Teaching in Taiwan is something I often get asked about by people who are thinking about making the move and starting a new career on the island. What I always emphasise is that everyone’s experience of teaching in Taiwan is different – variables such as school and branch, workload, location, personality and whether you’re going solo or as a couple can be make or break. I’m interviewing different teachers in Taiwan to find out their thoughts on island life, ESL teaching and travelling. This interview is part of the Teaching in Taiwan series.
Like Katie and Ryan, Luke and I first met Danny and Stephanie during teacher training in Taipei. We radiated to them really quickly because like us they were a little more reserved about the whole thing. By the end of the week, we were pretty disappointed to hear that they were going to be placed in a school in Hscinchu – the opposite side of the island to where we were going to be. Taiwan’s mountainous middle means that when we wanted to meet up for the weekends, we had to do a long journey through Taipei to get to the other side. It was worth it though. We had a couple of awesome trips to visit them, including a scooter trip to Rainbow Village. Not to mention that they make really good French toast.
Hey Danny, can you introduce yourself and Stephanie?
Sure, I’m Danny, I’m from Georgia in the US. I enjoy playing video games, reading, going on bike rides, board games, hiking, and drinking beer. My partner Stephanie and I came out to Taiwan together to teach. We currently live in Kaohsiung City, Lingya District, and previously lived in Zhubei City, Hsinchu.
Why did you decide you guys decide to teach English? Any why Taiwan?
I decided to teach English in Taiwan because it sounded interesting and different. I was tired of the grind at home and teaching abroad sounded like a good opportunity. I had heard some good things from my then-boss who had friends that taught in Taiwan, China, and Turkey. Stephanie and I emailed them and asked where they recommended starting out, and they recommended Taiwan.
Was it easy to find a job teaching in Taiwan when you were starting out?
We looked around on the internet about getting teaching jobs, and most recommended an ESL teaching certificate of some kind (which we both lacked). The people who recommended Taiwan started out with HESS, so we checked out the company and liked what we saw. They provided the most for those just starting out teaching with no previous experience. We haven’t changed teaching jobs since being here, mostly because our jobs are stable and we’ve become accustomed to it. I have to say though, with a little forethought and more detailed advice from someone experienced, we probably could have taught with another company.
Is teaching in Taiwan how you expected it to be?
I honestly had no expectations about teaching in Taiwan. It wasn’t until we got here and heard anecdotes from our trainers that I had an idea, but even that was different since every area and every school varies. Education in Taiwan is quite different from the education I grew up with, but having no preconception of it I can only take it at face value.
What are your students like?
I’ve had students from 3 years old all the way to senior high school age, and of many different capabilities. The majority of my students are eager to learn and to do so in a fun environment. Some are just there because they need somewhere to go after school, but only a very small portion of them straight up think English is a waste of time. Overall my students have been great. I’ve had some absolutely fantastic classes where the kids blew me away with their talent and desire to learn, and some classes that started out as a challenge but ended up being really rewarding for all of us because the students started pushing themselves. The Taiwanese education system is a bit hard on the kids, so it’s nice to see them enjoy the challenge of a new language.
What challenges have you faced, as a foreigner or otherwise, inside and outside of the workplace?
I try not to sweat the small stuff, and honestly that’s what I think the biggest challenge is. Lots and lots of small things that can be frustrating. Difficulty communicating simple ideas with the 7-11 clerk, not knowing which dentist to go to, accidentally parking in a tow-zone because you can’t read the signs, it’s all a learning process and it DOES get better.
And how’s your Chinese?
Danny: My Chinese is pretty limited to ordering food and numbers, but I understand it better than I speak it.
Stephanie: My Chinese level is good enough to manage everyday life situations such as ordering food, asking for directions, renting an apartment, chatting with friends etc. I take regular Mandarin classes.
How does learning Mandarin fit in with your work schedule, Stephanie?
When I first arrived here I didn’t have a chance to study for the first year. There was no time in between learning how to teach English, grading homework, and dealing with the stress associated with initial culture shock. After my first year, I asked my boss if I could reduce my hours to take an intensive Mandarin class at a local university Monday-Friday 15 hours a week in the mornings.
Starting out studying like this, was a little stressful at first and I was always tired, but it really gave me the jump start into the language that I needed. So my usual schedule is going to class in the mornings, teaching in the afternoons and evenings, and finally writing homework and reviewing at night or on the weekends. Now, this kind of work and study schedule choice would not be possible without Danny helping to either cook dinner or buy food for us on his way home, along with him keeping me sane when I’ve over done the studying bit.
But there are much less intensive ways to learn the language, you just need to do some research to find out the best way, whether it is going to classes, having a private tutor a few times a week, or doing a language exchange. Although the language exchange option seems to be the most attractive to people who first arrive in Taiwan because it is free, most people don’t know how to teach their native language and they won’t know where to start teaching you. It is best to start by taking a class, having a tutor, or using one of the many apps or online study programs. Once your language level is past the beginning stages you can start to look for a language exchange partner.
What do you love about living in Taiwan?
First off, I love the food. Night market food is delicious and cheap, and even local buffets have better “Chinese” food than anything I’ve ever had back home. Second is the size of the island. It seems to be perfect for weekend adventures, as well as longer vacations, to some really gorgeous areas. I think our trip across the Northern Cross Island Highway was one of the most spectacular sights I’ve seen, not to mention Taroko Gorge. Third, the friendly people. Just about everyone will help you out if you’re in need. Everyone is polite and has each others’ backs.
What drives you crazy about living in Taiwan?
People’s driving habits can be frustrating. It used to make me insane thinking how unsafe people were on the road, but you get used to it and just figure out how to keep yourself safe.
Have you had the opportunity to travel much in Taiwan or in the rest of Asia?
We traveled to China for almost 2 weeks during some work vacation time. Our favourite places there were Zhangjiajie, Yangshuo, Fenghuang, and Hong Kong (basically all the places we visited).
What are your favourite things to do in Taiwan?
In summer, we like to go swimming in cold springs and waterfalls up in the mountains. The scooter trips there are gorgeous and the cold mountain water feels great to swim in during the ridiculous summer heat. In winter, we just go visit whatever we feel like. If it’s rainy we might hit up something indoor themed, but if it isn’t it’s the perfect time to go hiking up in the mountains.
What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about teaching in Taiwan?
It’s worth it to figure out what you want before you come. Do you want to work with a company that holds your hand through the process? Go for it, there are several. Do you want to be left alone, have less responsibility, and have more free time for foreign land adventures? You can do that also, you just have to look a little bit, and may need to work between or substitute for several schools. Lots of people do both, moving to other schools once they have a handle on things.
Decide if you’re going to want to drive a scooter, a bike, or just walking and taking public transportation. The kind of city you live in will dictate which works best. Find someplace that suits you before you set out. If you need things to do most nights with restaurants open late and bars and clubs and stuff you shouldn’t move to rural Nantou.
Looking back I was very nervous about teaching for the first time, but after a couple years I’m much more confident and feel I could teach at any of the buxibans. Finding an apartment seemed monumental those first couple weeks too, but moving to a new city taught me that it can be done by a foreigner, you just need to do some research.
If you have any questions about studying Mandarin while teaching in Taiwan or living in Hsinchu, just ask in the comments below.
Did you enjoy this interview? Look out for more interviews with ESL teachers in Taiwan as part of the Teaching in Taiwan series.