Where teachers need to do their homework
Low taxes attract Irish graduates to South Korea, where teachers of English are in demand, but there are traps for the unwary, write Conor Purcell and Eamonn Carey
Nicola Clarke first realised things were not as promised when she got to her apartment. "It was unfurnished, in a basement, and the walls were damp and mouldy." Soon other things became more worrying. "You were not allowed to discipline the children in the school and I was told to doctor my students' grades so the parents would not complain."
Clarke, from Dublin, is one of hundreds of Irish graduates who travel to South Korea to teach English every year. Recent reports in the South Korean media put the number of Irish in the country at 3,000, most of them involved in the burgeoning teaching industry.
Clarke's story is far from uncommon, though many are having the time of their lives in the Hermit Kingdom and the rewards for those who make the trek are obvious: the chance to travel, to experience a new culture, to bolster their CVs, and of course, the prospect of earning at least €1,600 a month. With a tax rate of just 4 per cent, and an apparent abundance of jobs, the prospect of a year in South Korea is appealing to many. Most choose to find a recruiter or school on the internet, organising their employment and accommodation via phone and e-mail to avoid paying a recruiter's fee. However, others feel safer going through one of the Irish companies who offer orientation meetings prior to travel, and a back-up system once you are abroad.
One such company is ESL Opportunities. Based in Dublin, it was set up five years ago by Deirdre Rochford, who saw the potential market for Irish teachers in South Korea when she taught there in the late 1990s. ESL Opportunities charges €200 to place teachers in a school which has been approved by their South Korean partners, and offers an orientation evening as well as ongoing support in South Korea.
Support on the ground is a good thing to have when, as Clarke discovered, there is a vast gulf between promises made over the phone and the reality. According to Tom Davis of EFL-Law, a Seoul-based group set up to help foreign teachers, deception of teachers is routine.
"We get about 70 to 75 requests for help from teachers each week. The most common problems are the school owner refusing to pay the foreign teacher, firing the foreign teacher for no good reason or threatening to have the teacher deported." In 2003 the group launched a phone helpline which had to be shut down after three days as they had received nearly 500 calls. "It would have been a total drain on our services," Davis admits. His advice to prospective teachers is to have enough money ready to buy a return ticket if necessary. "Teachers should also be aware of South Korean labour law, which does little or nothing to help foreigners".
So what can a recruiter do if the school turns out to be a bad one? According to ESL Opportunities, that hasn't happened so far, at least not with its schools. "The schools we deal with have not treated their teachers badly. There are measures we could take if a school was treating our teachers unfairly. So there is some protection for teachers," says Rochford.
Chris Sciatta, a Canadian recruiter based in Seoul, begs to differ on this point. "What happens if the school decides to terminate a contract after eight months? What can the recruiter do? The answer is nothing."
This happens a lot more regularly than you might think. Anyone can set up a "hagwon", or English grind school, with little or no supervision. The unregulated nature of the business has created many problems. Teachers have been fired after 10 months for being late, others have to put up with continuous shift changes and uninhabitable accommodation. "You can make your life easier by researching your potential employer, talking to teachers already at the school and having a back-up plan if necessary," says Sciatta.
I-to-I Ireland has sent an average of eight teachers a month to South Korea for the past three years. One of its directors, Ian Davidson, believes most problems occur because of cultural differences rather than contractual problems. "One woman was annoyed because her boss invited her boyfriend out after work and not her. We explained that in South Korea men are treated differently to women and advised her to make plans with the female teachers."
I-to-I Ireland charges a rather substantial €895, or €600 if you have a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) cert. According to Davidson, prospective teachers get their money's worth. "We offer ongoing support, we check out all the schools and we have partners in South Korea that look after all our teachers." And what if a job goes sour? "If the worst comes to the worst, we will fly the teacher home."
Seán Burke from Dublin believes anyone who pays that amount of money to be placed in a school is misguided. "Ninety per cent of the teachers here didn't pay anything. There are loads of jobs, loads of recruiters, none of whom charge anything. They get their money from the school. You are paying the recruiter twice if you pay a fee to be placed."
Another teacher who went over on his own is Brian Kelly (22) from Tuam. He is job-searching after a year working in a private school. He saw no need to go through a recruiter at home, and instead got his first job over the internet.
According to Kelly, the hardest part of life in South Korea is adapting. "The first few weeks are disorientating. There's the constant awareness that any minor action could upset some cultural sensitivities. On my second night, my boss invited me to his birthday party, along with most of his family. So, having gathered the greatest possible audience, I marched into the house without removing my shoes, the cultural equivalent of urinating against someone's fridge at home."
For many, though, the chance to experience a new culture and make some money outweigh any potential risks. That is particularly true when it comes to the private market, where it is possible to make €30 an hour teaching anyone from businessmen to infants.
Karl Fagan, from Dublin, is one of many who supplement their regular income by teaching privately. "I teach two businessmen in the evening, an hour each. I can make more money teaching them for two hours than I do in my main job." Karl lives on the money he makes from the businessmen and sends home his wage from his public school job.
Private jobs can be easily picked up through word-of-mouth or on the internet. While lucrative, this path can be risky. Recently, 47 teachers were deported after the immigration authorities discovered they were teaching while on tourist visas. Both ESL Opportunities and I-to-I Ireland send teachers to South Korea on tourist visas. They get their teaching visas anywhere from a week to a month later, having gone on a "visa-run" to Japan.
The South Korean embassy in Dublin says it granted teaching visas to 135 Irish citizens last year. Most Irish people go to South Korea on tourist visas. "That is extremely risky," says Tom Davis of EFL-Law in Seoul. Recently 20 foreign teachers were arrested and deported for teaching illegally, he adds.
However, most Irish teachers come back experienced and, occasionally, better off. According to Tom Coyner, head of the Irish Association in South Korea, both nationalities have common traits. "The two countries share a similar history. Both are small countries dominated by their neighbours and yet both retain a culture and language . . . History isn't the only area where the South Koreans mirror the Irish, of course." The South Koreans like a drink, and public drunkenness carries no stigma. "You can drink 24 hours a day at the weekend," says Tom Riordan, a chemistry graduate from Cork who is teaching in Seoul.
All agree that the Irish wave heading to South Korea is getting bigger. "The schools used to want North American teachers," says Davidson, "but now they are requesting more and more Irish teachers". The reason? "They love the Irish sense of humour."