Teaching English in Taiwan
When people think of visiting Asia, it is likely that many countries first pop into their minds before they give any thoughts to the little island that has been my home for the past 15 years: Taiwan. However, to those people who do decide to include a short trip to Taiwan on their travel itinerary, they will discover a place with approximately 23.5 million friendly and hard-working people, very little violent crime, great food, beautiful scenery, and bustling cities jam packed with people and interesting things to see. To those who stay longer than a short period of time, however, they will also discover that Taiwan is subject to frequent earthquakes, typhoons, many mosquitoes, intense heat and humidity in the summer, and, at times, freezing cold winters. In other words, Taiwan has it all.
What Makes Taiwan a Unique Place?
As an American living in Taiwan, one of my favorite things about life here are the night markets. Night markets are particular areas within Taiwanese cities where friends and family members walk around chatting with each other while also shopping for inexpensive goods, eating different types of foods, and playing games for both fun and prizes. They generally start to open in the early evening around 6pm, and they usually are closed no later than midnight. Despite the late hours, they are open, they are safe places to visit.
Taiwan also has an endless number of Buddhist and Taoist Temples all over the island. Some are quite large and one can see many people saying prayers, burning incense, relaxing on chairs or benches, or simply chatting with each other. Yet, other temples are quite small, and at times, there are no people at all to be found there. What I love about these temples, both big and small, is that they are beautifully designed. There is also no charge to visit a temple, although individuals can, and do, make donations to support a temple.
Cars, buses, trains, and bicycles are common ways for people to travel around Taiwan, but it is motorcycles which rule the roads. Due to the small size of this island, riding a motorcycle can actually be easier than driving a car. They can be parked almost anywhere, use less gas, and make getting around generally a breeze. Here you see teenagers (18 is the legal age to obtain a motorcycle license), business people, housewives, and grandparents all zipping along the roads. Of course, accidents are frequent, and death is sometimes the outcome, but anyone who comes here will likely find themselves riding a motorcycle before too long.
Starting approximately 2 decades ago, the Taiwan government instituted a “Keep the Trash off the Ground” policy. As a result, people visiting Taiwan may be surprised to see individuals standing at the side of the road waiting for garbage trucks to pick up trash from them. Unlike in the USA where we have huge dumpsters or private garbage cans in the front of a house, here trucks come by at a certain time each day, and if you need to throw out your trash, you throw it onto the truck, or hand it to a worker, as it passes by. Also, in some cities, like the capital Taipei, people are only allowed to use particular types of plastic bags to put their garbage in, which adds to the already high cost of living there.
Teaching at a Cram School
Taiwan has many cram schools, which are places adults, teenagers and children attend classes on a daily or weekly basis. While the lessons taught can be about almost any academic subject, learning English is possibly the most common reason for a Taiwanese person to study in one of these schools. Accordingly, English speaking foreigners can often find employment as ELT teachers when they first move here.
My first teaching job in Taiwan was at a popular cram school. I worked there for nearly 6 months before I left to take a full-time teaching position at a public university. At the cram school, I taught English to adults in both personal one-to-one classes, and also to small groups of employees at various companies in the city where I was living. In the personal classes, I would sit in a classroom and have chats with different students. Books were not used in these classes. Students attended these classes because they wanted to have an opportunity to improve their English language skills by engaging in conversations with native-English speakers. While it may sound like it was a simple teaching assignment, due to the difficulty many of the students had when trying to speak English or to understand spoken English, it actually turned out to frequently be quite a challenge for me. Additionally, in Taiwan, some employers need their workers to communicate with international customers using English. So, several days a week I would catch a bus or take a taxi in the evenings to where the students were working, and for 2 hours I would teach English classes. The only thing which bothered me about these company classes was that I was sometimes forced to use textbooks which neither I nor the students liked. However, since the students had already paid for the books, there was no choice except to use the material I was given.
Teaching at a Public University
In Taiwan, there are two primary types of universities: public and private. There are different reasons why Taiwanese students may choose to attend either type of school, but public universities are more competitive for students to be admitted, and they also charge less money for tuition. Thus, for many students, it is more desirable to attend a public university.
For the past 15 years, I have been working as a full-time faculty member teaching English at one of Taiwan’s only three teacher training universities. Each week I teach English majors in classes which are primarily designed to help our students improve their English speaking and listening ability. Generally, the class sizes range from 28 to 60 students, although most classes have approximately 30 students.
The students I teach primarily come from Taiwan, but we also have had international students from places like Burma, Thailand, Hong Kong, and Malaysia, and they generally have no trouble being accepted, because Taiwanese students tend to be quite friendly to people they meet. Actually, I would describe my Taiwanese students as polite, hard-working, respectful, and nice. However, many of them are also shy, and afraid to speak up in class using English. As a result of there being a sizable number of passive learners in my classes, a good deal of my time is spent trying to coax them to not be so timid and to convince them that they have no need to be embarrassed if they make a mistake while speaking English. Since English is seldom spoken outside of a classroom setting, many Taiwanese students can speak and understand spoken English only at a rudimentary level.
Course Content Requirements
At my university, teachers are given a lot of freedom to personally decide which books they want to use, how many quizzes or tests they want to give, and whether students should pass or fail. All this freedom, nonetheless, does not mean we are not held to any standards. At the end of each semester, students in my department are given an opportunity to anonymously write comments about their teachers. This feedback can be a reason that a teacher may receive an overall unsatisfactory score when being evaluated.
One thing which has recently and significantly changed at my university is the way in which our teachers are evaluated. We are judged in 3 particular areas: teaching, research, and service. For teaching, in addition to the previously mentioned student’s comments playing a role in a teacher’s overall evaluation, we can lose points if we fail to upload a syllabus for each class online, if we do not turn in grades by a deadline, or if we are unable to meet our minimum required teaching hours in a semester, etc. We also get evaluated in the areas of service, which can be anything that a teacher does, excluding teaching or publishing papers, which has a positive impact upon the school. An example of “service” is being a committee member, serving as a judge for a speech contest, or supervising a student club.
These evaluations are conducted every 3 to 4 years. If a teacher fails repeatedly to earn a certain number of points, he or she could ultimately lose their teaching position, so teachers do take the evaluations very seriously.
Future Outlook for Taiwan
Things have definitely changed in Taiwan over the many years that I have been here. Similar to what is happening in many other places all over the world, the price for food, consumer goods, and property values have all increased. Furthermore, government officials have expressed concern about the decreasing birth rate, and the potential negative impact this will have on the future of Taiwan’s educational system. What has stayed the same are the people. They are still the same friendly and compassionate folks whom I met over 15 years ago. They are quick to welcome visitors to this country with open arms, and that is not likely to change anytime soon. All in all, when it comes to Taiwan, I guess the old saying is true: the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Would you like to live and work in a country where the locals are friendly, the crime rate is low, and there are lots of interesting things to see and do? Then, Taiwan is a good place for you to consider visiting. But be careful if you do come here, because you may find yourself never wanting to leave!
Ministry of Foreign Affairs: http://www.mofa.gov.tw/en/default.html
Living in Taiwan: http://iff.immigration.gov.tw/mp.asp?mp=iff_en
Teaching English in Taiwan: http://www.tealit.com/