Happy holidays, those of you reading from the US! I’ve just had my first Thanksgiving in years, and also my first experience with a weird holiday called Black Friday. I actually didn’t know what that was until last year when my Swedish co-worker told me about it, surprised I didn’t know the holidays of my own country. I guess that’s what I get for moving abroad for a decade! It must have existed when I left, but it was much smaller then and I’m sure my home state of Colorado was far from the epicenter of the tradition.

One more thing about language learning

Speaking of focus, I hope some of you have already started to benefit from the language learning experiences and strategies I shared in the last newsletter. Language learning was one of my biggest hobbies in my twenties and definitely a major focus. One thing I didn’t mention was how important it was to believe that I could learn a foreign language.

All through high school, I took French classes. Even though I passed them, I didn’t really acquire any useful skills. I couldn’t understand French movies, I couldn’t understand Le Petit Prince, I couldn’t understand French people, and for that matter I didn’t even know any French people. Had I gone to Taiwan directly from that experience, I wouldn’t have gotten very far with my Chinese. What made all the difference in the world for me, was one of my girlfriends in college. She was a good language learner who had already learned Spanish well, and the two of us took an intensive Japanese course together. We studied together every day, and I had a chance to see first hand the kinds of strategies she used. With the moral support and extra motivation from working on it together, I ended up being the most successful student in the class except for her, and then making numerous Japanese friends at school and eventually completing a whole B.A. in Japanese in only two years. That win under my belt was invaluable when I got to Taiwan. I had all kinds of frustrations trying to differentiate Chinese tones, learning traditional Chinese characters and even just getting people to talk to me in Chinese instead of just practicing English with me. But I also knew I was capable of learning a foreign language… because I’d done it before.

Seeing great career opportunities

Thinking you can do something isn’t always a guarantee, but thinking you can’t reduces your odds of success sharply. I saw one of the saddest comments on my blog this month. It was off on my article titled The Lowdown on Teaching English in Taiwan. This is what he said:

“I can tell you the current situation in Taiwan is not good at all for Teaching jobs. I have 5 years teaching experience here. I have all the qualifications and speak Chinese at a conversation level. The bottom line is you will never save money here. I have seen people flying here expecting jobs leaving with nothing. Those jobs mentioned in the article are a fable legend or they have changed because of the economic and student situation. Coming off the plane your first year you will be lucky to get a job. Never, never expect to make over 1000nt its never going to happen probably ever. If you are lucky enough to get a job it will probably be 8-14 hours a week at the most 600nt per hour. YOu might as well work at mcdonalds. This article is out of date, do not read on the internet about teaching here its not a good place to teach at all. Good luck the truth even if its hard to swallow”

This commenter clearly felt frustrated by his 5 years of essentially working an entry-level job. None of his friends had ever worked at a school like mine or like those I’d worked at, and hadn’t ever had contact with that sort of English teaching environment. He didn’t believe it was possible to get that kind of job and figured that they had all been destroyed by changes in the market.

And that belief BLINDED him!

Since I’ve only been gone from Taiwan for 2 years and still have a ton of friends there, I knew things weren’t nearly that grim. In a cursory 2 minute search of a single classifieds board (Tealit.com), I found a job opening offering 900-1200NT/hr. Not only that, but it was Modawei, where I had worked before and written about on my blog! Literally all this guy would have had to do to find the opening was to take one look at the biggest English Teacher job board in Taiwan before sending me his depressing comment. He probably could have found the job just by googling what I read in the very blog he was on!

Of course I empathize with David. The better offers don’t stay open that long, but the truth is there are great opportunities showing up regularly, even on classified boards. (And sorry, that position I saw that day isn’t open anymore!) It’s hard to care. It’s hard to believe something you want is possible because that opens you up to rejection. I know from personal experience when I first got back to the US, the job hunt was driving me absolutely crazy. But the last thing you want to do is auto-disqualify yourself. If you believe the thing you want is only a myth, then you’ll be blind to the things you’d have to notice to make it your reality.

Of course the “apex teaching jobs” as I call them are all more work to find, harder to get into and take more training than the jobs anyone can get right off the plane. Other, bigger, opportunities such as opening your own school have even higher barriers to entry. But unless they’re recruiters for a school, people who are telling you about the better EFL careers are generally doing it out of a genuine desire to be helpful. I wanted to at least.

Why I started blogging about teaching way back when

When I first started my blog, in 2005, I’d just emerged from two years of work similar to David’s and I was thrilled to find so much better of an option for longer-term teachers! Not only that, but I hoped that as more foreigners got drawn to the better schools, they’d be building the skills to make those schools successful and gain market-share against the incumbent English schools in Taiwan. I also wanted to promote extensive reading. I’d read a ton research about its benefits for language learners and hadn’t seen a single schooling using it. It was just this side of heartbreaking to see so many Taiwanese parents spend so much money and so many kids to spend so much time for so little in terms of tangible benefits. I wanted to see the market change and for hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese kids to be learning better English as a result. I know it sounds a bit far fetched, but that was my dream when I started blogging.

And rigorous foreign-run schools like my old one have been proliferating all over northern Taiwan in the past few years… and nearly all of them have started incorporating extensive reading into their curriculums. When I was an employee at Modawei, my ideas didn’t get very far. I was a trainee, and they had a conservative culture. But I won over some of my old co-workers with my passion, my blogging and a steady stream of research papers and TEFL journals. After I left to go to the next school some of my old co-workers started becoming managers and started using extensive reading materials! After I was co-owner of a school, even more people started paying attention. I think it’s fair to say that my blog and my work changed the conversation for foreign English teachers in Taiwan, especially in Taipei. And yes, I did profit from my work. But that was hardly the main motivation. At no point did I earn what someone putting in a similar level of effort would have in the US… or in a lot of other fields. I only had a fraction of the impact I’d aimed for. But NONE of it would have happened if I’d just said, “Well I’m just a trainee and I can’t really prove my ideas about language teaching to management and the market can’t be changed anyway.”

If you’re really passionate about something, that intensity can take you a long way. Even if you’re not truly passionate about something, but you feel stuck and you really just want to make progress, you owe it to yourself to believe what you want is more than a “myth”.

A lot of people are happy to help

If you’re one of those readers still stuck at the 600NT/hr in Taiwan (or 100RBM/hr in China or 240,000yen/month in Japan) and you don’t know how to get something better, ask people! Unfortunately, I get a pretty crushing amount of email due to my blog and can’t help everyone, but there are many, many others who are more than willing to share advice. Your network of friends’ friends is probably the most trusted source, but even asking people on a forum, such as Forumosa or Dave’s ESL Cafe is easy and often pays off.

Probably the number one thing I was thankful for on Thanksgiving is all of kindness I’ve received from strangers over the years. Sometimes those strangers have even become good friends!