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.
We met Tanya and her partner Luke much later on during our time in Taiwan. They’re long-term expats and fast became some of our closest friends out there – we only wish we’d met them sooner. When their housing contract came to a sudden end, only a few weeks after meeting each other, we invited them to move in with us. Our apartment was pretty small but they made the most of our crummy spare room and when we moved out a couple of months later, they moved in full time. They’re the ones who introduced us to Settlers of Catan and who taught me that apple and quinoa is a great salad combo. Living with them was awesome and we can’t imagine another couple that we’d rather have spent our time with in Taiwan.
Hey Tanya, can you tell us a bit about your background and why you started teaching abroad?
Hey! I was born and raised in Massachusetts in the United States. I left the US in the summer of 2011 to see if I might want to pursue a career in teaching, to escape American politics for a little while, and to satisfy my interest in travel and culture. That interest in culture is complemented by my enthusiasm for food and cooking.
Where in Taiwan do you live?
I live in the heart of a convenient, friendly, dynamic township called Luodong in Yilan County, which sits on the northeast coast of Taiwan. Yilan is considered the “rain capital” of Taiwan as it rains very regularly through about 5 months of winter, but in the summer, we get enough sunshine and fun to make up for it.
Would you ever think about relocating?
Of course I would! I’m always open to new opportunities. But right now, it’s hard to imagine leaving. Our life here is considerably carefree, safe, convenient, and full of leisure and adventure. We’ve got a decent strategy to cope with the rain, so maintaining wellness and joy is pretty easy for us here.
You originally worked as an ESL teach in Korea, how did you decide to make the move to start teaching in Taiwan?
I had had a curiosity about Taiwan ever since a Taiwanese classmate wrote a paper on Taiwan’s national identity and it had been my first choice to teach ESL abroad. But I was accepted into a program in Korea that was very secure and financially attractive so I ended up choosing that unexpected road. I learned a lot from my time in Korea, but I had visited Taiwan about halfway through my first year there. After a mere 10-day visit, I could feel all the ways in which Taiwan was unique in Asia. I noticed a friendliness, a curiosity, and an overall desire to live happily and well. I was so pleasantly surprised and knew I had to explore it deeper! For me, Taiwan, though hardly perfect, is unique in all the right ways; but I wouldn’t know that without the perspective I gained in Korea.
Was it easy to find a teaching job in Taiwan?
Before arriving, I had joined many teacher’s and social groups on Facebook and read extensively through the online forums and websites such as Forumosa.com and Taiwanease.com. Unlike a number of teachers, I came to Taiwan before getting a job.
I expected difficulty in finding a good job here though, so I landed very prepared. I knew the area I wanted to focus my job search in, arrived with resumes printed, procured a health check from the hospital immediately upon arriving so I could apply for a work visa as soon as I found a school to work with, and had even mapped out schools in my target area because I knew that the buxibans (cram schools) would often be located nearby. I had made connections with people in Taiwan via Facebook before even arriving and timed my arrival a few weeks before the start of the fall semester.
All of this served me well and I was subbing within a week of landing and found a satisfactory school to sponsor my work permit a few weeks later. I stayed at that school for about two years slowly transitioning to another school. Private tutoring, though not permitted, is another, rather gratifying, form of work here and can provide valuable supplementary income when teaching hours are not enough. More on all of this later!
What were your expectations about teaching in Taiwan? How do they compare to the reality of teaching?
One thing I had not expected was to have vastly different levels in the same class. It can make all the difference in the world and it’s a daily challenge. I did not expect to have students who couldn’t fully recite the alphabet in the same class with students who could speak with ease and structure about a wide variety of topics. If you slow down for those behind, the advanced students get bored and are deprived of learning at their best potential. If you keep up with the faster students, everyone’s time, energy, and resources are wasted on students that are too confused, discouraged, or embarrassed to learn a single thing.
Learning how to reconcile different ability levels in the same class has really pushed my creativity and flexibility as a teacher. In many schools, the teacher is in the difficult position of fulfilling the management’s curriculum, producing visible progress for the parents, and catering to each students very unique needs. Even with adults and small groups of private students, this issue is daily challenge.
I have pretty progressive ideas about education and Taiwan has relatively traditional ones. Students are in school for very long hours from a very young age, there is tons of homework, and non-stop quizzing and testing. A benefit of this vigorous academic culture is that many students take their studies very seriously and teachers are fairly respected, but a disadvantage is that it is not a fun, creative, interesting process for them. Many teachers, including myself, struggle at least internally with this dichotomy and the clash between Eastern and Western approaches toward learning.
I think that a lot of teachers in Taiwan face similar challenges, and I know I certainly did. Can you tell us more about your students and how you have transitioned as a teacher?
When I taught at a typical cram school, my students were usually about 9, and their enthusiasm for learning matched my ability to keep the lessons engaging. At that age, you see progress weekly or even daily so it’s very rewarding. However, class management and the process of continual creative problem-solving was totally exhausting. The management at this upscale cram school was rather demanding and, I’m sorry to admit, rather negative. After three years (including that first in Korea) of giving my best to elementary and middle school students, I was pretty burnt out.
Now I teach conversation classes to a wide range of students – unemployed and professional adults, retirees, college and high school students. There are no tests or homework. There is no curriculum and no pressure from management or parents. Therefore, despite their individual insecurities and the wide range of abilities, most of my students join this school with a sincere desire to improve their English. It can be very difficult for them to leave the comfort zone of silence and get creative and communicative using English, but I do my best to make them feel safe and encouraged.
I am blessed that my private tuition students (usually high school age, intermediate or advanced) have had a sincere interest in learning and improving their English. That highly personal environment has allowed me to cater specifically to their needs and personalities and, while it requires a lot of custom work and preparation for each student, it is so very enjoyable and rewarding for both the students and myself that it hardly feels like “work” at all.
Aside from teaching, what’s your day-to-day experience of being a foreigner in Taiwan like?
As a younger, white, female foreigner, I am generally extremely well-received. I enjoy a particular degree of undeserved privilege that surely sugar-coats my experience. Despite this, I would still maintain that these are some of the friendliest, most generous and helpful people on earth. There are all kinds of Taiwanese people and it’s a relatively diverse country in Asia. But around every corner is a stranger or a friend who will give you an umbrella, help you with your order, take you to your destination, share a piece of fruit, or welcome you into their home. Learning about Taiwan’s unique history, and meeting such a fantastic range of people as I have, is absolutely my favorite part about living here.
I totally agree that the Taiwanese are incredible people! What else do you love about life in Taiwan?
I also love: the low cost of living, the fruit, the convenience and accessibility of getting around (walking, scooters, and phenomenal public transportation), vegetarian buffets and hot pots, going to the beach in November and March, and occasional institutional flexibility (for example, no fees or shut-off electricity if you pay your bills late, forgiveness for policy misunderstandings, and leniency in special circumstances).
I bet I can guess, but anything that drives you crazy about living in Taiwan?
The driving! I could absolutely talk at length about this subject but I can summarize it like this: there’s a desperate need for defensive driving training, more practical driver’s education, and an absolute need for consistent, on-road enforcement of traffic laws. Some people like to quip that the poor driving here can’t compare to that of countries like India or Cambodia – and to that I will say that while that is likely true, I live here and I love this country, and I expect better of it from such otherwise intelligent, patient, considerate, safe people. Why should the potentially deadly and universally stressful matter of driving be an exception?
Have you had the opportunity to travel much in Taiwan or in the rest of Asia?
I’ve travelled within my county extensively, pretty thoroughly in the north and east of Taiwan, and somewhat throughout the rest of it. Despite it’s small size, Taiwan is wonderfully diverse in my eyes. Every city feels different to me.
I’m not working enough to make a lot of extra cash teaching in Taiwan so there’s not too much money for me to travel internationally on this side of the world. I’ve visited the Philippines and Malaysian Borneo, and I plan to visit Indonesia. The Philippines is probably the most accessible from Taiwan (apart from Hong Kong & Macau). Most everyone I know here has visited the Philippines.
What are your favourite things to do in Taiwan, especially in rainy Yilan county?
Yilan County is a rainy one in the winter months. Knowing that, I brought board games as a fun, cheap, social activity and we play a lot of Settlers of Catan. I also like to cook and do puzzles, and visit the local hot springs (both wild and man-made). Summer is an adventurer’s playtime in Yilan. I love hanging out at our local sports park, going river trekking, hiking, visiting waterfalls, snorkelling, biking our miles of interconnected bike paths, camping, surfing, hanging out at the beach (camp fires at night), and swimming in the bioluminescent waters on hot summer nights. Life is good here in the summer. But, shhh…. don’t tell anyone!! ;)
What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about teaching English in Taiwan?
This advice applies to anyone, anywhere, but I would say it’s absolutely essential to have a community – people with shared interests, or shared, ethics, or shared sense of humor or just people you connect with that add a sense of solidarity. You can be happy anywhere in the world if you have that. You can tolerate the worst job if you like the people you work with and can commiserate together. Community is key. Partially to enrich your life, but particularly to get you through the tough times that are a natural part of life, anywhere.
Thankfully, Meetup, online forums and especially Facebook make that easier than ever. We met Charlie and Luke through their old travel blog for instance. Facebook is FULL of ALL kinds of groups and events in Taiwan. Swing dancing, game playing, rock climbing, Amnesty International, dog walking, theatre, Ultimate Frisbee, vegan potlucks, basketball games, conversations about death – it’s all here.
When it comes to teaching in Taiwan, my advice is to take classroom management seriously from the start to avoid problems down the road, and remember that you can’t change your students, you can only change yourself. If, for example, your students don’t seem enthused by English, try to remind yourself that wishing that they were or lecturing or demanding that they pay attention won’t get you far. You’ll get further if you approach it by asking yourself what you can possibly do differently. Otherwise, you’ll be banging your head against a brick wall.
Luke and Tanya were also featured in a video from the Taiwan Toursim Bureau about travelling in Taiwan.
If you have any questions about living as an expat in Taiwan long-term or want to hear more about beautiful Yilan county where Luke and Tanya live, ask in the comments!
Did you enjoy this interview? Look out for more interviews with ESL teachers in Taiwan as part of the Teaching in Taiwan interview series.