snap one of my babies I could. When I arrived in Spain, I went to whip out my phone on my first day to document my new workplace and the little rascals I’d be teaching everyday, only to get a big “Danielle! No you can’t do that!! No pictures of the students for privacy!” That shut that down, and a little something died in me in that moment. My kiddos were going to only live in my memory, and those will soon fade, because I can’t even remember what I ate for lunch two days ago.

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  1.  Being A Responsible Adult

Here we have another astounding difference, which I guess also comes along with the TEFL or no TEFL certificate requirement. In Korea you are a teacher, regardless of teaching primary or secondary or afterschool programs, you are responsible for planning at least a portion of the lessons, if not all of it. I was extremely lucky with one of my Korean co-teachers, as we planned and seamlessly taught all our lessons together. With other co-teachers I planned, taught, and led every class. I was a legit teacher, with the exception of being responsible for disciplining students and doing grades. In Spain, you just show up. You’re not briefed on the lesson before class, and if you’re asked to plan something it’s usually in that moment with “Can you think of an activity we can do for this topic?” Um um um okay. I have one co-teacher who really is wonderful and utilizes us to our best potential, but I have others where I literally just hang out and sit at a desk with some of the kids and observe the lesson.

  1. Show Me The Money!

I’m sorry, in my efforts to be objective, I have to preface that this was almost entirely the deciding factor in why I went to Korea. Call me money hungry, but don’t let my decision sway you! These are just the facts. While in Spain your salary per month is a flat 1000 euros with no opportunity to increase each year, in Seoul, your starting salary is 2 million won (or around $2,000) per month and increases with each year. Additionally, you are provided round trip flight allowance, severance in the amount of your final salary when you leave, pension that you pay into monthly and is returned to you doubled when you leave, and overtime pay for any lessons that exceed your contracted 22 hours. When I left Korea I was making almost 3 million won per month because I taught so many afterschool classes and was paid per student.

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  1. Tutoring For That Extra Cash Money

Tutoring is drastically different between each country. Different in that in Korea it’s highly illegal and can result in expulsion from your contract; but everyone does it, and in Spain, it’s highly encouraged and basically needed to survive. An average hourly wage for tutoring in Korea is anywhere in the 50-60,000 won range, while that same hour in Spain is in the 15-20euro range. It’s all in the numbers, but it’s also a huge reflection of the economies of each country. One is in a crisis and that’s solid pay, the other is booming and growing exponentially everyday. And of course, keep in mind that LIM is a great resource for finding tutoring jobs outside of your day job.

  1. Technology!

There is no comparison here as the differences are astounding. The education system in Korea funnels so much money into English education that each English classroom is completely renovated and fully equipped with touchscreen smart boards. When I first walked into my Korean classroom I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was. I had a playroom and a regular classroom. Here in Spain it’s quite different, and while all my classrooms have smart boards, I don’t think any of my co-teachers know how to use them to their full capabilities. On top of that, the computers usually always have issues. They’re slow, some won’t turn on, or the internet doesn’t work. There’s also a computer lab where I think only a few of the 20 or so computers actually work. Children need to be able to use this technology!

  1. American English vs. British English & Being Tested On It

In Korea I taught American English, so when I came to Spain and was thrown words like “pulses” and “lorry” I had no idea what vocabulary I was teaching. It’s been an adjustment, but I actually think, no matter how weird British English is to me, that it’s quite fun. In addition to learning British English, my Spanish students are also responsible for being tested yearly by Trinity College, which we prepare them for all year. To me, this is a tremendous factor in showing the differences in English levels, and really pushes the students to learn deeper than memorization, which is what English teaching in Korea is founded on. While I do think it’s a significantly easier transition from Spanish to English, the testing portion is so crucial for students to gain English conversational skills for everyday life, and this is entirely lacking in Korea, at least at the elementary level. Instead, in Korea I am under the impression that the hagwon (afterschool intensives most students go to) is their answer to the British testing system. So, if you teach in Korea and notice your kids falling asleep in class, it’s probably because they were up to all hours of the night studying.

  1. Year Round vs. Not Year Round

When I first learned that school in Korea was year round, that sounded so unappealing to me. In actuality, I quite liked it, and it was broken up with many breaks throughout the year. I definitely had more vacation time than anyone else I know stateside! With the summer and winter breaks also came 2-3 week English camps, which I was responsible for planning and teaching entirely. I always had a co-teacher, but these were my weeks to have full-reign and do whatever I wanted with the kids. At first it was quite intimidating, but once I got the hang of it after one camp I was golden. Here in Spain, I’m unsure if there are English camps anywhere, but I’m going to go with there aren’t because all of Europe goes on holiday in the summer. So, if you go to Spain, the year ends when summer begins.

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And there you go! Please keep in mind that my experiences reflect working in the public school system in both Seoul and Madrid, so other’s experiences may differ. However, whichever location you decide on, both will offer (hopefully) wonderful and unique experiences, and the kids are going to fall in love with you (unless you’re unlikeable by children). And who knows, maybe you’ll decide you want to turn this into a legit career like I have, and go even further and get your teaching license.  Happy choosing!

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