Teaching ESL in Asia : Pick Your Poison (Kindergarten to Adults!)

So you’ve thought about teaching English overseas.? The lure of a decent salary, free apartment and opportunity to live abroad baits thousands of university graduates each year to leave home and set off to some far away destination in Asia.  The experience can be life changing – both positive or negative – dependent upon a host of different factors.

I’m going to be presenting a series of articles that deals with the types of decisions/working conditions one will need to consider before dotting the i’s and the crossing the t’s of a one year contract.  Before signing your life away it’s important to think about what type of teaching assignment best suits your personality.

Teaching English in South Korea: Choose between Kindergarten, Elementary, High School and Adults

More specifically, it’s determining what age level you want to teach.  For some teaching Kindergarten students is an absolute nightmare and for others its pure bliss.  I’ve personally taught for three years in South Korea teaching students of ALL age levels in the public and private sector.

The following is a somewhat humorous/sarcastic take at the pluses and minuses of each level and what skill set is required to tackle the assignment without going completely insane:


The Bad

Imagine a room full of hyper active little ankle-biting ADHD Ritilin candidates swarming about the room conversing in a language you can’t understand while you’re desperately tying to maintain control of the situation in a language they can’t grasp either.  This is the nightmare some foreign teachers face upon first arriving overseas.

The qualifications to teach in Asia (for most countries) is nothing more than a University degree and if you have no formal training as a teacher or a lot of experience with small children it can be a rude awaking!  These are not little robots who want to sit still in their desks and color and chant in English all day long.

Kids of this age cohort have the attention span of shrews and unless you’re prepared for this things may not sail quite so smoothly.

The Good

Children of this age are absolutely adorable and as cute as a button.  If you have a lot of energy, planned activities and ‘fun’ things that will keep them engaged throughout the course of an entire lesson, you’ll find teaching this age group a rewarding experience.

The kids will love to dance, chant, play, and color.  A good teacher, at this age level is a dancing, singing & clowning machine – doing all kinds of things that one would never tell anyone back home for fear of getting tar-feathered.

A good lesson plan has NUMEROUS activities and several BACKUP plans for when things are getting a little dull for the students.

Final Thoughts

Teaching kindergarten is probably one of the most challenging assignments for a first time teacher.  You have to play the role of teacher, entertainer, guardian and clown all at once and if you’re the type of individual that doesn’t have a lot of energy or adores kids it’s probably best to consider something else; however, for those who have this skill set and enjoy being around children it’s probably a perfect fit.

Elementary School

The Bad

They’re still kids yet they’re not as cute as they were back in kindergarten.  The little brat mouthing you off and testing your patience at every turn isn’t quite as sweet or innocent anymore.  Teaching elementary age students (especially at the grade 1 to 4 level) requires similar levels of energy and preparation time that it takes to control a kindergarten classroom.

The Good

The children, at this age compared with kindie students, are more mature and have been socialized to behave and listen to the teacher – at least the good students 😛  Thus, classroom management is a little bit easier.  Furthermore, kids of this age are still enthusiastic about everything – provided it’s fun.

Do you want to play a game?  YEAH!  Let’s do a role play?  YEAH!  If you are entertaining/engaging and have interesting lesson plans the students will love you and treat you like a rock-star.

Final Thoughts

Teaching elementary age students is definitely an easier assignment than Kindergarten students; however, one must still thoroughly enjoy children and have an enthusiastic and entertaining approach in the classroom to make it work at this level.  Personally, this is my favorite age group to teach.

Middle/ High School

The Bad

Have you ever tried to draw blood from a stone?  How did that work out for you?  Sometimes finding ways to get your middle school or high school students to engage in a lesson feels on par with this analogy.  At this age teenagers are VERY self conscious, shy and typically afraid to make mistakes in front of their peers.  A really keen student will likely get ridiculed for being a bookworm.

The Good

If you’re more of a lecturer and less of an entertainer this might be the right level for you.  Teaching teenagers requires a lot of patience and different methods to pursue conversation, activity and other classroom participation; however, you’ll be less pressured to put on a show and if you decide to dance, sing or try methods you used with younger children you might be met with a few giggles.

Final Thoughts

Teaching middle or high school students has its share of challenges; however, I think for a newbie teacher it’s a little less intimidating of an assignment because you’re playing more the role of a teacher and less the role of an entertainer, guardian, etc.


The Bad

Image having the most rude & self-centered student – the kind that speaks out of turn, hogs conversations and doesn’t get along with others – aged 49.  Instead of being able to scold the man/women like you would with a child you’re forced to handle things more delicately.  Mature students are far more demanding and at times critical of your teaching and classroom performance.

No matter what kind of teaching style you adopt (whether it be structured or informal) you’ll have your share of critics.

The Good

Adult students – by and large – are very dedicated and committed.  They’re likely paying for a private English class and are hoping to get the most out of the lesson.  You’re almost certainly unlikely to find students who are lacking motivation and focus within the classroom.

Furthermore, discipline problems are few and far between; however, when you get a self-centered or socially inept student it’s harder to deal with them than it is with a child.

Final Thoughts

Teaching adults is the perfect fit for those who do not enjoy teaching children.  It’s the most ideal situation for a teacher that prefers a more formal setting and could never imagine singing, dancing or wiping runny noses.

You can develop rapport with adults and some of your students could potentially become your friends outside of the classroom.

Since I discussed my experience teaching in Korea let’s examine the differences between teaching ESL to adults.

The Differences Between Teaching ESL to Kids and Adults in Korea

Teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) in Korea can be an incredibly fulfilling and rewarding experience. However, as with any teaching position, it requires a keen understanding of your students’ needs and learning styles. When teaching ESL to children and adults in Korea, it’s important to acknowledge the distinct differences between the two demographics and to adapt your approach accordingly.

Teaching ESL to children in Korea can be a delightful but challenging experience. As children are usually more active and have shorter attention spans than adults, creating engaging and interactive lessons is essential. One effective way of achieving this is by incorporating games, songs, and other fun activities that not only make the lessons more enjoyable but also memorable. Visual aids such as pictures, videos, and flashcards can also be valuable tools to help children better comprehend the new vocabulary and grammar.

Furthermore, patience and a nurturing approach are crucial when teaching children. Some children may feel anxious or overwhelmed in a new classroom environment, especially if they are not accustomed to interacting with a foreign teacher. Creating a safe and welcoming space that encourages active participation and fosters confidence can help alleviate their anxiety and increase their willingness to participate in the lesson.

In contrast, teaching ESL to adults in Korea requires a more formal approach. As adults have longer attention spans, they are better equipped to handle complex grammatical concepts and engage in deeper critical thinking. Adults may also have more specialized needs and goals for learning English, such as advancing their careers or traveling abroad. As such, it’s important to tailor the lessons to their individual goals and learning styles.

A variety of teaching methods can be employed when teaching adults, such as group discussions, role-plays, and case studies, to stimulate critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Real-life situations and scenarios that are relevant to the students’ daily lives can also be incorporated into the lessons, making the learning experience more practical and engaging. Additionally, it’s important to be culturally sensitive and mindful of the differences that may exist between the teacher and students, and to incorporate these differences into the lessons to create a more meaningful and relatable experience for the students.

Teaching ESL to children and adults in Korea requires different teaching approaches, and it’s important to understand and adapt to these differences to ensure an effective and enjoyable learning experience. By creating engaging and interactive lessons that cater to the unique needs and learning styles of your students, you can help them achieve their language-learning goals and foster a deeper appreciation for the English language.

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  1. says: Maggie@eTeachershub

    Thanks for a great read! I agree that it’s a total nightmare to teach youngsters. Even a formal training does NOT help. These kids look adorable indeed, but some teachers just start “hating” the teaching job as they don’t know how to handle these cute monsters:) I agree that a good teacher at this age level should be dancing, singing & clowning. This is probably the only way to get young children to love and study English.

  2. says: roberto

    Hi Sam !

    Great site you’ve got going, here……informative ! I have taught the gr 2—6 in public schools, ROK, and YES, they are demanding but fun.
    Middle school students, in the private office school setting, were like “drawing blood from a stone” some of the time, but they were ok overall.
    HS level, here in Thailand, is better in my opinion——they are more respectful, more structured, and I can introduce ideas that they can actually grasp onto. Nice crowd !

    Keep up the good work, good luck to you !


  3. Teaching English in Asia is the best decision I’ve ever made. I started off in Taiwan which was great for a first time teacher, and now I’m just about to finish a 2 year contract in Singapore. I’ve saved enough in that 2 years to travel for at least 3 years, definitely worth it!

  4. says: sam

    I’ve taught adults so far, but looking forward to teach kindergarten kids, I’ll try and implement your suggestion about engaging them in more fun activities, enjoyed reading your post.

  5. Very useful information. I took the TESOL course in 2009 in Thailand and I’ve been teaching English in Phuket since. I work in a Kindergarten in Phuket called Anubaan. I love teaching and living in Thailand. It’s such a unique experience. Sometimes it’s not that easy to keep the young ones attention, but I found some great games to keep them motivated and learn in fun way. Thank you for the great information Samuel.

    1. says: roberto

      HELLO !

      I am going in for an interview, at THAT school, in just a couple days ! What a coincidence ! Sounds like it’s a pretty good thing, from what you are saying —–but of course, you make it good by virtue of what you bring into it……


  6. says: Milena

    Hi Samuel,

    Great info! I’ve been teaching in Thailand for almost a year and I intend to stay here another year until I move to Korea. Would you know how to secure a job as a Kindergarten teacher because both the Epik and the Gepik only guarantee a place at elementary or high-school level. I really like teaching the little ones!

    1. Milena,

      Your best bet would be to check job boards like daveseslcafe.com or go through a recruiting agency. I’ve used WorkNPlay Recruiting in the past and would recommend them. A few friends have used Footprints Recruiting. Honestly, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding a Kindie job at a Hagwon given there are more of those types of schools than public school opportunities. Best of luck!

  7. says: William Lake

    I’ve taught all ages in Cambodia, from Kindergarten all the way up to University students! I really enjoyed teaching the kids, but it was hard work to be in ‘kid mode’ when classes started at 7:30am! I’m now teaching at University and it’s great too, but for different reasons!

  8. says: Becci

    Hi Samuel,

    I really want to teach ESL but I really don’t want to go to University at this point in time! Do you think there’s any chance I could score a job without a degree or is it a must?

  9. says: Ciara

    Hi! I’m still in high school and have been wanting to travel and learn about other cultures for a while now. For college are their certain programs you would recommend? Are there any websites that list have a list of countries and their requirements? Thank you 🙂

  10. says: Marc

    Just stumbled upon your blog and love it. What are the best websites or companies to go through to start the process of trying to teach English in Korea?

  11. says: Sanders

    I’m definitely interested in teaching overseas to help fund more traveling. Just had a few questions..

    First, were you only supposed to speak English? Did you end up learning any Korean while there? (I’m as interested in learning their language as teaching English)

    Are programs like this mostly in the “wealthier” asian nations (japan, s korea, singapore, taiwan, china, etc)

    Can I ask what the pay was for a year?–you can email me the answer if you don’t want to share in public.

    Do you know of any similar jobs that pay well in another country with limited experience–say right out of university–but aren’t necessarily teaching English…


    1. These are good questions. As a teacher in Korea it’s expected that you will only speak English in the classroom. Learning Korean is something that is optional but obviously is going to make your experience far more enriching if you take the time to do it. The best paying jobs in Asia for teaching are in Korea, Japan and Taiwan. Jobs can be found all over the region but don’t pay nearly as well although the cost of living may be significantly lower. A teacher in Korea makes anywhere from $1800 to 3000 a month depending on experience and qualifications. Added perks are a free apartment, return airfare, severance pay and very low taxes. You could certainly find work in Asia doing something else although you’d likely need to have a skill that is high demand – whatever, that might be. Teaching English is definitely the easiest way to find employment.

    1. Charu, I’ve funded all of my travels working overseas teaching English. I think it’s a fantastic opportunity to live abroad and save money for travel in the process. Obviously some countries are more lucrative than others – in terms of pay – but there are plenty of opportunities. If you’re considering it seriously I can recommend some places if you’d like 🙂

  12. says: Zoe

    Hi Samuel,

    Elementary (what we Aussies call primary) school kids are so fun! I found just the same as you with the adults / teens. Just recently I’ve been taking some language classes, and discovering what its like to see it from the other angle.. I think adults just want to learn, and have things explained succinctly, and not play any “time wasting” games.

    My next spot… hmmmmm I’d really love to spend an extended period in South America – so maybe that’s next!

    Where are you now?

    1. Zoe, I personally highly recommend South America. I felt really attached to Argentina & Bolivia during the 5 months I spent roaming the continent back in 2010. The rugged scenery & diversity in landscape makes for an incredible journey. I’m back home in Canada for the summer and then off to Korea to save up for my next adventure 🙂

  13. says: Zoe

    Hey Samuel,

    Great blog you got going on here!

    I taught in Vietnam after doing a CELTA in Hanoi. I thought teaching kids was going to be awful and that adults was the best (coming straight off the course). Got offered a job before finishing and of course… ended up with majority kids, and yeah, kindergarten.

    I remember freaking out – never had younger siblings, have ZERO experience with kids… But, I loved it! 3 hours of singing off key and yeah, acting like a clown. It was great!

    After kindy I had a primary school – they were SO well behaved and just LOVED having a foreign teacher come to their school. They used to cheer when I came into the room! It was alot of fun, and the kids worked hard and enjoyed the lessons.

    I had to do a few lessons with teenagers, oh it was awful. NEVER again. I think you have to be a certain type of person to deal with teens!

    As for the adults… at first I preferred them, because that’s what is taught on the course, but after a few months of kids – the adult classes were so dull in comparison! They didn’t want to play any games, or sing any songs..

    Maybe I’m just a kid at heart and that’s why I preferred them? Whatever it was… I’m looking forward to teaching kids again… somewhere in the world!

    1. Hi Zoe,

      Thanks for your detailed comment. When I was researching some travel blogs (before I build my own recently) I really enjoyed yours. I faced a very similar situation to yours when I first set foot in Korea teaching at a Kindergarten private school. Without prior experience with children (only child & no babysitting experience) I was totally overwhelmed at first but as time went by I started to really enjoy it. My second year teaching adults was more challenging. I agree with you that it was definitely more boring and I found some students (just a few) were so selfish and rude in the classroom by trying to hog conversations or cutting other students off from time to time. My favorite age group to teach is elementary. I find the kids fun, energetic and eager to engage in activities. Where do you think you might teach next? I’m heading back to Korea for another gig this September 🙂