What I’ve learned from blogging for an entire decade

Part 1: before the blog (you are here)
Part 2: meeting other bloggers
Part 3: how blogging helped me as an entrepreneur
Part 4: The biggest drawback to blogging


The first glimpse of a different life

When I was in college, blogging was new and exciting. As I was starting this site, other members of the Nintendo Generation were starting theirs, too. Some were like diaries, some were focused on personal interests many were mashups of both. I was enthralled by them. These blogs weren’t wooden news reports. They were often unfiltered and a closer look at what life was actually like for other people. One of the saddest parts of the growth of Facebook is that personal blogs have largely been subsumed by wall posts—nearly always a much less honest look at someone’s life.

I had become very interested in what it was like to live abroad. I couldn’t afford to and had actually chosen my school based on price. I desperately wanted to get out and experience life in a place different from where I’d grown up. It felt impossible at the time, but I knew that once I graduated I could go abroad to teach English. I’d heard that in some places, there was a tremendous demand for native English speakers and that with a language and literature degree I would definitely be able to find a job.

So I searched.

Google returned many links to blogs of Americans about my age who were studying or teaching abroad. I became a fan of one called A Better Tomorrow. It had Chow Yun Fat images in the banner and was written by a Swarthmore student studying in China. His Chinese was at a level I could only dream of and his stories of traveling around China were amazing! Another one called Sinosplice was written by an English teacher in China who had previously lived in Japan.

I read both with interest and started devouring everything I could find about language learning, language teaching and where to live. I decided to go to Japan if I were accepted into the JET program. After being rejected, I chose Taiwan.

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Moving to Taiwan

I had a really hard time when I first got to Taiwan. I wanted to learn Chinese, but everyone else wanted to practice English. Further complicating things, Mandarin was the second language in Chiayi (嘉義), the city where I was living. There wasn’t a language school for foreigners either.

Additionally, I was only the second American at the English school where I was teaching and the Canadian teachers completely shunned the other American… and me. It was during the 2nd Iraq War, anti-American sentiments were strong amongst many Europeans and especially Canadians and I was surrounded by young, ideologically motivated Canadians who literally believed discriminating against Americans (or at least those who pay taxes) was the morally correct position. Yikes.

I did manage to win over some of my coworkers after a month or so, but still it wasn’t the right environment for me. I didn’t believe the school was that effective. I loved the city and how I bicycle everywhere and I loved how friendly people were, but I just wasn’t learning any Chinese or advancing my career.

Moving to Taipei

Taipei was like a different world. Even then, the MRT was amazing and the city was incredibly walkable. Everything cost 20% than I was used to, except housing which was at least triple. There were tons of schools for learning Chinese. It was a stretch to afford tuition on part-time work but I did it.

The teaching methods and materials are the subject of another post, but in the end I was able to make some good progress despite them. I credit the many language learning blogs I was reading at the time for giving me both the inspiration and the know-how to succeed in such a difficult environment back in the days before language learning podcasts or apps had arrived and we were all looking up Chinese characters by radicals and stroke order in paper dictionaries.

My learning was incredibly slow and I couldn’t afford to study every semester. I also wasn’t making any forward progress on the work front. I was doing a marginally better job of teaching my students, but at its core it was unskilled work and the structure of the curriculum and business prevented me or any foreign teachers from making significant improvements.

Choosing to invest in new skills

I realized my work was essentially a commodity. I might get a slightly better wage through negotiation or becoming a popular teacher, but I was a very easily replaceable cog in a huge machine. There wasn’t much possibility of advancement either—to best of my knowledge the company didn’t tend to promote non-ethnically Chinese people.

The best opportunity I saw was to gain more skills that would make it possible for me to land a much better paying teaching job. There was also the option to pursue credentials, such as a TEFL certificate, but TEFL teachers are also largely commoditized and as I had learned even back then the TEFL training is highly opinionated but poorly backed by research. Some ideas, such as not using the students’ native language at all are clearly driven more by market prices of employing bilingual teachers than they are by what’s best for the students. Unsurprisingly, a TEFL certification is worth almost nothing in terms of increased earnings.

The climb

I worked hard at learning classroom-related language and started coming in to work early and watching my local co-teachers when they taught their half of classes. Within a few months I was able to get a job at 750NT an hour as opposed to my original 550NT. I had to prepare some materials for class and grade homework but there was a lot of latitude in terms of creating supplementary materials and learning how to be a better teacher when not following a very structured system from a large chain.

About six months after that, I got a job at a larger school with even more stringent requirements at 900NT/hr. I left that job months later due to a stupid contract they wanted me to sign that would have given them broad ownership of things I created on my own time. Their top teacher from the previous hired me at 1100NT/hr with a 50NT raise every 6 months and profit sharing if I stayed long-term. I moved out to his new school that week.

My blog

At this point, I had been living in Taiwan for two and a half years and was earning more than double the average foreign English teacher. I was 26 years old and I could speak two foreign languages very different from my native one.

I’d read dozens of books about language teaching and language acquisition and was teaching well over a hundred kids and doing it vastly more effectively than I’d seen at any other school. As my life situation improved, I became increasingly focused on helping others—my students, language students in general and other language teachers.

I’ll be honest. I felt I had something worth sharing.

So that’s what I did. I wrote about what I’d seen in the job market for foreign English teachers, I wrote reviews of my Chinese text books. I spent an entire day using my virtually non-existent programming abilities to hack together a tool for adding tone marks to pinyin. I even shared my investment ideas and every single trade I made.

Looking back on it, it kind of amazes me how enthusiastically I wrote about everything and how much time I spent on it even back when it was such a tiny group of people reading.

Part 2: meeting other bloggers