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My old boss, William, is currently looking for an English teacher at his Tomcat school. I can say from personal experience that William is a good boss and a great guy. His school doesn’t have huge student numbers, so it doesn’t pay as much as some of the other HFRBs, but outside of class prep work and stress levels are also much lower. I worked at Tomcat two years ago, and both of my co-workers from that time are still there. I think it’s pretty much an ideal job for somebody learning Chinese. My old co-worker Blake studied at Shida at the same time and made it all the way up through their level 7 classes and beyond. Now he’s going to work at a magazine, and William’s helping him make the transition. If you’re interested in this job, you’d be taking Blake’s classes. Here are the details from the ad:

  • About $700/hr starting
  • Great teaching environment
  • ARC and health card.
  • A very short walk from Shuanglian MRT in Taipei
  • 16 hours to start and more as we open new classes

Requirements:

  • Native English speaker (preferable North American accent)
  • 1 year of teaching experience
  • Planning to stay at least 1 year
  • At least some Chinese speaking ability and an interest in learning Chinese
  • Easy-going and a good sense of responsibility
  • Willing to teach on Saturdays

This is a great opportunity for someone planning to learn or continue learning Chinese in Taiwan. We’re a small, friendly school and have very little teacher rotation: our current teachers have worked with us for at least three years. We’ve been in business for a decade, if you meet the above requirements please e-mail a resume include your phone number to William Chiu at tomcat_school@yahoo.com.tw or call 0958-255-838.

I finally have some video from my classes I can put up here, thanks to Patrick. Here is a clip from an oral spelling drill. This isn’t rote memorization. None of the words I ask the students to spell have been previously taught; they have to use phonics rules to figure out how to spell them. I accept any phonetically equivalent spellings, since there’s no possible way for students to differentiate between them. In other words, “pound” and “pownd” would both be considered to be equivalent responses, as would “gait” and “gate”, “carpet” and “karpet”, “staff” and “staph”, etc… In my opinion, these drills are one of the main reasons my students at First Step have so much better pronunciation and so much better of a handle on phonics in general than my students at Tomcat did. It just isn’t possible for kids to make it through this curriculum and not be able to hear the difference between words like “special” and “spatial”, or “hit” and “heat”.

This class had studied at my school for a total of 4 hours per week for 5 months at the time this video was taken. On the first day of class most students couldn’t understand, “How are you?”, or tell the difference between E and A sounds. On the very first day, we did a spelling drill on words composed of only short A’s, B’s, C’s, D’s and T’s. Less than one third of the students’ answers were correct. In contrast, at the time of this video, the words they could be quizzed on included all of the letters of the alphabet, long and short vowel sounds, including “oo”, “ow/ou” sounds, “th” (voiced and unvoiced), “ch”, and “sh”. At the time of this spelling drill, the students were expected to know our school’s first 22 phonics rules.

At the end of 2004, I wasn’t happy with my progress in terms of job skills, saving money, or learning Chinese. I’d been wasting my time trying to study part time at Shida, while working at a boring and unfulfilling big chain English school. It was time for a change.

Since I couldn’t manage to save up enough money to go to a better Chinese school, I decided to quit taking classes at Shida, and work full time at a better English school. After a short time at Tomcat, I was recruited by Modawei on January 1st, 2005. Tomcat and Modawei are not at all like most other bŭxíbāns. Both are hard-core programs. All the teachers are native English speakers who can speak at least a fair amount of Chinese. They make the students talk, and talk loudly enough to correct their pronunciation mistakes. Unlike other bŭxíbāns, the kids have to do their homework. Also unlike other bŭxíbāns, students who don’t pass their exams fail the semester and have to repeat it. It’s a demanding system for the students and the teachers, but the students make progress at about 2-3 times the speed of students at the big chains and end up with much better pronunciation, too. The teachers have to grade a lot of books and listen to a lot of tapes, but they get paid $900/class hour + $600/training hour starting. As soon as I started at Modawei, I was making $70,000/month. I learned a few finer points of English grammar, and I also learned a lot about dealing with parents. Also, I had some really awesome co-workers there. I hung out after work with pretty much all the guys in my office. Mike, Martin, Caskey, my trainer Adam, and especially Nathan all became decent friends. Even the managers at my branch were pretty cool to hang out with, when they had the time to go out. All in all it was pretty good… until the boss decided that to make me sign a new contract saying that all intellectual property I created at work or otherwise, was his. He also revealed that unlike the hiring manager had told me during the recruitment process, Modawei won’t let successful teachers franchise. One of my co-workers said he got yelled at for asking about the bonus system, which turned out to be different than we were told during recruitment. It was time to go.

At the end of June, I started working at First Step, a school run by a former Modawei teacher. I’m making $1100/hour, with $50/hour raises every six months. As any reader of my blog will know, I’m absolutely psyched about this school. I’ve never seen any other school get such good results in my life. There are just too many ways to describe how much better our curriculum is than any of the other hard-core schools such as Tomcat, Cortland, or Modawei. The curriculum is based more strongly on word frequency. We cover nearly the same amount of grammar in three semesters as they cover in five. My boss Ron, came up with a series of phonics and spelling rules and drills which not only help the students learn how to spell words they’ve never heard before, but also greatly improve their accents. Starting towards the end of the third semester, we make extensive use of graded readers such as the Oxford Bookworms collection. I don’t know of any other bŭxíbān in Tawian that does this. Most children are incapable of reading actual books even after studying for four years at places like Hess, Joy, or even Tomcat or Cortland. There’s far too much to write about here, so suffice to say my work is very rewarding. I feel like I’m actually changing lives for the better.

In terms of Chinese, I didn’t make too much progress. I’ve been half-heartedly trying to study on my own, but I’m usually pretty drained after work. Obviously working at Tomcat, Modawei, and First Step has greatly improved my ability to speak Chinese to large audiences, talk about English grammar, and phonics. Talking with parents has helped me learn a few thing about how laziness, frustration, motivation and other behavioral issues are spoken of. I’ve picked up a few more Chinese characters I can read. All in all, though, it’s been a wash. I’ve probably forgotten how to write enough characters and regressed enough in terms of pronunciation to make up for all of what I did acquire. Oh, well. It’s a lot better than my Chinese would be if I’d gone home for a year.

One nice thing about 2005 was that my mom came to visit me. It was really great to see her. I’m really happy she was able to spare the time from her busy schedule and find some one to fill in for her. She lives in a tiny, tiny town; and I think she’s the only doctor living there. She lived in Africa before, when she was doing some research, but she’d never been to Asia. It really was neat to take her around and show her stuff. She wasn’t too thrilled with 台北, but once we got outside the main city, she liked it a lot more. I guess it’s kind of hard to impress an American with stuff like Sogo or Warner Village. She’d been to malls that were pretty much identical, which sold the same stuff for way less money in Chicago.

All in all, 2005 was a good year. I broke out of the rut I was in in 2004 and started to make progress, albeit indirectly, towards my long-term goals. I made some friends, saved some money, started blogging, and had a chance to see my mom. I think 2006 will be even better!

In Taibei there are quite a few schools of this type. There are also a few in Taoyuan; I don’t know of any in the south, though. Almost all of these schools are about the same. The first one was Mòdàwèi 莫大衛, started in the heart of Taibei, near Sogo, about 20 years ago by an Australian guy named David. He paid well, and was able to attract foreigners who could speak Chinese, could control a large class, would work hard, and would stay for a long time. As a result of having good teachers who stay from day one until graduation day 3 and a half years later, the students learned well. Studying at Mòdàwèi for one year was nearly as good as putting in three at a big chain school. Amazingly, with no marketing, Mòdàwèi grew into a large branch through word of mouth alone. However, David wasn’t interested in letting other teachers open franchises or other branches. One of the best and brightest of his teachers, a guy named Tom, eventually got tired of making a fortune for somebody else. So, Tom opened his own school, called Tomcat (湯姆貓), across the street. Nearly all of his students came with him. Naturally, being a bilingual foreigner with a great deal of teaching experience, and 200 loyal students, it wasn’t too hard to make a success of it. In fact, Tom later let his most experienced teacher, Rich, take over a branch. Around the same time, an American guy named James, a VERY good example of a black man who has made it as a teacher in Taiwan, was opening another Mòdàwèi clone called Cortland (科特蘭). As of now there are 8 Cortland branches and over a dozen Tomcat franchises. In addition, there have been at least 4 other schools started by former Mòdàwèi employees since Cortland that I know of. Mòdàwèi hasn’t grown much, but it’s still around. More importantly the HFRB (Hard-core Foreign Run Bŭxíbāns) style of teaching is here to stay.

Curriculum & Teaching Methods

These schools have a simple no non-sense curriculum structured around sentence patterns, core-vocabulary, and constant pronunciation coaching. The meat and potatoes of their classes is the Question Around the Room. In this exercise, first all of the students must stand up, then one student makes a question based on a certain grammar pattern. The student the asks another student who must answer and in turn make another question which will be answered by another student. It continues until all of the students have asked and answered a question based on whatever sentence pattern being practiced.

Unlike the big chains, these schools require correct pronunciation and have teachers who can tell the children how to correct their pronunciation. For example, if a kid is saying “How ahh you?”, the teacher will say, “Every time you see an ‘r’, you have to curl your tongue.” And he will say it in Chinese. Also unlike the big chains, KK isn’t taught at HFRBs. Instead phonics is taught the way we learned it back home: i.e. They learn about long and short vowels, basic phonics rules like “when two vowels go walking the first one does the talking”, and so forth.

One other major difference between HFRBs and other schools is that at HFRBs, the kids have to do their homework. If they don’t do it, they fail. Yes, kids actually can fail at these schools. Also, the teacher has to grade books and listen to tapes after class to ensure that the students are doing their work correctly. All of this work is unpaid.

Compensation

If you are in Taiwan to make money and you are a teacher, there is NO other place to be than bŭxíbāns of this type. At the time of this writing, Modawei, Cortland, and most of the Tomcat schools (but not all franchises) pay new teachers $600/hour during training, and $900/hour for teaching. $50 raises are given every six months up to a maximum of $1100 or $1200. After 2 years at Cortland, or 3 at Modawei, profit sharing bonuses are awarded every 6 months. Tomcat has pretty inconsistent rules about this. Bonuses can range from about $100,000 to $300,000 depending on a variety of factors.

Be warned that unlike lesser schools, these schools usually entail a significant amount of training. In the most extreme case, at Modawei some teachers have spent a full 6 months in training before opening their own classes. While training you can expect to put in a significant amount of time, and only make $65,000 to 70,000 per month. Once you have a full schedule you’ll make $100,000 per month and once you’re receiving the bonus you’ll likely make over $150,000 per month. If you become a branch manager or, better yet, open a franchise, you’ll make even more.

Requirements

It is only natural that a school that delivers superior education despite large class sizes and pays its staff well will also have high requirements. Unlike big chain schools who will basically hire any living & breathing young westerner they can get regardless of skills, HFRBs are quite a bit more selective. If you want to work at this kind of school you need some teaching experience, the confidence to control a class of up to 30 kids, and enough Chinese ability to teach them well and communicate with their parents. The most difficult requirement of all is that you must be willing to stay for at least 2 or 3 years. Not many foreigners in Taiwan want to do this, but having one stable teacher who can lead the students from ABCs to essay writing is perhaps the strongest point of all for HFRBs

A Word for the Wise

Naturally, businesses don’t tend to speak fondly of their competitors. However the level of animosity some HFRBs hold for each other is downright malevolent. Much of this is rooted in the fact that all of these schools were formed by rouge teachers who, feeling severely underpaid, left their original school and started their own schools nearby with their own kids. As a result, don’t be surprised if you see a non-compete agreement in the employment contract if you interview at one of these schools. I myself ran into a particularly egregious contract problem at a HFRB. My boss brought me into a room with 2 other managers, sat me down, and told me to sign a contract stipulating that ALL creations I make (at work AND on my own time) would belong to his school… OR ELSE! I have done a fair number of personal programming projects (Quake III mods, video editing, etc…) as well as essays, some of which relate to L2 acquisition. Signing this contract would have given them claim over any further works or, in other words, the whole creative output of my brain would have belonged to them. It would have also made it pretty much impossible to open my own school later on since they would claim that any curriculum I wrote was written during my employment there and was therefore theirs. Sometimes it doesn’t matter who is right if you don’t have money to defend a lawsuit. I didn’t sign the contract. About a week later I had an even better paying job at a school started by a former teacher of the school I’d just left.