I wrote the original version of this article in 2005 in order to share some of my experiences working as a foreigner teaching English in Taiwan. Since that time, I’ve taught at a wider variety of schools, designed a curriculum, done sales, managed and then later run a school as a 50% partner. Now that I have moved on from life in Taiwan and EFL, it’s time to share what I can to make the journey a bit easier for the current crop of foreigners moving to Taiwan. That way maybe they won’t have the same bumpy ride I did.

Are you here mostly to make money?

If your main reason for coming to Taiwan was to learn Chinese then obviously you won’t have the same goals as you would if you just finished liberal arts degree and came over here to pay off massive college loans. The same would be true if you came here to get to know your grandparents who didn’t move to immigrate to California with the rest of your family, or if you came because you’ve seen a TV show in Canada that made you want to teach in Taiwan.

I came to Taiwan with the goal of learning Chinese really well. It was slow going at first, but I never gave up. Like many others, I ran out of funds and had to become an English teacher. Like many others, I started at

Big Chain Schools

There are a few really dominant buxibans, or cram schools, in Taiwan. The biggest bŭxíbān is Hess (何嘉仁). Close behind are Kojen, Giraffe (長頸鹿), and Joy (佳音). Sesame Street (芝麻街) isn’t the force that it once was, but they’re still around. Most foreigners start out at one of these schools, and more than half leave within the first year. All of these schools are pretty similar.

Curriculum

They all have a decent curriculum despite some occasional English errors. On the whole, I’d say they’ve improved a fair amount in the past decade. For example, Hess books used to confuse the past participle “gotten” with the past tense form “got”. It would be ok if they were teaching British English, but they claim to be teaching American English (美語). As a north American, I can say it used to sound really weird when kids said things like, “He has already got back from the store.” After having spent most my adult life in Asia and having gotten a lot of exposure to people from England and the commonwealth, it doesn’t so much any more. Aside from these kinds of minor issues, outright Taiwanese Chinglish errors show up in texts from time to time, too. I’ll never forget the time I had at Joy English school when we came across the common Taiwanese mistaken translation of “toast”. According to their books, once bread is sliced, it’s toast. The idea of actually toasting it was alien… and worse yet since the kids had been misinformed by their local teacher, they didn’t believe me when I told them what toast actually means to English speakers! I also remember another mistake in a book for a GEPT prep class that had some passage about a bird escaping its cage during a birthday and “creating a small chaos”. Obviously this passage was not written by a native English speaker. One thing about the big chains is that they usually correct these kinds of mistakes within a couple of years. The problem is that the majority of their curriculum designers are Taiwanese natives who have majored in English. Unfortunately the correlation between a degree and a person’s ability in a foreign language are slim. A P.H.D. in the hands of someone who grew up speaking Chinese rarely means that they can write better ESL materials than native speakers could. So, while the curriculum mistakes are corrected as they’re found, there’s also steady stream of new Chinglish-ridden materials coming from the main office.

Errors aside, a lot of the materials are entertaining and well grounded in teaching the kinds of English that Taiwanese children will be able to relate to. I would love to see more reading as opposed to brute force vocabulary memorization. Unfortunately, most schools expect perfect spelling skills just as soon as students have reading comprehension of a given word.

Teaching Methods

This is the real weakness of the big chain schools. Every single one pushes the “100% English” method, which involves having “real foreigners” (with blond hair and everything) speak nothing but English, flapping their arms to communicate the word “chicken”, and giving dramatic renditions of the actions of “crying”, and “sleeping” if necessary. This method of teaching was very popular amongst linguists about 40 years ago. However, due to very poor results, it has long since been dropped by L2 acquisition linguists. Modern research shows that other methods such as Massive Comprehensible Input are much more effective. The key word here, is comprehensible. By denying teachers the option of using the children’s native language to explain things, the children will either require more time to learn the same material, cover it as quickly but with much worse understanding, or worst of all misunderstand it. Naturally, enforcing homework, inspiring the class and pronunciation coaching all suffer as well. I was responsible for giving entrance tests at a couple of my old schools, and I often saw children who had spent 4 hours a week for 4 years at a big chain school fail the skills we taught in the first 6 months. Sadly, most students who have invested a years of their lives, not to mention their parents’ money, are deficient in all sections of the exam: grammar, listening comprehension, spelling, phonics, and pronunciation.

Effectiveness of the teaching is only one factor amongst many in determining a school’s success.

Compensation

Most big chains pay about $600 per teaching hour. Usually, if you have 4 hours of paid work in a day, you’ll also have about 30 minutes to an hour of prep work to do, too. Sometimes there are Christmas parties and the such. The biggest schools usually pay for these, but some don’t. If you are interested in finding this sort of job, check out the listings at tealit.com.

Requirements

In my original writing of this article I said that “if you are white, under 40, eligible for a visa and not hideously deformed, all you have to do to get the job is show up for the interview”. This isn’t as true as it used to be in Taipei. Still, many teachers who have no experience at all a questionable grasp of their own language have few problems getting a job. Most schools prefer Americans, but a British accent won’t stop you from getting a job at any of the big schools or even very many of the smaller ones. After all, many South Africans are doing very well in Taiwan.

Can I still teach English in Taiwan if I’m an ABC?

If you are Asian-looking, you may encounter more difficulties at first… especially if you don’t know any Chinese at the beginning. I’ve had several friends in this situation. Take heart, though! Your Asian looks are a tremendous advantage if you want to learn Chinese. I can’t even begin to enumerate the times people ignored my near-fluent Mandarin and directed their replies to my non-Mandarin speaking ABC or even Japanese friends!

And it’s doubly advisable for you to learn Chinese. Once your Chinese is moderately good, you’ll be very employable not only as a bŭxíbān branch manager, but there will also be opportunities as a programmer, fitness trainer, sales rep, journalist or a number of other interesting jobs. I’ve had three Asian-looking foreign friends who were bŭxíbān managers, one who managed at California fitness, and two others who worked their way up at tech companies fairly quickly. Though you will face “reverse” racism as an English teacher, racism will be all in your favor once you make it into management. There is occasionally an odd phenomenon of locals who feel that ABCs are “arrogant” about speaking English, but I think that’s mostly sour-grapes and insecurity. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that ABCs, are at the top of the social ladder. You will be assumed to be more educated, cooler, etc… than other locals. It’s no co-incidence that many of Taiwan’s biggest stars grew up in California.

If you are black… all I can say is that you face an uphill battle. One of my friends from back home came here after completing a degree in linguistics. Despite being more qualified than I am, he had great difficulties in getting a job. It is possible, but you’ll really have to be the best at what you do and dress well to even get your foot in the door. That said, my manager at Modawei was black and he was loved by students and teachers both. Then again you might thrive. Warren, also at MDW, sure has.

Big Chain Kindergartens

In most ways these are about the same as the bŭxíbāns. The only difference is that you will probably have less prep time required of you, and you’ll have to do more special events like Christmas plays, etc…

Teaching Methods

The teaching methods are about the same as those in big chain bŭxíbāns, but usually with more singing, exercises, coloring and such. Actually most of the big chains run kindergartens in addition to their bŭxíbāns. There are a few big chains like Happy Marion (快樂瑪麗安) and Kid Castle that just do kindergarten.

Compensation

The pay is sometimes a little bit lower than it is for bŭxíbāns. $550-$600 starting is the norm.

Requirements

Kindergartens can be hard on the voice; make sure you take care of yourself. Also, don’t expect the kids to learn much. Just try to keep it fun for everyone. One other thing is that even at schools that don’t let you speak any Chinese, you’re better off if you can understand a bit. Otherwise you may find out that Chinese sentence the kid in front of you was saying wasn’t, “what’s that thing?” It meant, “Ughh…. I’m gonna puke all over you.”

Public High Schools

There is definitely a big variety in the English teaching jobs within the public school system. There isn’t much central planning, or if there is, it’s not effective. In theory only high schools can hire foreigners directly, but in practice many middle schools and a few elementary schools do too. At most schools there is only a very bare-bones curriculum and the teacher is left to his or her own devices. Speaking some Chinese is usually but not always tolerated. Classes usually have a HUGE variance in English proficiency. Some students are also attending bŭxíbāns, or did in the past. Those who haven’t are, naturally enough, way behind.

Compensation

At public schools, there is large variance in not only pay, but also in duties. Many schools require that you stay from 8:30 A.M. until 5:00 PM and grade tests, help the local teachers with their English, or perform other administrative duties. Usually the pay is a salary between $65,000 and $80,000 per month.

For Long-term Foreigners in Taiwan

Do you want to make $1.5 million (about $50 thousand USD) or more a year while only working part-time? Do you want to be on a career path that will allow you to open your own school and make still more while staying in Taiwan? Do you want your kids to really learn to speak English really well? If you’re willing to learn some Chinese and stay at the same school for a few years, there’s another kind of school where you can. I described it in this article.

As a caveat, I should point out that this is not easy. It takes hard work, and a time investment in training that most teachers aren’t willing to make. Once you get through that, though, it’s a pretty great gig to have.

Trends in the English Teaching Market in Taiwan

There are two trends that have made the EFL market much more competitive than it used to be. First of all, Taiwan has one of the lowest if not the lowest birth rate in the world. Last I checked it was 1.1 children per woman. Unsurprisingly, even public schools are merging classes and hiring fewer teachers. As the primary market for EFL in Taiwan has been children, the demand for EFL classes is down. At the same time, there are more westerners than ever living in Taiwan. It’s a wonderful place, people are nice, there’s health care, there are convenience stores on every block… more and more foreigners are deciding to settle down for good. Some are even trading in their original passports for shiny new Taiwanese ones! Since most foreigners in Taiwan don’t learn that much Chinese, their primary long-term jobs are either teaching or opening western style restaurants or bars. The supply of EFL classes is up.

This means that teaching jobs are harder to come by than they used to be. It’s still not difficult by any means, but just being a foreigner doesn’t yield the bargaining position that it did 10 years ago… or that it does for teaching in China now. When I moved to Taiwan at the end of 2002, it was probably the best place in Asia for a teacher to save money, along with Korea. Now it’s just the best place to live.



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