I can still remember the over-mounting enthusiasm I felt when my recruiter suddenly mentioned over the phone, “You’ve got the job. How soon can you come?” I had just landed my first teaching assignment overseas in South Korea, mere days after completing my final university course. At the time, with enough probing, I had found exactly what I wanted in terms of working and living conditions. I had a strong desire to live in Seoul, have my own apartment & not work on the weekends. I was over the moon having landed these working conditions when I had been told – by several other recruiters – that a university graduate with no teaching experience would have a toilsome time finding such an assignment. Everything I had been told by the recruiter made the job sound like it was paved with gold; however, the reality of my first teaching assignment was far from ideal. I was given substandard housing and cheated on my health insurance, taxes and pension plan.
These are four tips that I recommend to other prospective teachers to avoid potential problems related to contract, housing and working conditions.
1) Don’t believe what your recruiter tells you
A recruiter is often the ‘bridge’ that connects foreign teachers with job placements overseas. Rarely do schools actively seek teachers on their own and instead hand over the process to a recruiter. The recruiter often tells the prospective teachers that he/she is working for them; however, the reality is that the school ends up paying the recruiter for the services of bringing in new teachers. The incentive for a recruiter to tell you anything & everything you want to hear in order for you to sign your life away (for a one year contract) is exactly what they are going to do – if they’re good at their job. Thus, any kind of concerns one has over their working and living condition needs to be confirmed by a current or former teacher, at that specific academy, via correspondence over the phone or by email.
2) Confirm your living conditions with photographs
Housing conditions for a first year teacher are a major factor that can make or break the experience depending on whether basic necessities are provided. For my first teaching assignment, I was told I would have my own studio apartment. What I didn’t realize, at the time, was that my unit would be a temporary housing structure on top of a roof! At the best of times, I considered it to be an artist’s loft; at the worst of times, I was baring the elements of a bitterly cold winter and stifling summer. This could have easily been avoided had I requested to see several photos of my apartment before I signed the contract. In future years, I’ve ‘forced’ every school I worked for to take several pictures of my apartment – and sent them to me by email – before I would agree to sign anything.
3) Don’t settle of anything less than what is stated in your contract
Working hours, vacation period, salary, health insurance and taxes are all things that should be clearly outlined in your contract. Unfortunately, many schools do not follow what is in the fine print and often try to circumvent certain guaranteed conditions. The best approach to dealing with this kind of situation is to be extremely firm regarding everything promised within your contract. If the school tries to play hardball it’s best to be prepared to walk away. Often, you will call their bluff and in the odd case that a school is unprepared to offer you proper working conditions can end up being fatal There was an incident in Seoul where a young American man died from injuries he sustained in a house fire. The school he was working for had not provided him with any form of health insurance and he ended up perishing in the hospital.
4) Have a back-up plan
Finally, have a back-up plan in place in case things don’t work out with your current teaching position. Firstly, scan all of your relevant documents such as your passport, sealed transcripts, cover letter, reference letters, teaching certificates and resume. Secondly, have all of these handy in hard-copy format. Thirdly, don’t go overseas with a completely depleted bank account. If you’ve followed these three steps you potentially have a lot more options to consider if you’re unhappy with your current situation. If you do decide to terminate a contract early you may have to leave your host country whereas in other cases you’re allowed to simply change employers. Regardless, having some savings and copies of your pertinent documents allows for flexibility and the opportunity to switch jobs locally or move to a neighboring country to resume teaching if things suddenly become sour. Finally, with enough savings you can always decide to pack everything up and head home on a red-eye flight.