Teaching English in Korea for 3+ Years – What’s It Really Like?

Teaching ESL in South Korea for one year – fun and exhilarating. Teaching for two years – interesting and more time to explore things now that you’re settled in.

Teaching for three years…?

During the first six months of teaching English in Korea everything seems like a blur. Everything is new. Everything. The sights, the smells, the flavors, the sounds, the realization of what you’ve chosen to do. You’ve got a free apartment, full coverage of benefits, and a paycheck each month to boot. You’re meeting people from different Western countries, chillin’ with “authentic” Koreans, eating their food, and it’s all good. It seems as though you’ve hit the jackpot and can’t think of a reason why you’d ever want to give it up.

It’s a no-brainer to re-sign after the one year mark. So, of course, you do.

The second year is much of the same, but now you’re safe and secure in your routine, you can get around on the subway, you can even read hangul now! You see more of the things you wanted to in the first year but didn’t have the time to fit in. The first year seems to be a never-ending onslaught of social invites every weekend for drinking, hiking, sightseeing…taking pictures in front of Korean stuff.

When I first went away to college it was like no other feeling. I was away from my family for the first time in my life and the bell-to-bell schedule of each day was completely up to me, with the exception of these strange, daily student conventions called “classes”. My world was turned on it’s ear and I can’t find the words to describe the feeling. Even more so now, years later, it’s impossible to explain what those virgin moments were really like. Indescribable.

In some ways, teaching abroad in a country like South Korea is much the same. I remember a get together, early on, with some of the teachers that were in my orientation class; one teacher mentioned, “I’m never gonna leave!” A year later she and her husband moved on.

Out with the new, in with the old

I was once told that most teachers max out at around three years.

During this third year I’ve realized why this may be a ceiling for teachers, but even more so, a crossroads where a go/no-go decision is critical.

DSC02947“Critical” is such a formal and stuffy word, but deciding to move on or stay can make or break many. This includes those who came here, fell in love, settled down into marriage, and found themselves three, five, TEN years into the experience. No matter what angle or direction you take, at some point you will have seen essentially what there is to see for a foreigner. Most things will have become commonplace. The sights, smells, and sounds will no longer intrigue you. Much like getting to my junior year in college. I found myself becoming anxious to graduate.

For me, I’ve found that life has become more of routines and just doing my life while stationed in Korea. For others, the timing may vary, but it’s an inevitable thing. During my time here I’ve met countless teachers who found comfort in the benefits of the job, stayed for a relationship, or for lack of direction. Many times it’s been too long. Unfortunately, some get jaded and lose sight of what being abroad is about. Getting stuck in limbo between full-fledged foreigner and some sort of one off native that really isn’t…it’s a tough place to be and I’ve seen it happen in living color.

A popular YouTuber named “Smiling Seoul” recently left and I think put it best when she explained that the time was just right to leave. She didn’t want to overstay and run the risk of ruining her time in Korea.

The Comfort Zone

IMG_0376In my case, it’s not so much running the risk of becoming jaded or burnt, but my fear of complacency. The reality of my situation is this: I could easily watch five more years flick by without batting an eye. Everything is in a place of comfort; from the teaching, to daily life, to writing this blog!

Some may say that’s a great thing. It is. At the same time, however, it was never what I set out to do (i.e. to find comfort). I wanted the disruption in my life; that’s why I left it all behind.

Realistically, I could possibly eek out another year come February (2015) if nothing of better value presents itself. EPIK is a short-term, non-career path endeavor and I feel it should be approached with this in mind. It’s really meant to provide Korea’s public schools with the native English exposure it seeks, while providing a means for young individuals to experience a very foreign culture first-hand.

I still can’t believe that three years have come and gone, though I’m so happy they did for me in Korea. The three year comment seems to have come to fruition in my own life and I believe the time is nigh…to move on. It could be in 16 months, maybe 4.

Teaching English in South Korea has reminded me again that there is a time for everything in life. Those times are different for each person. I can’t believe what I’ve become through this experience and I’m eternally grateful for it.

There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under Heaven. 

A time to give birth and a time to die,

A time to plant and a time to uproot what has been planted.

Ecclesiastes 3:1,2


  1. Although on a personal level for me I’m quite sad as I have been reading your blog for maybe twelve months (is that it? Feels longer…) and watching you on youtube and facebook

    But then on the other hand I’m happy for you, you’ll be pushing yourself out there again to spread your wings.

    Do remember to write for us though won’t you? We’d all love to hear about your future adventures.

    • Thank you, Stacey. Though I’m not sure exactly when my time here will be over, there will be a definite time when I leave and it’ll probably be at the end of this current contract or the next. I believe the time is just right.

      I really appreciate you following my blog and videos and I have no plan on ending them. Wherever I ultimately end up, I’ll just continue where Korea left off. These are my diaries after all!

  2. Avatar Peter Chung says:

    Hey Tom, I’m teaching up in Gumi in the Daegu area. I used to watch your youtube vids before I came here a year ago and they were helpful to me back then when I needed the sage advice of an old hat to the Korean soil. While reading through this blog, I get the feeling that you are ready to move on. Is this true? Are you ready to return to the motherland now? If you have decided to leave may I offer some advice in return of providing me in the past with great information about the teaching thing in Korea? Don’t leave Korea! Here’s why, three words: ebola, national debt…jk…kinda. Seriously, are you leaving?

    • LOL. It’s always an interesting show back home for sure, Peter! When I leave Korea though, it won’t be to go back home. I think the road is my home for the foreseeable future. Wherever my next location is, I’ll keep up with my vids and blogs.

      I’m really encouraged to hear that I, in some way, helped others with their decision and settling in process. Thanks so much for the comment.

  3. Hi Tom. I’m enjoying reading your blog and watching your YT videos. I would you’ll stay in Korean for another year, but that’s just my opinion. LOL!

  4. Sooo, what’s going on man?! You haven’t posted on YT in awhile. Are you still in S Korea or have you packed up and moved on?! Stop being so quiet over there, lol.

  5. Ok, good to know you’re still there. I really should give it a go and get away from the ‘net/laptop, and finish reading all of these library books I checked out! LOL!

    PS….check my questions I asked on your discussion board on YT. Peace.

  6. Yeah I usually get a bunch of books (7-8) out at a time with the sincere intention of reading each and every one of them. Then something else comes up and I don’t 🙁 Oops my bad…LOL.

  7. Hi Tom,

    New blog reader trying to get a handle on what life will be like when I head over.

    I’m curious what your next move might be. Korea is always the first stepping stone for people teaching English. Since you’ve been immersed in this world for awhile, I would imagine you have some pretty solid ideas of where to go next.

    • Hi there. I do have many places I’d like to teach in and visit. It’s just a matter of how much time I have to get to those places. Ultimately I’d like to teach in SE Asia, Japan, and the Middle East for starters. From there, who knows.

  8. I’m quite thankful for discovering your channel on YouTube while researching the idea of teaching English in Korea.

    Something I’ve been quite curious about is the idea of having a career in teaching English in Korea. Actually, the idea of teaching in general has been something I’ve always thought, even though I also have had a much longer career in IT, my current job included. Following your passions have always been something I’ve preached to others, but haven’t necessarily embraced myself and after reading your posts and viewing your videos, it’s helped me reflect on my choices and where I want to go.

    I’ve been thinking that if I were to execute this plan and teach English in Korea, could it possibly become a life long career for me? I’ve read of other avenues I could take regarding this, such as moving up in the ranks from teacher to management, or become an instructor/adviser to new English teachers coming to Korea. I’ve also thought about other career paths outside of teaching English in Korea, such as international business.

    My current plan would consist of teaching English long enough for me to obtain high level conversational or business level Korean in order to seek out other opportunities in the Korean job market.

    I was wondering, in your experience, have you encountered any colleagues/friends who have thought or actually gone through with a plan similar to that? Know of anyone who has successfully gone from teaching English in Korea, to moving onto other careers in Korea afterwards? Does this sound realistic? It’s something I’ve been intrigued with for a while, especially after just returning from Korea for a short 2 weeks trip.

    • I always say that anything is possible. There are universities, international schools, etc that all have and need management-level people. These roles aren’t super common as you and I may think of in a corporate-like setting, but they are out there.

      Can teaching ESL abroad be a career? I am planning a vlog on this very topic soon, but I’ll say in a nutshell, yes. Not conventionally as we know in other fields. A lot depends on your perception of a career. There are many different types of opportunities around the world teaching ESL and you can’t possibly qualify for them all. What you can do is try to improve your qualifications and go from there. In Korea, you will be slightly limited. There’s a finite set of opportunities here, but it’s a nice way to live. Elsewhere, however, there are countless roles. You just have to have the ticket to get in the door.

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