Category Archives: EPIK

The difference between being a dive instructor and an English teacher


I was a dive instructor for 8 years but became restless. As part of a couple I found myself being shoe-horned towards office jobs instead of teaching and guiding and I refused to be pigeon-holed because of my gender. I took a few years out to get back into normal life and then decided to get back into teaching of another kind: teaching English as a Foreign Language. I love traveling and exploring countries by living in them so this was a perfect way for me to keep my lifestyle going. The quality of my life is more important than  chasing dollar signs so teaching/ traveling/living outdoors suits me to a t.

I believed that teaching English and teaching scuba diving would be much the same. Same same but different.

Pros of being a dive instructor:

– You get wet every day and see awesome wildlife.

– You get to teach a variety of ages.

– Your students generally WANT to be there, they’re on holiday and they are happy.

– Small class sizes with additional helpers with a class of 8+.

– You can choose whether to certify someone or not based on their ability.

– Fast results.

– You get tips.

– You can drink with your students after class. Students can become friends… or conquests.

– You are usually in good shape because you do moderate exercise every day to off-set the booze you drink with your customers.

– You can swear underwater and no one will understand you.

– The majority of people you encounter during your working day will share English as a common language.

Cons of being a dive instructor:

– Less holiday time, long hours and early morning starts. You work when everyone else is on holiday (Christmas, Easter, New Year, school holidays).

– Commercial pressure on you to perform/ bend standards/ pass students.

– You have to spend a lot of your free time with customers to give them an unforgettable experience. This leaves less time to nurture personal relationships.

– There is a large amount of egotistical, crazy managers and dive shop owners in this world and no human resources department to support you in case of maltreatment.

Pros of being an English Teacher:

– You have lots of fun and laugh a lot.

– You get a good amount of holiday and enough money to travel.

– You are making a difference, especially if you teach in a government school. Even if the kids still suck at English, you are teaching them about the wider world and acceptance of “other”. When you’re a dive instructor you mostly teach people who are well-off who can afford to see the world and travel.

– You get letters and gifts from your students and they love greeting you outside of school.

Cons of being an English Teacher:

– Large class size, hard to give individual attention, kids get left behind.

– Everyone passes regardless of ability.

– You will encounter discipline problems and language barriers to a degree not encountered as a dive instructor.

– More creative lesson planning required as opposed to pre-planned formulaic PADI teaching.

– You can’t swear.

– You may be the only foreigner at your school so you may feel isolated because of the lack of English around you.

For me, Teaching English is more challenging but far more rewarding. I miss being a dive instructor and in an ideal world I’d alternate between the two jobs.  However, I managed to educate 600 teenagers about the ocean and conservation last year. I would never have been able to teach that many students how to dive. I may have moved battle grounds but the fight remains the same: education in order to preserve oceanic species.

Korea’s ferry disaster

I read the news about the ferry disaster yesterday between my 5th and 6th grade elementary classes. It was very difficult for me to be upbeat and cheery in class after reading about this tragic accident, but knowing that my kids wouldn’t have heard about it yet, keeping face was very important.

Jeju field trips are an institution in high school. Last year my first graders went for 4 days, taking a plane instead of a ferry. Jeju is known as “the Hawaii of Korea” and those teenagers and teachers would have been so excited about the trip. When I think about the numbers my eyes well up. The teachers who were on the ferry are not 9-5ers. In Korea, high school home room teachers are at school from 08:30 to 22:00 every weekday and 9:00 to 13:00 on Saturdays. They see the kids more than the parents do. I often asked my students what time they got home- the answer was often 11PM or after, and their parents would usually already be asleep. The teachers on the ferry were like parents to these students. I taught 2 grades last year- about 620 kids. I can’t imagine a whole grade being wiped out. On the way back from out teacher’s trip yesterday we listened to the radio- it’s all very different from the BBC. Real time, raw, on the ground reporting and witness statements. Awful.

My high school Facebook profile’s newsfeed is dominated by passenger videos, screenprints of kakao talk messages between trapped high school students and parents, the last messages between loved ones. Pictures of unused lifeboats,  passengers sliding on the boat as it’s tilting and sinking into the water and howling grandmothers, mothers and fathers in Jindo. Knowing that many Koreans don’t like swimming…

My thoughts are with the families of everyone affected by this horrible accident. I hope that the survivors can find the strength to carry on and that they can live their lives in a way that will honour their missing friends and loved ones.

Korean kids are so special. They are so kind, cute, lovely, funny. They work so hard. It’s an extra blow, losing humans with such great potential. Truly a dark day for this wonderful country.


Pohang Botanical Gardens

Teacher Trips are par for the course here in Korea, as are teacher dinners. Some people HATE these events and are always whining about them on , trying to find new excuses to avoid attending. LOL. These guys don’t realize that Koreans become waaay more confident in their English skills after a few drinks. It’s the BEST time to talk to other teachers who are usually very shy and reserved.  You have to realize that they are curious about you and the country you are from, they’re dying to ask your opinion of Korea and the rest of the world but they’re usually too shy to speak English in front of everyone else, should they make a mistake. Going out with your Korean co-teachers is a great privilege- I can’t stress the importance of attending enough. It’s like mainlining Korean culture.

Yesterday we went on an afternoon trip to Pohang’s Botanical Gardens aka Arboretum. The gardens opened up in 2001 and feature 24 sections separated by theme and season. The iris garden looked a bit rubbish because it’s not quite the right season yet but it’s full of tadpoles! A section near the top is dedicated to the foliage of Ulleungdo island.

There is a pond which features some pretty big carp and a mini replica of Dokdo island in the centre (Dokdo is a disputed island territory between Korea and Japan, who call it “Takeshima island”).  Many foreigners find Korea’s  Dokdo propaganda  excessive but it has very rich fishing grounds so you can see why they are fighting for it (nevermind historical proof of ownership).

Dokdo island replica

My teachers told me about Jangseung, the Korean totem poles we saw in the gardens. Traditionally a male and female wooden totem pole were erected on either side of the road at village boundaries to scare ghosts away and to keep the villagers safe. 

I also learnt about Dooly the dinosaur, the “famous” Korean animation series (another statue on the grounds). Gotta say, I’d never heard of it but here it is:

There was also a moon bear statue. One of my teachers explained to me that the bears, Asiatic Black Bears, are used in Chinese traditional medicine. “Medicine for what?” you might ask. According to wikipedia “It is purchased and consumed to treat hemorrhoids, sore throats, sores, bruising, muscle ailments, sprains, epilepsy, reduce fever, improve eye-sight, break down gall stones, act as an anti-inflammatory, reduce the effects of over-consumption of alcohol, and to ‘clear’ the liver”. Sore throats and hangovers. Awesome. The Korean government recently elevated the bears’status to protected level to ensure their survival however illegal farms still exist and there is a big bile tourist trade in China.  Read more about moon bears here and here.

The gardens were pretty but not exactly Kew (wink wink!). HOWEVER, the drive that leads there is probably the best I’ve done in Korea so far. The road winds slowly up the mountain and the views on the way up are incredible! I kept on thinking “This would be awful to cycle!!!”and then “This would be amazing to cycle!!!!” So, I’m well keen to cycle this baby once I have a lighter bike that can handle gear changes 😉

If you don’t own a car or don’t fancy a killer bike ride, you can take the bus there too. From Pohang Intercity Bus Terminal, take Bus 500 bound for Cheongha (청하). From Cheongha, transfer to a local bus bound for Sangok/Haok (상옥/하옥).  By car the journey takes around 40 minutes from downtown Pohang.


Seoul to Busan cycle

Last year I completed the Seoul Busan trail with 3 other people- a guy I knew from EPIK orientation and 2 other Busan EPIK teachers who we met on the Facebook Forum Cycling in Korea. We accidentally picked the  the hottest week in 2013- a heatwave featuring  day time temperatures of 40C and over. We originally planned to complete the route in 4 days but it ended up taking 5 long, gruelling days. We got lost a lot and my super basic Korean-made road bike had a few problems, like not being able to handle gear changes without chain slippage and a worn out tyre bursting and resulting in 3  punctures (I think it was 3 , or maybe that’s when I stopped counting). Let’s just say I wasn’t very impressed with the guy who serviced my bike prior to the ride… It was an epik tale, with Jake leaving on day 4 (he’d done almost no prep and didn’t have much long distance bike experience so he did well to last as long as he did). We all had our ups and downs energy wise and mentally- it’s amazing how trivial issues become heated debates by the side of the road as a side effect of fatigue.

The level of Korean hospitality was off the charts amazing- restaurant staff took such special care of us and always gave us free ice to add into our bottles when we left. We cycled through old train tunnels, beautiful countryside and up a few mean switchbacks, not to mention my favourite part of the ride: night cycling under a clear sky and twinkling stars.

Anyway, Tim Travis, who lives in Seoul, does a lot for foreign cyclists in Korea. He arranged for us to get FREE long sleeve finishers’ tops from  the Korean Tourist Organization. It arrived in the post today and it is shweet 🙂 Tim told me each top costs around US$65!


If you’d like to cycle from Seoul to Busan, you can download e-book maps and read more about the routes here.

I plan to complete the whole 4 Rivers Trail this year and I highly recommend it to you: it’s a great way to see the real Korea!

Cycle safely x

Bike pimping

It’s turnaround time in Korea. The time when old teachers leave and new ones arrive. This year there will be a smaller EPIK intake due to the government’s decision to cut high and middle school positions so fewer new people :/

I accidentally took a bicycle off someone’s hands because they’re leaving and it was such a good price I couldn’t resist: 40, 000 won ($40). It’s a girly bike with a basket.

If I had unlimited funds, and space, I would own a bike for every day: BMX, carbon road bike, mountain bike, Brompton foldable,  girly basket bike, unicycle and tandem.  For now, I have two.

So, this bike is pretty but it could be girlier. I went to Daiso and bought 4 squares of plastic grass (1, 000 won each) and a bunch of plastic flowers (1, 000 won) and started pimping.

I love the end result:


Happy pimping and riding x



This week I’ll be saying goodbye to my high school students. When I first applied to EPIK I requested a placement at either elementary or middle school and was pretty dead set against high school. I mean, teenagers, they’re evil, right?! I was so terribly disappointed when I learnt that I had been placed in the one environment that filled me with dread.

Almost one year on and I have learnt so much from these kids. They fill me with admiration and love and I will miss them something chronic.

I am grateful that I was given the opportunity to gain an insight into the lives of Korean teenagers. I love their innocence, their sense of respect for elders and their commitment to work. Korean students often get a bad rep in the press as being depressed, suicidal little drones. In reality, the majority of my kids have sunny dispositions and have mastered the art of balancing a gruelling academic schedule with learning music, art and calligraphy.

I plan to hold a monthly conversation class for my kids at a local coffee shop this year. The Korean government may not believe in investing in the practical application of language, but I would hate for my kids to lose the self-confidence they’ve built up over the last year. You can only progress in a language if you are brave enough to speak it, write it, make mistakes and learn from it.

My last lesson will be a mash-up of Valentine’s Day inspired movie music trivia, origami heart folding and Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. Watching the scene where they meet for the first time still gives me goose bumps.