Chile versus Korea: The TEFL Showdown

Unfortunately, this is what happens when I give my students a creative task. It's a blood zombie.
Unfortunately, this is what happens when I give my students a creative task. It’s a blood zombie.

An hour before the flight, I asked a South Korean how to open the triangle kimbap I had just purchased. In Spanish. My last act in the Región de Magallanes y de la Antártica Chilena, where I’d lived for six months teaching English in a public school, was to eat a Korean staple food. I didn’t know it as we drove a red pickup truck along the Strait of Magellan to the airport, but that kimbap had sealed my fate.

At this point in my life, I’ve taught English in three different ways and on three different continents. The experience of being a volunteer English tutor for a Saudi Arabian student in my final year of university was the precursor to two years spent chasing TEFL around the world. My walks through Chile and Korea were coupled together from their very beginnings. The visas for Chile and South Korea face one another in my passport, their validity overlapping by three months. Remarkably, given the 18,000 km distance between Puerto Natales and Suwon-si, similarities between the two wildly different experiences exist. The differences are far more apparent.

Don't be fooled, this was taken after school let out for winter break. These halls know true chaos.
Don’t be fooled, this was taken after school let out for winter break. These halls know true chaos.

My current school is literally a world away from the high-risk public school in which I worked in Chile, volunteering as a full-time English teacher through the English Opens Doors program. We were fighting every day to keep my students in school. The dropout rate was high, despite laws to the contrary. Students (and occasionally teachers) did not seem to see the point of being in school. After about two weeks, I abandoned the textbooks issued by the MINEDUC because they were far beyond the grasp of my students. I taught 27 contact hours and also managed an after school English Club.

They really do deserve those stickers!
They really do deserve those stickers!

Now I work in a private academy (hagwon) in South Korea. My students come to me after a full day in public school. The hagwon in which I work is definitely a business first, and an educational venture second. We’ve been told not to try to be “real teachers” during trainings, and while we struggle to keep students in classes it is not an attempt to keep them from a life without education but to keep the revenue stream going. On the upside, I have far fewer contact hours per week and a lot of downtime to plan lessons. The set curriculum is somewhat rigid but allows for my own interpretation. I teach TOEFL to ten year olds, whereas in Chile my students were learning weather and how to say, “How are you?” In Chile, I had a reputation as a hard-ass teacher. In Korea, I’ve been called a pushover.

The differences between teaching in Korea and teaching in Chile go deeper. In my school in Chile, many of the parents had never completed high school. Some had never completed 8th grade. A few were illiterate. There were students with developmental and intellectual disabilities in my classes, something that I had no experience with before I volunteered with the EOD program. Halfway through my time in Puerto Natales, nationwide protests over the cost and quality of education in Chile ripped through the country from tip to tip. I participated in two national strikes, although I would have prefered to be with my students in class. The current revolution that the Chilean educational system is undergoing in rooted in the massive educational gains in the last 20-30 years. Seven out of ten university students are the first in their families to reach higher education. In my town in Patagonia, the populace is going from barely-literate to college-educated in the span of two generations, sometimes one.

Tia Coleen, with my students on July 8th, 2011
Tia Coleen, with my students on July 8th, 2011

In Korea, education is a central focus. Children are in school from morning until night from a very young age. The implementation of the hagwon system has a lot to do with this, but the intense competition for perfect grades is more likely the true root. I’ve had students tell me that if they miss even one question on their elementary school finals, they will have failed. 100% or nothing. The pressure causes more than a few to crack, and South Korea currently has the highest youth suicide rate in the world (340 in 2011, or nearly one per day *every day*). It is impossible not to see the ways that education culture affects my students. They are often exhausted and hungry, with little family time and not a lot of direct parental supervision. I can happily say that I never once had a parent in Chile complain that their child did not have enough homework.

Gyspy Pirate Fortune Teller Teacher, Halloween 2012
Gyspy Pirate Fortune Teller Teacher, Halloween 2012

And yet with all these differences and their depth, there are remarkable similarities between teaching in Chile and in South Korea. In terms of history, both countries are in the process of recovering from decades of rule by leaders that I would call dictators (even though some still consider Pinochet and Park Chun-He to be beloved presidents). Chile is currently the fastest-developing country in South America, and Korea has outpaced most of its neighbors for years to become the 11th largest world economy. Both governments have put a huge emphasis on the acquisition of English in their young people, through government programs like EOD and EPIK (public school placements in Korea). It is relatively easy to get a placement as an English teacher in both Korea and Chile, and the general requirements are the same: a degree from an university, a clean criminal record, HIV- status (despite the obvious discrimination), and the ability to move to another country and adapt to life there.

Three different kinds of ID, lined up from three different adventures
Three different kinds of ID, lined up from three different adventures

Another striking similarity is the massive gap between the rich and the poor in terms of access to and quality of education in both South Korea and Chile. My students are almost all from highly-affluent families, and their lives are very different from my students in Chile who occasionally struggled to have enough to eat. They see their attendance at an English hagwon as a burden, but their classmates in public schools simply do not have the same chance on an exam if their families cannot afford the tuition. The hagwon system in Korea perpetuates educational inequality, but in Chile the private and semi-private schools do the same.

This is how we did parades in Chile. A favorite photo of mine.
This is how we did parades in Chile. A favorite photo of mine.
This is how they do parades in Korea.
This is how they do parades in Korea.

The behavior of students is relatively different, but in both countries I occasionally have problems because my students do not see me as a real teacher, or perhaps even as a real person, because I am neither Chilean nor Korean. In both countries, I had to assert my authority as a teacher and win over students in spite of my readily-apparent Otherness. It usually works, and in both Chile and Korea I’ve found students who are happy to see me each time I walk into a classroom.

I miss the outdoors desperately in Korea, but generally things are great in both countries!
I miss the outdoors desperately in Korea, but generally things are great in both countries!

That last one may reveal the biggest similarity between teaching English in South Korea and teaching it in Chilean Patagonia. The children are precious and mostly willing to learn in both countries. Despite all the major cultural and linguistic differences, the day-to-day experience in my classroom is largely the same. Perhaps the thing tying the two vastly different experiences is simply that I am in both places, and that my teaching style is similar in both. In Korea I have infinitely more resources than I did in Chile, but it’s not possible to decorate the classrooms the way that I did in Chile. I felt more like a teacher in Chile, but I believe that I teach more here in Korea. My day-to-day life was more rugged in Chile, but my attempts to broach the cultural and linguistic divides in Korea were less successful.

I highly recommend TEFL in Chile. I highly recommend TEFL in South Korea. The two countries and their mirrored experiences continue to shape me, and certainly will as the next steps of my life become less foggy. If you have to choose between the two, know this: you cannot make a bad choice!

13 thoughts on “Chile versus Korea: The TEFL Showdown

  1. Excellent piece, Colleen. Just one quick (pragmatic) question: I’m thinking… no doubt the teach pay in Chili… considerably less in Korea? I know your gig there was but volunteer, but in my research on such before I moved here to Vietnam seemed to point to much lower EFL salaries in Latin America than Asia. True?

    1. As a part of my EOD program, I received a monthly stipend in two large chunks. If I remember correctly, it was about $170 a month. That sounds ridiculously low, but the fact is that I and many others got by with that because the cost of living is really low.

      I would suggest having some savings to live/travel on and for the flight (not reimbursed) and any surprise expenses, but generally pay in Latin America is low because the cost of living is minimal.

      1. Well yes and no. True, the COL in Latin America is decidedly low (relative to the U.S., etc.), but… so is the COL here in Vietnam – yet qualified EFL teaches can expect near $20/contact hour here.

        As I understand it (leastwise from my research a year ago before moving here), EFL pay in Costa Rica for example, runs about $8/contact hour. And given that I’ve spent many years running tours to Costa Rica, I know that the COL there isn’t more than 50% below that of SEAsia.

        In short, sure – you can “get by” in Latin America, but… if you hope to travel to neighboring regions and/or pay off school loans and/or save any money… then SEA is the place to come, no?

        That said, yes, yes – I whole-heartedly AGREE – best to have a bit of savings plus enough for a return ticket home no matter where you head to teach EFL. It needn’t be a fortune, but I suggest at least a few thousand plus the airfare, to tide you over til you settle in (which can cost a bit more til you learn the ropes) and start getting a paycheck.

      2. Exactly. In terms of money, it might be best to do SEA first to save up and then move on the central and south America for the rougher experience. Another big difference is that I was a volunteer. In major cities in South America it is possible to get positions teaching as a job, but many of those focus on teaching adults. I’d look at BridgeTEFL’s website for jobs, because I worked closely with them for Chile and they have a ton of resources.

        Long story short, volunteering is volunteering. Better paid positions exist, but are mostly for private schools and adult institutions in major cities.

    1. First of all, thanks for the post. I’m currently teaching EFL in Chile and am thinking about moving to Korea next.

      My experience teaching in Chile has been a little bit different since I went the institute rout VS English Opens Doors . I was certified by BridgeTEFL in Santiago and moved to Northern Chile afterwards where have been teaching there for about 10 months now (between two different institutes). The biggest thing I’ve found is that, although the money can be good at times, it is very very inconsistent. My friends that stayed in Santiago seem to have come to the same conclusion. Many of them got jobs at BridgeTEFL after graduating from the program and I have to warn against working there based on their experiences (low wages, few hours and always empty promises about getting more classes).

      The COL in Chile (at least in Santiago and in the Northern cities; Iquique, Arica, Antafagasta) is pretty comparable to COL in the states from my experience, and some things are actually much more expensive. I’ve heard that the south of Chile is a bit cheaper so maybe your experience in Patagonia was different.

      Overall, I’ve loved (well, am loving…since I’m still here) my experience teaching in Chile but it has definitely been hard to save for travel like I thought I would be doing.

      1. you are a pioneer in some ways…hardship comes with that…ever thought of living in Europe or the Middle-East (ok, I know not a good time to be there), save up some money, invest, then use that money when things are inconsistent…just an idea…peace

      2. I found BridgeTEFL to be helpful from the certification standpoint and I never worked for them, but it sounds to me like the problems with inconsistency and broken promises might stem from some of the cultural differences between Chile and the US. I found the same in the EOD program, run by the UN and the Chilean government, and basically a lot of inconsistency seemed to be a part of life in Chile.

        Truly, this is something that happens everywhere I’ve lived abroad. In Korea it is similar, although perhaps the effect is lessened for me because I am in a major city with all the modern accouterments as opposed to being in the middle of nowhere (quite literally at the end of the world).

        I’ve found it somewhat difficult to save as much as I wanted to in Korea as well, but in Chile I lived in the red. At least you have some money saved, it sounds like! Besides, if your company is up to scruff at all they will reimburse you for the flight and pay (excellent) benefits.

  2. Actually Bridge is a US company (based in Denver) and, as far I know, the majority of their admin positions are run by ex-pats, not Chileans. Not sure what the cause for the issues is. I honestly think it’s just because they can get away with treating their teachers sub-par since they have a constant stream of new ones coming out of their certification process. I also found their program very useful, I would just tell future TEFLers to be wary of working there. I never have either, but I’ve heard lots of stories. I think some of these big language institutes take advantage of first-time teachers who really don’t know better and don’t have their barrings in a new country. My best experience has been with a small private language school. Of course, every institute has its complications and downsides but overall it’s been good 🙂

    1. Bridge is based out of Denver (I’m from Colorado) but they run their centers with local management and some ex-pat workers. I found that most things were inconsistent in general in South America, regardless of whether I was working with people from the US or people from the countries I was in. It’s a different standard about what is and what is not acceptable in terms of working, and whether or not Bridge is a US company has little to do with how they operate in any given country/culture.

      TEFL is often an opportunity for people to take advantage of teachers, and that happens all over the world. Do you have any specific questions about Korea?

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