Lecturer opens up about taking a leap of faith and taking up a teaching post in South Korea

ESL teacher and lecturer, Simone Govender, at a South Korean school. Picture: Supplied

ESL teacher and lecturer, Simone Govender, at a South Korean school. Picture: Supplied

Published Mar 27, 2024


Simone Govender, 33, from Phoenix, says teaching English in South Korea, has made her a cultural ambassador for South Africa; and has become a gateway for her to explore the world.

Govender, an educator and full time “day dreamer” grew up in the home of the bunny chow.

In 2019, she left the comfort of home to pursue a career as an ESL (English as a Second Language ) teacher in South Korea.

Govender, who holds a MA in Media and Cultural studies and will pursue a PGC in Education soon, opened up about living abroad and what it took to be an ESL teacher.

What qualifications does one need to become an ESL teacher?

I completed a TEFL course before applying for ESL positions. This is a requirement for aspiring ESL teacher who have an undergraduate degree that’s not in the field of education.

To apply to be an ESL teacher you will need to have a degree in any field and a TEFL certificate.

South African and Canadian citizens also need to provide proof that their primary and secondary education was conducted in English; if you’re already qualified as a teacher then you do not need to get the TEFL certification.

Simone Govender travelling and exploring. Pictures: Supplied

What inspired you to teach abroad?

As I recall from my undergraduate days, a lot of my peers were considering moving abroad for a year or two to become English teachers. I never took this idea seriously until years later when the university I worked at started cutting down the number of part time staff members.

In a nutshell, it was the classic case of being overworked, underpaid and constantly living with the fear of not being employed each semester that pushed me explore a new career path.

There are many destinations one can choose to teach English as a second language including China, Vietnam, Japan, Cambodia, Saudi Arabia and Dubai? Why did you choose South Korea?

The salaries in the Middle East as well as China were tempting but what peaked my interest in South Korea was the orientation process, and benefits that South Korea’s EPIK program had to offer.

The orientation program lasts for about 3 weeks and covers subjects like, ESL teaching methods and Korean work Culture! EPIK also picked all teachers up directly from the airport and transported us to the training centre.

This gave me a sense of comfort as I had never previously travelled abroad alone! Another reason why I chose South Korea is that every teacher is assigned a Korean co-teacher who will assist you with opening a bank account, phone contracts as well as personal matters.

I only found out who BTS was when I arrived in Korea, so K-pop dramas weren’t the reason I chose this country, however, it has since grown on me.

Simone Govender on a ferry travelling to another exotic Asian destination. Picture: Supplied

What are some of the challenges that you face as a teacher away from your home country?

The biggest one for me was the language barrier. Even though many internet sources say you do not need to know Korean to live in Korea, I would highly advise against it.

It was incredibly difficult communicating with people at work and bonding with my colleagues with the language barrier. I eventually started taking Korean lessons and that really helped a lot with building stronger relationships at work.

I’ll admit that I did feel very lonely in my first six months in Korea. Even though I met up regularly with my friends, I missed my family a lot.

Taking into account that I have never lived away from my parents until I moved to Korea, it took some time for me to adjust to my new life.

What’s your favourite thing about living in South Korea?

It definitely has to be the wonderful relationships I have built! I have had opportunity to befriend incredible people from so many different countries.

I feel so blessed to have made deep connections with Koreans whom I’ve met at school, language exchange and at church. It’s through these beautiful people I have come to (love) the warmth and kindness of Koreans.

Which other destinations have you explored and where is your favourite place to visit in SK?

Whilst being in Korea I’ve travelled to Indonesia, Thailand, The Philippines and Japan. My favourite place to visit in Korea is definitely Seoul.

The city is never short on interesting things to entertain me. I particularly like going up to The DDP (Dongdaemun Design Plaza), as they frequently hosts special art exhibitions and events relating to the visual arts.

Simone Govender visits a popular tourist destination. Picture: Supplied

Has teaching in Korea opened doors for you?

Honestly, it has opened up the doors to becoming a cultural ambassador. It’s not something that I thought about before coming to Korea but a lot of people do not know much about South Africa’s history and rich cultural heritage.

As young woman from Phoenix, KZN, what lesson has travelling and living abroad taught you?

You cannot let fear hold you back from achieving your goals. I was always too afraid to venture beyond what I knew.

Choosing to leave my job as a lecturer was extremely nerve-wrecking but the journey has been so worth it. Taking risks is part of life and we should try out things if we’re able to do them because tomorrow is not promised to us.

And, finally, any pearls of wisdom you’d like to share with young people aspiring to explore and take on the world.

I think it’s important not to let our lives be dictated by the ideologies and standards set by the previous generation. A lot of people in my community thought my decision to leave my part- time job at the university was career suicide.

Thankfully my parents supported my decision to leave and the risk was worth it in the end!