When looking into teaching English abroad, there are so many factors and places to consider. Two popular countries right now are both Spain and South Korea, and for good reason. Interestingly, teaching abroad in these two countries couldn’t be any more different.
To help you decide which one might be right for you, here’s my (almost) all-encompassing guide for teaching English in Spain vs. South Korea.
The Culture in Spain vs. Korea
The Spanish live life to the fullest. The social life triumphs the work life and you’ll often find Spaniards out during the weeknights chatting with friends over a drink. While the Spanish work hard (well, most of them), their careers don’t define who they are. Spending time with friends, family, being happy and traveling are all things that hold the most significance. The Spanish also like to take care of their appearance, and you’ll rarely, if ever, see someone leave the house in sweats. Even a trip to the gym is a fashionable affair.
The Spanish also love to drink, but they don’t do so to get drunk. You’ll meet for a glass of wine or a beer with a friend, or stay out until 6am clubbing, but rarely will you see a Spaniard puking and stumbling home.
On the other hand, Koreans define “work hard, play hard.” School, university and careers are all taken very seriously and a social life is often sacrificed. While time with family and friends is valued, your career path and income define your level in society. Luckily, being a teacher is a very respected profession and you’ll (for the most part) be treated with respect as well.
The way you dress, look and hold yourself is also very important in Korea. There is a lot of pressure to be beautiful and diversity is not valued. Popularity in plastic surgery is a bit extreme and Korean celebrities are idealized.
Once work is over, Koreans love a good drink (or 5) to let loose. Many work outings are centered around drinking, allowing everyone to open up. While Koreans aren’t typically boisterous, they aren’t afraid to get drunk and stumble home. Sometimes they won’t even make it all the way home, and seeing a business man passed out on a park bench (or on the sidewalk itself) isn’t uncommon.
All countries around the world struggle with racism to some extent, and Spain and Korea are not exceptions. While I’ve heard of some complaints about it in Spain, it doesn’t compare to Korea, a place that is still stuck in the past when it comes to prejudice and discrimination. Regardless, most expats only deal with minor, subtle issues.
My input: These two cultures couldn’t be more different. This doesn’t mean that one is necessarily better, more enjoyable, or more fun than the other. Expats in both countries lead very social and exciting lives. What is most important to consider is how much of a culture shock you are looking for. Do you just want to enjoy a laid back lifestyle? Would you rather dive head first into a culture very different than your own? Would you be able to deal with racism? Also, are you a drinker? If not, you might find it harder to adjust to life in South Korea where drinking is very important to the culture. These are all big factors to consider.
Expat Life and Travel in Spain vs Korea
Many people coming to teach English in Spain do so alone, waiting until they land in the country to make friends and find their apartment. While this may seem overwhelming, most people adjust easily while making friends quickly with other expats and eventually Spaniards. There are tons of expat meetups and many teaching programs have short orientations which make it easy to meet other teaching assistants. Finding a room in an apartment can be intimidating, but it also usually ends up as a good way to meet people too. Living with Spaniards is a great way to make sure you improve your Spanish.
Most teachers in Spain only work 4 days per week. While this isn’t always the case, it is common. This, and the fact that budget airlines offer cheap flights, make frequent international travel easy. Longer travel can be done over the Christmas and summer holidays when school is not in session. Even with the lower income, most teaching assistants manage occasional (to frequent) travel.
Most people going to teach English in Korea also do so alone. When working for EPIK, you will be required to attend a 10 day orientation upon arrival. This is a perfect way to meet tons of people. Although all teachers live alone in a studio apartment arranged prior to arrival, it’s rare to feel too lonely in the big cities. In cities like Seoul, Daeju, Incheon and Busan, it is easy to make plans after work most days of the week. If you happen to get placed in a small town, you might find that there is less to do during the week. Many teachers placed in small towns have a smaller, tight-knit expat group and often travel to bigger cities on the weekends.
Most teachers in Korea work 40 hours per week. This makes weekend travel more difficult than in Spain. Most teachers must wait until their approved vacation time to travel internationally. With EPIK, you can usually count on being able to take a “big trip” every 6 months. In between that time, you can use the public holidays (which are pretty frequent) to travel around the country.
My input: This one is completely personal. Would you rather live alone? Would you like to live in a large shared apartment with housemates? Do you want to be able to travel internationally often? Would you rather hop around Europe during multiple short trips or take long vacations in Southeast Asia?
Food in Spain vs. Korea
Spanish food is mostly based on doing simple dishes well using high quality ingredients. Olive oils, cheeses and meats play important roles. The food is rarely spicy and differs drastically from region to region. If you are going to meet up with friends, it is likely you will have a drink and a few small plates of food to share. Large sit down dinners are usually reserved for more special occasions. Dining in Europe can be an expensive affair, and with the economical crisis (and teaching salary) many people choose to eat in most days of the week.
The eating schedule in Spain is different than what most people are used to. Every few hours is defined by a different snack or meal. Lunch is the largest meal of the day and can sometimes involve three courses. Dinner isn’t typically eaten until 9pm or later. During the summertime or on weekends this dinner time can extend to 11pm or sometimes even later!
Food is a very important part of Korean culture. From seafood dishes, to BBQ, to rice and noodles, the list is endless. The two main parts of a Korean meal are rice and kimchi. Every meal should be accompanied by both. Another important aspect of Korean food is the “panchan,” or side dishes. These are small dishes, such as pickled vegetables, which will be brought with your meal free of charge.
Social life is centered around food, and going out to eat happens very often. Whether it is for BBQ, where you cook the meat on a grill at your table, or for a big stew to share, eating is a communal thing. Often times, everyone will eat from the same dish and ordering your own individual plate is rare. Eating out is also sometimes cheaper than buying groceries, so some people will eat out every night. Korean take-out food is very inexpensive and easy for people who work long hours and don’t have the time to cook.
International products tend to be very expensive in Korea and you’ll find yourself paying small fortunes on good cheese, wine and imported beer. While you can find most products these days, sometimes the costs are just too unreasonable to make the purchases worth it.
My input: Korean food holds a special place in my heart and I also miss how cheap it was. Being able to spend time with friends over a meal without it breaking the bank was great. But do you rely on certain international products? Do you tend to not like seafood, spicy food, or strange dishes? If so, adjusting to Korean food might be difficult for you.
The Students in Spain vs. Korea
The type of students and their level of English will differ drastically depending where you are teaching in Spain. For me, at a small private Catholic school, my students were very good at English. The students were all highly affectionate, mostly well-behaved and interested in my culture.
The level of English with Korean students is (for the most part) lacking. My students had a very low-level of English and even by 6th grade some couldn’t answer simple questions. Korean students are worked very hard in school, and they were often tired during class. It wasn’t always easy to interest them in my culture, or English itself. At the same time, Korean students treat their foreign teachers like celebrities. To many of them, I may have been the first foreigner they’d ever interacted with. There’s nothing better than the over-exaggerated greetings each morning and the, “Hi, Jessica teacher!!” shouts from across the playground.
My input: Regardless of the country, you’ll never be able to predict the English level or interest of your students. In general, the level of English is better in Spain, which makes communication and English education easier. Still, both places have a long way to go to catch up with many other countries. Teaching in Korea brings you the opportunity to really teach the students some things they might not ever learn about your culture otherwise.
Teaching Schedule in Spain vs Korea
Hours: 16-24 teaching hours per week depending on the program. Once you are done with your classes, you can leave school. Some schools finish normal lessons at 2pm, while others finish after the siesta at 5pm. Most schools try to bunch all your classes together to avoid wasting your time, but it isn’t always possible.
Lesson planning: If required at your school (it’s not supposed to be) then it is done in your free time
Private classes: Easy to pick up, and the best way to supplement your income and pay for travels. Average €15-20 euros per hour.
Hours: With government programs such as EPIK, you are required to be at school 40 hours per week. Only about 22 of those hours are spent teaching lessons.
Lesson planning: It is expected that you will help plan lessons with your co-teachers, but to which extent depends on the school. This is usually done at your desk after you finish teaching for the day. Usually ample time is left after lesson planning to do with as you please (watch a movie, study Korean, blog) as long as you stay at the school.
Private classes: While some Koreans might approach you for them, not many teachers feel the need to pick up extra classes.
Benefits of Teaching in Spain vs. Korea
Contract: Typically 9 months from September/October to June/July.
Average monthly wage: $950- $1300 base. With private classes you can easily make $250-500 extra per month.
Rent: not included
Bills: not included
Airfare: not included
Visa: 10 month residence card (NIE) with teaching programs such as BEDA and Auxiliares de Conversacion
Vacation: Your vacations coincide with school breaks. There is usually 2+ weeks for Christmas, 1 week for Easter and multiple 3-4 day weekends scattered throughout the year.
Contract: 1 year typically starting in both August and February.
Average monthly wage: $1900 – 2100.
Rent: included and paid for.
Bills: not included
Airfare: included and reimbursed to you in a lump sum with first and last paycheck.
Visa: 1 year visa
Vacation: Typically 21 paid vacation days which can be taken at approved times over the year. These don’t necessarily coincide with Western holidays such as Christmas and Easter. Public school vacation is typically taken in February and August.
My final words on teaching English in Spain vs. South Korea
I chose to teach in South Korea for the money and as a base to explore Asia. I chose Spain next in response to what my time in Korea was lacking. Likewise, if I chose Spain first, it’s probable I would have gone to Korea next.
These two countries, and the experiences I had in them, are both hugely different. If there is any simple way to explain it, Spain has been the time of my life and South Korea was a time I’ll never forget. Go with your gut and choose the country which feels right to you.
Living abroad is never perfect, but you’ll also never regret it. It just takes a leap of faith.
Need more? Here are a few of my most honest posts on teaching abroad: