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Teaching in Taiwan

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Confucius said: “The superior man makes the difficulty to be overcome his first interest; success only comes later.”

In the Wild West (and probably in many other rural places ages ago) I think the dentist was like a travelling salesman. You waited till he showed up in the town and then everyone queued to have a turn. That meant he had to bring his ‘stuff’ with him. The ‘stuff’ was only the essentials and what he could comfortably carry. Those essentials probably fitted into a case that was sturdy and could be carried easily. In every town or village someone would kindly offer him the use of a room that is not used daily, like the science classroom at the local school. There would be a table to place the all important case, a stool for him to sit on and a low chair for the patient. There would be two buckets for his use. One would be placed between the legs of the patient for the patient to spit into. The first patient would be the lucky one, all the others would be doing themselves a favour by keeping their eyes closed when they spit. One of the apparatus from the case needs to drain so the drain-tube is then inserted into the other bucket. The tube is secured to the patient’s chair with a piece of string to keep it from slipping out of the bucket when the apparatus is used vigorously by the dentist. With his wagon unload and horses grazing on the common, the dentist was open for business. 

You think this a scene from the Wild West or many small towns about 100 years ago? Yes? You are so wrong!! I have just described my first visit to the dentist in my rural village in Tainan in 2019!! Only difference is a Toyota has replaced the horses.

About two weeks ago at lunch I felt something in my mouth that should not be there. A tooth had broken. 

Initially I panicked and wanted as much information as possible, about what to do now, before the pain set in and turned me into a monster. The school nurse looked at my tooth and asked if there was pain. Then she proceeded to talk to everyone around about my situation, in Chinese. A long discussion followed with everyone giving their opinions and advice – in Chinese. Well by the time the group discussion came to a conclusion I had realised I will be pain-free through this ordeal. So I started to relax. The nurse took me to the English teacher and asked the English teacher to take me to a dentist in the next town, on her way home that afternoon. 

Hours later we walk into the dentist’s room and he takes one look at the foreigner and waves us out before we even said hello. The English teacher says she thinks he does not speak English so does not want to deal with me. I assure the English teacher I will be fine and I take the next bus back to my village. 

Next day, at Nanhua school, where I live on the campus, I ask advice again. The English teacher, a no-nonsense man, says there is a dentist who comes to the school on a Thursday morning and I can see him. I just have to bring along my medical insurance card. Back in my office I tell my tale and plans to the teachers in my office and again a discussion follows with phone calls being made, in Chinese. The conclusion is: avoid the dentist who comes to school because the students say he is not gentle. They tell me wait till next Friday at 9am, go to the local clinic and see the dentists who come from the Medical University, it’s also fee of charge and open to all the locals. So that was my, reluctant, first option. Reluctant, because on a Friday I have a very busy teaching day. So in my mind I make a mental note to talk to my superior about being late for school the following Friday and I totally forget to tell the English teacher in Nanhua about my new decision. 

Thursday morning, at about 10am I get called to the dentist’s station. The English teacher had made all the arrangements on my behalf so there is nothing to do but go to the not-so-gentle-dentist. His verdict leaves me elated: No big deal but come next Thursday morning 7:30 because it is a long process and he had to leave for another school. He spends about three hours at a school per day then he packs up all his stuff and moves to the next school in the district. 

So today was the day. A beautiful sunny day after about a week of rain and grey days. I wake early and immediately pick up the book I’m reading that I had reluctantly put down last night. I loose track of time and next moment I hear someone calling at my door. I open the door still in my pjs and find the dentist’s assistant telling me they are waiting for me. Well, I stripped out of pjs into the first clothes I touched all the while brushing my teeth. Three minutes later I’m in the chair, apologising. 

The procedure was to remove the filling in that tooth, replace it with a the new filling that would form the side of the tooth that had chipped away. No need for an injection and the whole procedure went smoothly and pain free. And the name: ‘not-so-gentle-dentist’ well, that is somebody’s opinion, it’s not a fact.  

Brave little Angela seeing the dentist at her elementary school

The science classroom serves as makeshift dentist room. See the red bucket between the student’s feet.

Should science stand back for culture?         

I have lived in several countries and not all western. I have lived in Saudi Arabia and that is as far from the average western culture as you can get. I have been in Taiwan for three years and I love the country and the people. I love my students to bits. I have been made to feel part of this rural community I’m living in and I’m always treated with respect. I always see myself as a guest in another country and I do not try to change people or influence them and the way they live their lives at all. In fact I’m the first to ask why my students and fellow teachers do not take part in the many temple ceremonies one often sees in our village. I have never been in a situation where my personal believe (my culture) has had such a clash with the foreign culture in which I live. Here is a totally new experience for me. 

The agency that has employed me has regular training sessions and yesterday about 25 NESTs (native English speaking teachers) from about 10 countries, all deployed around the greater Taiwan area, got together again. Our speaker was a very dynamic Canadian teacher who has been a teacher in Taiwan for 18 years. During the break in our training session he heard me tell a fellow teacher about an incident in my class a few weeks ago.  

Here is the incident: Gary was wearing a T-shirt with the following words on  I can do anything. Gary and his classmates really battle with learning and in particular with English. So I decided to use Gary’s T-shirt to start the lesson. First they had to figure out what it means, then I said to him “you cannot wear something like that if you do not believe the message you are spreading”. The whole class got it and at the end of that lesson I was just amazed at how hard they all tried and the progress we made in that lesson. Then I went on to say that since that day I try to give them little motivational talks to encourage them to believe in their abilities. The fellow teacher I was talking to tells how his students react when he congratulates them on getting more than 90%. He says things like well done and good job. To which his students always react with “No, teacher, not good.” 

After the break when everyone was seated again, the speaker filled the group in on the gist of our conversation and then told the group that we must remember the expression: Praise the deed, not the person. To praise the person is the western way of doing it, it’s not the way it’s done in Taiwan. He said all this in a way that did not encourage any discussion on this topic so it ended there. In my mind it started a debate which I would love to have with some Taiwanese. 

I am not into New Age airy fairy power of positive thinking stuff. Not at all. I have been reading neuroscientist Dr Caroline Leaf’s books about her research and findings about how the mind and brain works. She provides facts and scientific evidence that we can control our minds and that will lead to our brains functioning differently. It can lead to physical changes in our brains. So what our minds tell our brains will have a positive or a negative manifestation in our lives. (This is my version. It’s best if you find her books and read more to get a better grasp on this complex subject.)

I have been putting Leaf’s advice to practice over the past about 10 years and I can see positive changes in my life. I’m not a missionary or an agent for Leaf and I do not go around preaching her knowledge. When I do encounter a friend who is fighting a battle I will share what I know and have experienced with him / her. 

Now, lets go back to the school situation. I would estimate that about 30% of the students I teach are from “a normal” home. That is a home where there are 2 parents, regular and a sufficient income to provide good food and pay for extra lessons at cram schools, where the family encourage the students to work hard. The majority have divorced parents. In Taiwan when parents divorce the courts usually (95%) grants the father custody of the children. There are exceptions to this rule but in many cases the father just dumps the children on his parents while he works and lives in a city, or they do live with him but he could not care less about the kids. There is 1 boy who brings his dirty clothes to school and under the teacher’s supervision he washes it at school or else he would never have clean clothes. Many fathers are heavy drinkers and drug addicts. Some of our student’s fathers are in prison because of drug related issues. I’m sure you get my drift. My students do not have model parents. One little girl who comes from such a home and gets remedial teaching organised by the school to help her and her brother get on par with their classmates recently told a friend that one day she will be president of Taiwan. That was repeated to her teacher and that was a joke going around in the staffroom. I was horrified, thinking we should be encouraging her, not making fun of her. My students also do not have model teachers, but yesterday I discovered it’s a cultural thing: stay humble and do not dream big. 

Now back to my debate. If science tells us we can teach a child from a deprived background (a western concept) skills to help him / her to motivate themselves, skills that will help them believe they can do anything they set their minds to. When they are taking small steps and they can see for themselves how it works in their lives and environment – are we not saving a life here. We will be breaking that poverty cycle of “my grandparents were these small farmers, and so was my dad and that’s what I will be too. I can’t wait for the day us three men, three generations, will be sitting next to each other in our dirty old clothes looking over our rice paddy, chewing bettle nuts and smoking”.  If that same boy who is very good at basketball is encouraged to aim for an MBA team in the USA, he will probably not make it that far, but even if he just reaches the Taiwan National Team as a reserve, it would have changed his life and those of his immediate family for the better. 

Yesterday I was reprimanded, in a nice way, and told to change my thinking and stick with the local culture. Here is an interesting thing. Confucius, although he was Chinese and not Taiwanese, is still revered in Taiwan. We take our students to the temple that was built in his honour and they know about this great man. He said “The man who thinks he can, and the man who thinks he can’t… They are both correct”. Is he not saying what Dr Leaf has given us proof of? And what I want to tell my students: if you think you can, if you believe it, then you can, and you will succeed if you also do the hard work etc etc. 

I’m still left wondering what should take preference here? Culture or science?

How do you stop yourself from grabbing those two in a bear hug and telling them you are so proud of them and that they were amazing in the race they just completed?

Students paying their respects to Confucius at the Confucius Temple in Tainan


The entrance to the Confucius Temple in Tainan

Are you ready to do what I do – travelling the world but earning a salary as an English teacher as I go along? FET? NEST? Yes, that is the jargon here in Taiwan. FET: Foreign English Teacher or NEST: Native English Speaking Teacher. 

Here are some tips.

  1. Get accredited: If you already are a qualified / licensed teacher and you have not worked as a teacher in your home country for a long time the first thing to do is register with the national teaching authority. This is a document that says you have the qualifications. While you are dealing with bureaucracy get a Police Clearance Certificate / Criminal Background Check done too. You will be working with vulnerable children and in many countries they will not issue a work permit if you can not supply this document. 

2. Get qualified: 

Whether you are a qualified teacher or not next best thing to do is enrol for a TEFL  / TESOL /  CELTA course. This can be done in most cities around the world. I have a TEFL and it has served me well. Its usually a 2 or 3-week course. The first week is teaching you the basics of how to teach a foreign language. You will be given themes and at home prepare lessons for a class. Next day you will do that lesson in front of your peers / classmates and they will give feedback and discuss why things worked or not and how to make them work. 

The following week(s) you will be teaching actual students in real life situations. At the end of the course you will be given a certificate to say you did complete the TEFL course. You will also be given a TEFL report written by your lecturers stating how they observed you. 

For the purpose of applying for a TEFL job you need to submit both these documents with your application. So don’t laugh off the report. It is important. 

WHY should you do TEFL / TESOL / CELTA? Some countries / schools / language centres will only employ you if you have this qualification. Its easier to get a job with a TEFL / TESOL and the easiest yet is a CELTA. In many countries you can find a job teaching English at a language school with your only qualification that you are a native speaker or a fluent speaker of English. I think that is ok if you are young and don’t want to be tied down. I prefer to get a position at a government school or university with perks like a legal work permit, fixed contract for longer than a few months, paid holidays and medical insurance.

Most important reason I think is the confidence it gives you. You will be working in a foreign country and you may find yourself in an area where you are the only foreign teacher. The whole English programme at that school (or in my case, schools) depends on you. They expect you to supply the curriculum, the lesson plans, and they want to see the results. Often running to the local library for information leaves you facing a building full of books in a language you are not familiar with. You can also not rely on the local English teachers. Some will be very helpful, some are glad you are there so they can sit in the back of the class and sleep or play on their smart phones, others will be hostile (Why are you here? Am I not a good enough teacher?) At my 3 schools I have all of them.  

Not interested in teaching English: In Taiwan the government has started CLIL. Which basically means they want Taiwanese students to be instructed using the medium of English in every subject offered at schools. So if you are a biology, music, art, math etc major, you will be welcomed in Taiwan. You will teach your favourite subject in English to Taiwanese students alongside a Taiwanese teacher. 

3. Where to get qualified: When you start you Google search for TEFL courses you will have many options. I did mine in a city near where I lived at the time. It was convenient but afterwards I had to go out and find my own job. There is no problem with that. Its easy enough.

You also have the option of doing the course in a foreign country where the language school will help you find your first job. So choose a country you have always wanted to explore and can financially afford to live in for at least 2 or 3 months and enrol for your TEFL there. 

4. Am I too old? You are never too old to teach English in a foreign country. You may be too old to get a work permit in some countries, like in Saudi Arabia 60 years is the cut-off age and some Asian countries it in the 40’s. This applies for the government positions. The criteria for a work permit differs from country to country and even within a country it changes over years. Even when you do not qualify for a work permit there are legal ways to get around that problem without having to marry a local.

In most countries at language schools or language centres they will employ you as long as you can stand on your feet unaided. 

5. Where to find a job: There are several ways.

Google search: but be careful if a site wants you to pay for them to find you a job – that is a red flag. Stay away. I don’t think I exaggerate when I say most people find their jobs, or at least the first one, through Dave’s ESL Cafe. Dave’s Cafe sets the standard. Its also a useful site for advice, lessons, and just about everything an English teacher in foreign country would want and need. 

Networking: Those friends you made during the TEFL course, stay in touch. They may be employed and then asked if they could get one of their friends to also join the team. That question has often come my way. Stay in touch with your friends who are working in this industry. They will know when jobs come up or who you should talk to. 

Travel: Just arrive in the country you would like to work inwith a tourist visa, and go around to schools, language schools and language centres and ask about jobs. Soon enough you will be employed. After all the paperwork is done you may have to leave the country and come back in with your new visa / work permit. 

I’m very happy doing this job and I would encourage others to consider it. There will always be a need for a FET. In Taiwan right now there are hundreds of newly created and still vacant posts. 

Confucius says: We have two lives, and the second begins when we realise we only have one.

September 21 1999 was a horrible and tragic day in the Taiwan history. In the early hours of that morning, while most people will sleeping peacefully, the earth gave a shiver and an earthquake reading 7.3 on the Richter scale shook the centre of Taiwan awake. 12 911 aftershocks were recorded, on September 26 there was one that measured 6.8 on the Richter scale. 2 415 people were killed, 29 missing, 11 300 injured, 51 711 buildings were destroyed. 

Longlin Mountain Trail

Confucius said: Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.

This is one of several hiking trails on Monkey Mountain, the mountain that towers 660 m over the village Nanhua.  This one is a circular route of about 12km and easy to walk except for one section that is tricky. The tricky part is also where the most beautiful views are to be had over the valleys below. Like all the trails I have hiked so far this one also has a paved surface and steps, handrails and barriers where there could be any chance of an ignorant person slipping or falling. It is well sign-posted and regularly on the route there are huge boards showing the route and your position on the route.