TEFL teacher Molly was teaching English in Vietnam when Covid-19 hit. Molly returned to the UK and became an online TEFL teacher during the pandemic. She is now looking forward to a new classroom teaching job in South Korea in 2021. Molly went live on i-to-i’s Facebook page to talk about the impact Covid has had on her TEFL career. Watch a recording of the full webinar here or read on for edited extracts.
After university, I knew I wanted to travel but I did not know how to go about it. I was scrolling through Google and I found i-to-i’s website and realised TEFL was the answer.
I planned to go to Vietnam to do a TEFL internship with my friend from university. In the end, she couldn’t go so it was just me. I graduated from university in summer 2018 and by January 2019 I was in Hanoi. It was very scary but it was by far the best decision I have ever made.
TEFL Internship in Vietnam
i-to-i’s TEFL internship is an amazing way to get started. I did my online TEFL course before leaving the UK, which was a great introduction to TEFL. The sign-up process is very simple and you get so much help with the visa process. In a TEFL internship, you have a ready-made group of expats. There was a group of about 60 of us that started in January 2019.
Everyone on the Vietnam internship congregated in Hanoi, which is the Vietnamese capital, for a week’s orientation. The orientation is an introduction to TEFL in Vietnam. You get lots of training workshops. You have the opportunity to explore the city and try the food. It is amazing. Once that week has passed, everyone separates off into their teaching groups and you go from there. You don’t have to teach in Hanoi. There are schools in other parts of Vietnam too, like Halong and Hai Phong. I was based in Hanoi. It is absolutely beautiful city.
A great thing about the internship is that it is lasts for about five to six months, which is a nice manageable amount of time to try out TEFL and Vietnam. You are not signing up to a contract for a year or for 18 months. If you love it you can stay on for another semester after that.
I was in Hanoi for about five months. Quite quickly after I began teaching, I realised that five months was not going to be enough. In April 2019, I decided that I wanted to stay and so did most of the people on my intake, which was exciting. We had a group of about 20 to 30 of us who decided to stay on.
TEFL Internships are amazing
The best thing about the internship, apart from that everything is set up for you, is that it gives you the chance to really immerse yourself in the culture. Hanoi is this wonderful cross between traditional and modern. It is a very modern city but it has an amazing old quarter with lots of old Roman buildings and a lot going on with expat communities. In the internship, I got to see a lot more of the city than I would have done if I was just passing through. I was immersed in it every day and I got to see a side to Hanoi that not many people get to see.
You also have your accommodation included. I was living in a house with another girl, which was really fun. You meet so many new people when you’re doing an internship. Most of them are still my friends now, although everyone has gone off in different directions: some people are still there, others are back home in America or wherever they are from.
My other favourite thing about my TEFL internship was going to lessons and seeing 60 smiling faces. The classes are very big – I wish I had known how big the classes were before I went to Vietnam. It is nothing to be afraid of though. It is just how it is out there. It might be quite intense but it is an amazing way to up your game. My students were all so happy to see me. It was really lovely.
Returning to the UK
When I first learnt about Covid I was actually just coming home from Hanoi. I had my flight booked for a couple of months for January 2020 this year. There was something in the news and I remember thinking, ‘I really hope it doesn’t stop me going home.’ Luckily, it did not affect my flight, which was great. A lot of my friends who were out in Vietnam sadly did have to return home because of Covid.
I really wanted to go back. A lot of my friends were still out there and I really missed the students and the whole lifestyle in Hanoi. I tried to reach out to the company that I was working for. They said we would love for you to come back but we are not sure if it is possible right now.
This is where my online teaching came in.
Teaching English online
I started teaching English online for PalFish. They are one of the big fish in online teaching. It is all done via an app, which is very convenient when you are travelling or out and about. Essentially it is a free marketing website but you do have to market yourself, which is a lot of work. That is not to say that you won’t have a full schedule with PalFish but it can be difficult to build up.
I wanted more stable hours, so I started work with Education First (EF) in February / March and my schedule started to build up quite quickly. I am currently working anything up to 30 hours a week with EF. The kids are lovely. They are all based in China, mainly in Beijing and Shanghai. I would definitely recommend EF. They are a great company to work for.
To work for EF, you really need to be TEFL qualified and to have a degree. You also must be based in the UK, so you can’t travel. At the moment, while you can’t travel so much, this is quite easy. I have been working with EF since March and I will keep going until February, at which point hopefully I will be moving to South Korea.
Tips for teaching online
In an in-person TEFL job, you can be teaching anything from 10 to 60 children, so it is quite hard to move to one-to-one English teaching. My main tip is to remember that it is personal tuition and there is no one size fits all approach to teaching. The child you are teaching might be a visual learner or an auditory learner. You might find they like writing. If it is your first lesson, ask them what they like and try out lots of activities to gauge what they respond to.
Don’t expect your schedule to be instantly filled to the brim. Don’t expect to have 30 hours a week at the beginning. My online teaching hours are steady now but I had to build them up. It is slow burning. It is no reflection of your teaching ability. It just does take a while to build up your students.
It is possible to work for more than one online TEFL company but you always run a risk of double booking your time. For a short while, I worked for both PalFish and Education First – there was an overlap of about a month. I am ashamed to say that a couple of times I had a last minute lesson come through with PalFish and I forgot that I had an Education First lesson already booked in. It is an absolute mess trying to sort it out but it happens to us all.
My plans for the future
It has been a very stressful year but the good news is that travel is opening up again and there are a lot of TEFL jobs available. There is a high demand for teachers – far more than ever. A lot of students have unfortunately fallen behind in their studies, especially those in Asia who have been impacted for the longest by coronavirus.
I decided, after Covid, that I wanted to try a new location. I have now secured a teaching job in Busan in South Korea. I will be moving there in the last week of February 2021. My contract officially begins on the 1st March but the company would like me to quarantine for two weeks and then have a week’s training before I start teaching in the school. Busan looks amazing. There are so many natural parks and it is a very modern and technical society but the traditional South Korean culture is also still there.
My teaching contract is for a year, from March to March. I think South Korean schools typically offer a year’s contract – it certainly won’t be any less. Again, that is why an internship is a great way to start TEFL because you don’t have to sign up for a long contract.
Teaching in public schools in Vietnam was an amazing experience but the class sizes were huge and that had its challenges. I’m looking forward to teaching in one school as opposed to six in one week and to have the same classes every day, as opposed to teaching lots of different classes.
TEFL in South Korea
The pay for TEFL teachers is very good in South Korea. It is the norm for companies to reimburse your flight money and offer you accommodation, so you won’t have to pay rent, which is the dream. That is a huge big selling point: being able to save money in order to travel afterwards. South Korea is also in a great location to access other parts of Asia.
As a first time teacher in South Korea, you are likely to teach in a private school, which are called hagwons. If you want to work in a public school, you pretty much can only apply in March, whereas hagwons are open all year round, so I think they are the more popular choice. They are a lot of hagwons in every major city so you can choose whether you want to go Seoul, Daegu or Incheon, which is outside of Seoul.
I personally love being by the sea so, for me, a major selling point of Busan was its proximity to the ocean plus I have heard a lot of great things about the vibe of Busan. Another reason why I chose Busan is the outdoorsy way of life. Busan is surrounded by forests, mountain trails and the beach. There are a lot of opportunities to get out and about but you are also in a city.
TEFL job application process
You do need to have a degree to teach in Korea. Unfortunately, there is not a way around it but there are lots of other places you can teach English without a degree.
To apply for TEFL jobs in South Korea you typically go through a recruiter and the recruiter puts you in contact with a company. It is possible to move out there relatively last minute but it’s better to give yourself plenty of time as there is a lot to do with the visa requirements and documentation. I would say that you should start looking for TEFL jobs in South Korea anything from six months in advance and not less than about 3 months.
I searched for ‘TEFL jobs in South Korea’. A lot of recruiters come up. It is a case of putting yourself out there. I can’t stress this enough: if you are looking for a job in South Korea, email as many recruiters as possible. If you don’t feel like you are emailing enough then keep going. Interview and see if you like the school – always remember that you are interviewing the school as much as they are interviewing you. There are so many jobs available at the moment.
The school that I chose – or who chose me – sent me all the information about my accommodation and also gave me details of another teacher who is working at the school, so I could ask them lots of questions. Then I had to prepare my documents – your recruiters will tell you exactly what documents you need. I had to legalise my documents through an apostille service and then send the copies off to South Korea. After that, it was a case of waiting for the Korean government to issue me with with my visa number, which I received about five days ago. My boyfriend, who is also moving to Husan, received his about a month ago even though we got our jobs at the same time, so it really can vary.
My next step is to send off my forms to the Embassy in the UK, along with a couple of passport photos and my passport and wait for that to all come back. I am very excited.
TEFL with other people
My boyfriend (who I met in Vietnam) and a couple of my other close friends from the TEFL internship are moving to South Korea as well. One of these friends is actually teaching at the same school as me, which is great. We were interviewing for the job on the same day. We knew that the other one had an interview but we didn’t know that it was with the same school.
If you are a couple or you want to teach with a friend, then this is 100 percent doable. There are hagwons that offer jobs to multiple people. If you don’t want to work at the same school but you want to be in the same city, that is also very doable, especially in somewhere like Seoul as there are so many jobs there.
You can apply to do an internship with someone else too. There was a married couple on the internship in Vietnam, so couples absolutely can go on the internship. I was originally planning to go to Vietnam with my friend from university and i-to-i were really great about that. The TEFL internship was a really big range of ages. I was 22 and I was one of the youngest. It was a lovely big mix.
Homesickness or culture shock is something that everyone who goes abroad experiences, whether you are travelling or doing TEFL, especially if you go to somewhere like Asia where everything is so different.
I had one pretty bad week in Vietnam where I felt so culture shocked and homesick. It was a really low point. There are little things that set you off. For me, it was that someone in the house I was living in kept cooking fish. I remember waking up and smelling fish and thinking I am really done with this place. That set me off in a spiral.
Culture shock and homesickness is not something you should really hope to avoid. It is part and parcel of the whole process. Even though it might be uncomfortable and you might think you should go home, you should stick it out. I was fine within about a week.
Try to learn the language out there. I did not make as much of an effort as I should have done to learn Vietnamese before I moved to Vietnam. When I got there, I didn’t even know how to say hello or thank you or any of the basics. It really does enrich your experience so much and you are more likely to meet the locals. It is also nice to show them that you are making an effort, to integrate into the community more.
What I’m looking forward to
I am most looking forward to teaching in a new setting, a new environment, teaching in one school and having a closer relationship with the kids because I won’t be moving about from school to school. Vietnam was great and it was a really good way to dive into TEFL but it will be really nice to feel that rapport with kids.
There are so many reasons why South Korea is a really great place to teach. I can’t wait to explore. I have heard that it is very easy to get about and you can get a train from Husan to Seoul in only a few hours, which is really cool. It will be nice to explore the coast as well. One thing I want to do is get my advanced PADI course.
I know it has been a difficult year but don’t be disheartened. Travel is becoming viable again.
When I signed up for the internship I thought it was just going to be a five month stint and then I would come back to the UK. Here I am about to embark on my next adventure. Who knows where will I be in a year’s time? It might still be Korea, it might be back in Vietnam, it might be somewhere else.
TEFL really does change you. It is such a difficult thing to move away from when you can travel and teach at the same time – and why would you want to?
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