The Virtues of EPIK: English Program in Korea

For anyone thinking of coming to Korea to teach, you may be feeling a little overwhelmed by sheer number of options that exist. There are hagwons where you can teach adults at night, or kindergarten during the day, or businessmen early in the morning. There are public schools where your classes will probably have at least 30 students each. There are university jobs, the coveted and seemingly out of reach positions.

And there is EPIK.

Pretty much everyone who considering coming to Korea to teach knows what EPIK is. EPIK stands for English Program in Korea and is the system through which the Korean government, specifically the National Institute of International Education, hires foreign English teachers to work at public schools throughout the country.

I am currently an EPIK teacher working at a public middle school in Daejeon, Korea. I applied to EPIK for the Spring 2017 intake, received my placement on December 15th, and arrived Korea on February 12th.

I have been working now for two months and so that certainly does not qualify me to talk about teaching here as a whole. But seeing as my interactions with EPIK itself are pretty much over, and I now exclusively interact with my school and my supervisors here, I think I can confidently comment on the whole process of getting here with this program.

EPIK has a lot of pro’s and a lot of con’s and but at the end of the day I feel like it’s one of, if not the best way, to come over here for the first time. That’s what I’m going to try to explain in this post.

Lets start with the con’s.

Con’s of EPIK:

  1. The Application Process- If any of you have started to apply to EPIK or have done it in the past, you know what I mean by this. The application itself is about 15 pages long, includes three short essays, a sample lesson plan, and asks some interesting questions that would be illegal in the US like your marital status, height, weight and how often you drink. It’s not terribly difficult just lengthy. Then once you apply, you wait for an interview. If you pass the interview you start collecting documents to apply for a Korean work visa. This is the grueling part. Because there are so many pieces to this puzzle, and government bureaucracy is involved every step of the way, this usually takes several months to complete. And it’s expensive. Expect to spend several hundred dollars getting all the documents you need and then sending them to Korea. If you successfully manage that part you then get to sit around for another few months and wait for your placement. This is the mentally hard part. Because you’re starting to tell everyone that you’re moving to Korea soon but you can’t answer any of their millions of follow up questions. Where? I don’t know. What age group? I don’t know? What kind of housing do you get? I don’t know. And this brings me to con #2.
  2. The Uncertainty- This is a bit of an oxymoron because the stability of the job is going to be one of my pro’s. But before you actually get here, the uncertainty is definitely a bit of an issue. You don’t find out what city you’re going to be living in until about 2 months before you leave if you’re lucky. But I know many people who didn’t find out until just weeks before they left the country. Then you get here and go to orientation where you still don’t know if you’ll have elementary or middle or high school. Then you find out what school but don’t get to know anything about your apartment until you’re walking in the door. And you don’t get to know anything about your students until you’re standing there in front of them on day 1 with 30 curious eyes staring back at your. All this to say there is a lot of waiting and a lot of not knowing.
  3. What You Get is What You Get- This basically boils down to the fact that you have no control over your situation. And every EPIK teacher has their own drastically different and unique experience. You don’t get to choose where you live or where you teach or what age group your students are. You get the school and the apartment and the co-teachers that you are given and that’s pretty much the end of the story. Some people do end up getting stuck with less than ideal living situations and less than ideal co-workers. And given the workplace culture in Korea there isn’t really much room for you to complain within the realm of what would be considered appropriate.

 

Pro’s of EPIK:

  1. Job Security: This is a huge pro given that many people are choosing between going the hagwon route, or going with EPIK. Job security is arguably one the greatest downfalls of a hagwon job. Because a hagwon is primarily a business, and is run like a business not a place of learning, if it should go under for any reason you will be immediately, and often without any warning, out of a job and your work visa no longer valid. EPIK however, is backed and funded by the Korean government. Which, however awkward the political situation may be here right now, is definitely not going under any time so. You job and your visa are secure and bound to your contract.
  2. Established Program: EPIK has been around for a long time now and hundreds of teachers have passed through the program. They know what to expect from us, what questions we will have, what we will need help with, and be surprised by. And so they try their best to prepare you for it. Which goes into my next PRO.
  3. Training: This takes the form on an online 15 hour pre-orientation, a week long in person orientation, a three day training course after our first month of teaching, and another online continued training after the first 6 months. This sounds like a lot but trust me, this is what I have appreciated the most about EPIK. Many other jobs in Korea will pick you up from the airport and have you in the classroom teaching practically the next day. With no training, no advice, and no hope of any further development. Despite the fact that there is basically no way to prepare someone for entering the classroom, EPIK orientation gave me HUGE insight into what my school life could possibly look like, what my co-teachers would be expecting from me, and most importantly gave me a whole week to meet and become friends with the other people who would be doing the same job as me in my new city. That has proved to be invaluable. I don’t think I could have survived those first few weeks without people who I could swap stories and grab a drink with on Fridays. EPIK is a community, and for me that community began at orientation. Even the three-day training course, about a month and a half into teaching, was perfectly timed. It came at exactly the moment that I think we were all starting to wonder if we’d be able to do this everyday for a whole year. It was exactly the break we needed, and the classes they offered were really helpful in shaping how my classes were going to look moving forward.
  4. Real Korea: My last point is simply this. Working in a public school and the many challenges that come with that, is reality. Your kids will come from drastically different backgrounds, some with near fluent English, and some will get nervous when you ask them “how are you?” in the hallway. Some of them are bright and kind and others, you can tell, have already known a bit more difficulty than most 13 year olds should. You will work with public school teachers who vary from inspiring to jaded and everything in between. EPIK is public schools, and public schools are real Korea. Not just hagwon kids whose parents have the money for them to be there.

 

Of course there are a million factors that go into your decision to teach English in Korea, I just would hope to be one more voice telling you to give EPIK a try. It’s not going to be the easiest choice. I have 700 students, I teach 24 classes a week (which is overtime for EPIK contracts), and my kids have significantly lower English levels than many of the other schools in my city. And there are days when I wonder if anyone is actually listening to a word I say.

But I wouldn’t change anything thing even if I could. I love my kids despite their craziness and I love my co-workers despite our language barrier. I love teaching English at a public middle school in Korea and that is nothing something I ever thought I’d say in my life.

Not everyone’s experience will be like mine. In fact no one will have the same experience as me. We will all have our own struggles and victories and, in the end, an experience un-like anything we could have imagined. Thanks for reading!

 

(If you have any questions about EPIK or teaching in Korea please feel free to leave a comment and I’ll try to answer to the best of my ability!)


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