Lifestyle 12:47 p.m. Monday, March 1, 2010

Young Americans flock overseas to teach English

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For the AJC

Out of college, out of money and out of luck in a lackluster economy with millions of people out of work, Jeremy Salzman felt trapped after college graduation, facing a certain loss of freedom and an uncertain stretch under the watchful eyes of his parents.

So when the newly-minted graduate of the University of Michigan had to choose between returning to Atlanta to look for a job or signing on for a hitch as an English teacher in South Korea, it was a no-brainer.

He’s now teaching kids in a private school 7,000 miles away, with no professors or parents to answer to, no homework, and maybe best of all, no rules and no curfew.

Like tens of thousands of young Americans with degrees, but few job prospects, Salzman, 23, took off for South Korea to teach. The only requirements — no criminal record and a bachelor’s degree in anything.

And the school paid his airfare, is putting him up in a small apartment and will buy him a ticket home when his contract ends.

South Korea is the hot spot for such jobs, but untold thousands of new grads are teaching in Vietnam, Thailand, Hong Kong, Japan and China, where parents are gung-ho for English.

“These schools are interested in pronunciation, being able to make conservation, not rules of grammar,” says Dave Sperling, 48, who runs a Web-based business in Los Angeles helping foreign schools and recruiters find teachers.

And in an economy still shedding jobs, it’s boom-time for Asian schools looking for U.S. grads and a boon for young people like Salzman.

“I have been going to school since I was four years old and was burned out from attending classes, taking exams and worrying about my future,” says Salzman, who has been in Daegu, South Korea, since last fall. “I did not want to get a mediocre job and live under my parents’ roof. So instead of worrying about finding a job or getting into graduate school like most of my friends, I decided to teach in Korea.”

So far, he’s having the time of his life, and also, he feels, providing invaluable help to youngsters there. He works at least eight hours daily, then parties by night, often into the wee hours, with other expatriates, most from the U.S. or Canada, but some from Britain, Ireland, South Africa and New Zealand.

He goes to a gym daily, swills SoJu, a stiff vodka-like drink, fills up on Korean barbeque and sees “amazing” sights.

“I am not an English major, and people in America would not want me to teach their kids English…what I am good at and enjoy doing is helping kids become successful at something.”

He adds: “I came to live out a once in a lifetime experience that I won’t have the opportunity to do again when I have a real job.”

The money’s pretty good, and in countries like South Korea, a salary of $24,000 -- paid in won - and with a free apartment, many Americans are able to save a lot.

Stephen Gronsbell, 26, of east Cobb, who has a bachelor’s in psychology from UGA and a BS in history education from Kennesaw State, took a job in Seoul because he couldn’t find a gig back home.

“The beginning teacher salary in Cobb County is around $39,000 and I am being paid 2.2 million won ($1,900) per month,” Gronsbell says. “It is not as much pay, but when you figure everything else out, things look different. I was provided round-trip airfare and free housing in a furnished one-bedroom apartment about 10 minutes walking distance from my school. Income tax is only about 3 percent of my salary.”

The government covers most of his health care.

“I knew how important education was in Korea, and as a teacher, I wanted to see what it was like working in a country that valued education,” Gronsbell says. Salzman went with his best friend, Max Holland, 23. Both plan to stay for one hitch, though others stay for more or hopscotch from one country to another.

Sperling, one of the top experts in the ESL (English as a second language) field who runs the authoritative Dave’s ESL Café job board, says most youths return home, but a few never do.

William Mallard, 47, of Decatur, is “on the 22nd year of my one-leave of absence” from a job in Atlanta he’d landed after graduating from Harvard.

“I wanted to see the world on somebody else’s dime,” he says.

He answered an ad posted by the Japanese government and signed a one-year contract to teach, then re-upped. Now he’s married to a Japanese woman, and they live with their two children in Singapore, where he works for Dow Jones & Co.

“I never meant to be away from the U.S. this long,’’ Mallard says. “But that’s the way it worked out. Now I barely recognize the place. You folks changed a lot with your three wars and your reality shows.”

Thousands of expats teach in Korea’s biggest cities, most in Seoul, which has a population of 10 million. Koreans are convinced that the only way their kids can get ahead is to learn “conversational” English, says Randall Davis, who coordinates a program at the University of Utah for youths interested in teaching abroad.

Greg Dolezal, president of the Association for Teachers of English in Korea, which helps if problems arise, says 24,000 Americans hold Korean visas, that “American standard dialect is preferred,” and that it’s the first full-time job for many.

Dolezal, who has a master’s in journalism from Middle Tennessee State University, is engaged to a Korean citizen and plans to start a business after his tour. Like Sperling, he urges grads to thoroughly investigate offers.

But it’s often more of a shock to the parents than their adventure-seeking children.

“I certainly miss hanging out with him,” says Jeremy’s dad, Martin Salzman, 55, an Atlanta lawyer. He says his son doesn’t really know what he’s going to do when he comes home but “I don’t think he ever wants to be a teacher.”

Jeremy’s mom, Beth, says she’s proud of him but that he “needed to clear his head.”

Jeremy knows it’ll be weird when he returns but doesn’t miss much, except deli food.

“I would love to eat a turkey sandwich from Publix about now,” he says.

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