May 6

JET to EPIK: One JET’s ESL journey from Japan to Korea

By JET alum Kyle Timmermeyer (Ibaraki-ken), currently teaching English in Korea on the EPIK program.  Note:  For the past three years I’ve been trying to find a JET alum who also taught English on the EPIK program in Korea to write about some of the similarities and differences of the two programs.  So thanks to Kyle for his contribution.

After teaching mostly elementary school English in Japan for 4 years, I decided I needed a slight change of pace.  I got JLPT N2 certification, but my idealized vision of translation and transitioning into business or “international relations” had hit a wall in terms of motivation.  I was desperately bored, and extremely restless.  So, I decided that doing the same (rather easy) job in a different country was the sweet spot.  Korea seemed like the obvious choice from the first, and after plenty of additional research and reflection, it won out.

After getting into JET, I figured that acceptance into the Korean equivalent, EPIK would be just as easy.  As a bonus, unlike JET which doesn’t cover Tokyo at all, EPIK has a specific subdivision responsible for recruiting teachers into Seoul called SMOE.  The names–EPIK/SMOE–tend to turn into consonant salad in my brain, in part because of politics and some corruption in a former iteration of the Seoul division. Naturally, the vague, seedy story made me wary, but piqued my interest at the same time.  After total immersion in a rather stagnant Japanese position, I could see the silver lining on a Korean cloud that seemed to be ready to purge itself of the acid rain of corruption.  And, regardless of the politics of the situation, I was craving some of that big city excitement.  And so, after living in Nagasaki and Ibaraki for 2 years each, this native Kansan set his sights on the big city. 

Happy spoiler alert: In all my time here, I haven’t run into any problems that seemed to be based in corruption.  My fears in general seem to have proved baseless.  Going back, though, when going through a big international transition, it’s only natural to end up worried sick about one aspect or another, if not the entire shebang.  On top of all that, I am typically an anxious sort of person, so I ended up with bad relocation jitters.

The recruitment process did not help matters one bit.  I won’t attempt to speak for others’ experiences, but I had a professional, straightforward, and fairly smooth induction process into JET.  EPIK (SMOE) is not like that.  Although they are a large government initiative, just like JET, the Korean counterpart relies rather heavily on private recruiting agencies.  And I came into contact with a recruiter who was… less than fantastic.  There was little communication, and I only got the final contract and go-ahead only 2 weeks or less before the official start date, and even then I didn’t know my neighborhood …although I did know that I got into Seoul!

If you’re considering applying to EPIK (SMOE), you can apply directly and avoid the recruiters, but that means even less communication than
with a bad recruiter.  If I have any specific inside information to give potential applicants an edge… getting a good recruiter is key. Very specifically, Korvia is a good agency.  To be clear, no one is asking me to plug them; it’s just that my friends seemed to have a really good experience with them.  Anyway, there are so many EPIK recruiters that if you get a bad feeling from one, there’s always another company to try.

More since I am speaking mainly to ex-JETs, the Japanese public school teaching experience does directly apply.  In my interview, I made sure to acknowledge that Korea is not Japan (of course), but that it was pretty obvious that the English programs inspired each other, and
often copy each other, even now, I think.

And, much like JET, there was an extensive orientation program that was inordinately heavy on theory and glossed over the practical
challenges and realities of the job.  To be honest, EPIK’s orientation was probably worse than JET’s, because it lasted a full week, 8 hours+
per day, and the officials didn’t give us our school assignments (and apartments!) until late in the week, even though it was pretty clear
that they knew our assignments much earlier.  I liked the way that only part of my JET orientation was in a massive group in Tokyo, and
the rest waited until we had split up and could form more specific, useful questions.

After the painful EPIK recruitment process and too-long orientation, I was ready for the other shoe to drop… but fortune favored me.  And,
in fact, none of my fellow public school teachers in Seoul have reported a really bad overall experience.  And mine has been really
good.  My principal is hands-off, my co-teachers are nice, and my students are not only respectful, but generally care about English.
There are nationally standardized textbooks for even elementary students… and while the books are not great in terms of teaching
materials (par for the course in Asia, right?), its one big sign that Korea officially and genuinely values English education.  Though there
are exceptions in Japan, the rule, in my humble experience, seems to have been tatemae to English with the real focus on the hard sciences.
And, I mean, if you’re just enjoying a “gap year” or two, that’s one thing, but since settling into the work after a few years, it’s nice
to have the job both approached in a practical manner and treated with respect the way I’ve experienced in Seoul.

And that basically sums up my experience with EPIK SMOE.  I look forward to questions, comments, and writing in more detail.

Kyle Timmermeyer is a former JET currently teaching in Seoul with plans to move on toward a TESOL MA in Thailand soon.  He’s also
recently published 2 novels in the fantasy dystopia series Legend of the Elementals.  Book 1: Reintroduction is available for FREE on and in all popular e-formats on  He enjoys candlelight dinners and battling space ninjas, preferably at the same time.

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