Contrary to popular belief, not all English teaching happens strictly in the typical classroom setting. In the world of ESL, numerous positions straddle the line between education and other disciplines or industries. Teaching business English in Korea, for example, is notably different from other ESL jobs. Since most of the students are business professionals, the work environment is somewhat formal and businesslike. Furthermore, classes often take place on-site at some of the country’s largest companies, which allows teachers access to a segment of Korean society rarely seen by outsiders. Those who teach business English in Korea get to dive deep into the corporate world and better understand the country’s unique corporate culture.
Teach business English in Korea: Job specs
In most cases, the minimum requirement to teach business English in Korea is a university degree. A business degree is a plus, but any major is okay.
Teachers must dress professionally to teach business English in Korea. And while men must usually wear ties, many companies nix this rule during the summer. At minimum, khaki-style pants and a button-down shirt fit the bill, so it’s not necessarily super formal; it’s just not a jeans and a t-shirt situation.
It depends on the company and the number of hours worked, but those who are willing to put in extra hours can make over ₩4 million (roughly $3,400) per month. The average is somewhere between ₩2.5 million to ₩3 million (about $2,100-$2,500).
Free money: One secret perk of this job is the potential amount of free money that teachers can make by virtue of cancelled classes. At my former company, for instance, teachers got paid even if students were absent or failed to cancel their lessons at least one day in advance. In fact, we had certain students who paid for classes and got on the schedule but never attended. They didn’t even bother to cancel. Therefore, if we were assigned these students, we would get paid but not have to teach because they never showed up.
Additionally, I would receive texts or phone calls from students from time to time, asking me not to visit their offices for classes. I, of course, still got paid because they had waited too long to officially cancel. In total, I would say that I earned the equivalent of around $1,000 per year in free money due to cancellations. Usually, this meant that I would a) get to stay home from work or b) go home one to three hours early.
Because cancellations are random, there’s no way to predict their frequency. Some teachers get a lot of them, while others hardly get any.
Realistically, teachers can save anywhere between $500 to about $700 per month on the low end. If you are willing to put in overtime and/or work weekends, you could easily average over $1,000 per month in savings. On the extreme end, there are teachers who are super savers and work tons of overtime. They save around $1,800 per month. It just depends on the conditions of your employment and how much overtime you put in.
Teach business English in offices and factories
Nearly all academies have facilities for classes. Additionally, companies may request that a teacher be sent to their offices to hold classes there. In this case, teachers are paid for travel time and transportation expenses. This means that teachers work at their academy’s facilities and also travel—by bus or subway—to different companies to teach.
In other cases, teachers are sent to different cities to teach at factories for three or more months at a time. To give an example, an academy might send two or three instructors to Incheon to teach English classes at a steel factory. The teachers live in company housing and receive free meals (i.e., free room and board) for the duration of the project. Some people might prefer these assignments because it gives them the chance to save a lot of money. Nevertheless, every situation is different, depending on the company. Employers usually make it clear if teachers are required to do travel classes or not. Hence, some teachers do it and some don’t.
Experience Korea's corporate culture
Business English teachers focus on teaching professionals content that is relevant to specific occupations and industries. Typically, students come from the following industries: airline, auto manufacturing, technology, finance, consulting, insurance, food and beverage, petroleum, and various government agencies. Group classes can have between two to 10 students; individual lessons are private, one-on-one sessions, which are tailored to each student’s specific needs. Classes take place either at the students’ place of employment or at the English company’s offices, depending on students’ preferences. In general, the most basic lessons follow a wide-ranging curriculum, exposing students to a variety of situations in which they are required to speak English in a professional capacity.
- Meeting with foreign clients
- Sales pitches
- Phone English
- Writing letters and emails to existing and potential clients abroad
The individual/private lessons include the above topics, but they can also be completely different. Students who don’t use a particular book or prescribed curriculum usually have a specific goal in mind. To my surprise, executives often request lessons just to learn how to chitchat and have conversations that are generally industry related, but not necessarily task oriented (e.g., making a sale). Due to the expense, the vast majority of individuals getting private lessons are high-ranking executives, government officials, or successful entrepreneurs.
- Presentation practice
- Graduate school statement of purpose
- MBA interview practice
- Job interview preparation and simulation
- Powerpoint presentation editing
There are plenty of other tasks, situations, and projects that pop up regularly on this job.
- Proofreading documents (e.g., prospectuses, résumés, cover letters)
- Appearing on English language radio programs (not typical, but possible)
- Giving demo lessons to prospective clients
- Grading/assessing audio files (listen to an Mp3 and grade the speaker’s English)
See the country from a different angle
Those who teach business English in Korea get to see a different side of Korean society because they interact regularly with the people in charge of running the organizations powering the nation’s economy.
After a while, some of the students can end up becoming your close friends as well.
Meet professionals by the dozens . . . or hundreds
Teachers have the chance to meet hundreds of professionals at various stages of their careers. Group classes are more likely to have young, early career professionals. In contrast, people receiving private lessons tend to be managers, executives, or government officials (due to the high cost of one-to-one lessons). In some cases, you might only teach one student or group for one month, then another teacher might take over the class. In other cases, the students will request you as a teacher, meaning that only you will teach them (for as long as they take lessons at your company). This really gives you the chance to get to know people very well. Overall, I’ve had the chance to meet four CEOs of both international and Korean companies and an interesting mix of individuals across a wide range of industries.
Below is a sample of the types of professionals that you can meet when you teach business English in Korea.
- Software developer
- Hedge fund manager
All of these interactions provide teachers with tremendous, unique networking opportunities. In addition, for some people, it can lead to non-teaching jobs in Korea. For instance, a former coworker of mine was giving lessons to an older gentlemen who ran a mid-sized telecom equipment company. The man needed a native English speaker to do international sales and marketing at the company, so he straight up hired my coworker, who was his teacher, for that job. He was only a teacher for a couple of months and bam—got a job in business, and we never saw him again.
Also, another teacher got a job with a racing organization after teaching there for a long period of time. He convinced the management that it was more cost effective to directly hire him instead of paying the language academy to send him there every week. Thus, teaching business English is worth it for the networking opportunities alone. For the most part, foreigners living in Korea, especially English teachers, are unlikely find these opportunities anywhere else.
One winter I was sent to teach English at the Korean subsidiary of a major Silicon Valley tech company. And through my conversations with the marketing team, I found out that their former teacher landed a job at a startup that needed a native English speaker for marketing. Fortunately, he was in the right place at the right time; unfortunately, I was too late.
It is not uncommon for teachers to marry others connected to the job. Two of my coworkers married secretaries at our company. Another instructor married a staff member from the pharmaceutical company where he was teaching. At around the same time, two instructors married each other. So, yes, taking this job can lead to transformative experiences and life-long alliances.
At minimum, expect to make a lot of new friends. If your students and colleagues genuinely like you, they will invite you out to have meals or coffee together quite frequently. They also sometimes order food and have it delivered to the office/classroom or bring the whole class coffee. Basically, if you are friendly with people, they will reciprocate.
Like anything else in life, this job is what you make of it. Plus, it can be a deep cultural and learning experience if you make it one. I always tried to extract the most out of every interaction and situation that could teach me something new and insightful. I really wanted to learn as much as possible about the Korean economy and business culture, so I made it a point to go the extra mile when students needed help with anything related to business, economics, and finance.
Here are some interactions that greatly illuminated my understanding of business, economics, and the like.
- Cyber security professionals and software developers implored me to never install banking apps on my smartphone. In fact, bank employees rarely use them due to the risks.
- Government regulators detailed how American private equity companies make massive profits in Korea from ventures and deals that local companies often pass up or turn down.
- Big pharma executives explained to me how the government sets strict pricing limits on medications, which makes them affordable.
- Many financial professionals confessed that they don’t actually buy securities (e.g., stocks, bonds) because, well, it’s too risky.
- A CEO once told me, “I am just a salary man. The chairman has all the power.”
- Business leaders strategically hire each other’s children, making it difficult to expose nepotism. For example, CEO A will hire the son of CEO B, and vice versa.
Explore different industries before choosing one
Teaching business English in Korea gives you the chance to audit different industries and experience them vicariously through your students. So if you don’t plan on being a career English teacher, or, for example, you are doing a gap year abroad, this is a great way to peek into various industries before making some serious life choices.
Below are some takeaways from my experience talking to industry leaders in Seoul.
Full disclosure: These are the opinions of workers in these industries, not my personal views.
- Virtually every consultant that I met, from junior to managing partner, couldn’t wait to do something else. They enjoyed the salary, but that was about it. On the bright side, many of them had discovered their dream job or new business idea during the course of their work as consultants.
- Sales and marketing people frequently expressed happiness with their jobs and were generally the friendliest. Maybe outgoing people tend to get hired for those roles anyway, but it seems to work out for most of them.
- Food manufacturing companies are an absolute blast. The workers that I met were extremely personable and enjoyed that line of work. I was told that, while the salaries are not the highest, the job security and working conditions are very favorable. Plus, they were always giving me coffee, snacks, and energy drinks before, during, and after class.
- Oil company jobs are demanding but pay very well. In fact, irrespective of job title or division, some oil company workers boasted about making more money than others in similar positions but different industries. This is likely due to the pay packages which include substantial bonuses.
- Tech workers and those working for chaebols (e.g., Samsung, LG, Hyundai) earn very high salaries and are frequently given opportunities to work abroad. Even though the workload is heavy, the quality of life and social prestige of these jobs outweigh the potential downsides for most people.
If nothing else, I learned about various industries in detail and how people entered certain professions or jumped from one industry to another. I think that this is an excellent opportunity for anyone who is unsure about their long-term career goals to explore different fields and perhaps discover a new area of interest along the way. For those interested in teaching English abroad, choosing to teach business English in Korea could very well lead to opportunities with global companies in other industries. Across the board, it’s a lot of fun meeting a diverse group of individuals and gaining insight into the corporate sector of one of Asia’s leading economic powerhouses.
- The minimum requirement to teach business English in Korea: a bachelor’s degree.
- Instructors must dress professionally. However, the rules are slightly relaxed in the summer.
- Depending on the company, teachers can make around ₩4 million (roughly $3,400) per month with overtime.
- Class cancellations often translate into free money for teachers.
- Teachers can possibly save around $1,000 per month on average.
- Classes either take place at a language academy or at a student’s company.
- Most learning content is related to the practical elements of English in a professional setting.
- Instructors likely won’t just stand in front of a class and speak. They simulate job interviews with students, proofread documents, and assist students in the preparation of presentations.
- Every day, teachers have the opportunity to meet new people, many of whom are influential business leaders.
- Meeting hundreds of professionals from different industries allows teachers to learn about the inner workings of Korean business and culture.
- This job lets teachers audit different careers and industries because they get to visit company headquarters and talk with managers. It can be a lot of fun to teach business English in Korea and experience a truly unique aspect of the country.