Monday, February 23, 2009

English teaching I: Finding out you actually had to teach

Like a lot of people I hadn’t planned to come to Taiwan. I was traveling through Asia and was going to work in a bar in Hong Kong, where I met a guy called Neil Parsons, who had lots of wonderful stories – secondhand! - of how easy it was going to be to teach English in Taiwan and how much money we were going to earn.

A few weeks later I was on a plane to Taipei completely ignoring the fact I had no interest in teaching.

It had taken one interview to find the painful truth:

“So, you have taught before?” asked Maggie Hsu, the manager of the Kindergarten we had gone to for an interview.

Neil and I hesitated for a second, still groggy from the wake up call of hundreds of little kids running around our feet screaming. Can I say no and get training? - was running through our minds, but of course we said, Yes.

There was a brief awkward momentary silence in which she expected us to expand, drop in a few anecdotes, impart stories of our experience; she received nothing, realized that we had never taught before, and adjusted appropriately; no doubt, she had experienced this situation a hundred times before. If she had had four qualified candidates through the door that day, she would have taken great pleasure in asking them sticky questions about teaching methods, games and materials, but her school was not in the city center where most foreigners wanted to work, and she charged the kids’ parents extra to have a foreign English teacher so this, long ago, had become her lot.

She continued, “Now, every class is fifty minutes, at the start you can take register, and at the end ten minutes for homework. You have a Chinese assistant teacher...Don’t worry at first we will probably scare of you but we will get used to you. This is the book you will be using…”

I wanted to challenge her about the scared bit: we were the scared ones, but we did see her point: we were large, and, due to a fear, were projecting an image not unfamiliar to a lot of animals on the Discovery Channel when marking territory.

Maggie hadn’t finished: “Anyway, each lesson you will be expected to teach one page.”
Then not confident we could get there by ourselves, she had taken the book from me, opened it to page five and handed it back. “Here,” she continued. “What are the key points...To teach?”

Again, not wanting to waste her own time she quickly explained: “The ‘be’ verb and ‘jobs'. Look: policeman, firefighter, etc, and “He is…, I am, You are…Anyway, as the foreigner teacher you will have to make the kids practice, to be able to say this sentence. You are a foreigner so the kids want to have fun with you - play games with English. I know you foreigners are very creative.”

We didn’t feel very creative.

“Anyway, let’s go into the classroom and watch one of our teachers.”

And so we took off our shoes, went into the classroom, and sat with our knees around our ears on small wooden chairs. The class we then watched was all Playschool and Sesame School - an enthusiastic, smiley teacher and eager little kids wanting to dance. It hadn’t been anything like French from school where we had just sat on chairs and copied words from the board, with the teacher using the threat of failure as motivation. We had kind of hoped it would be the same here - We had had confidence our teaching skills stretched that far.

We cursed the stereotype that Westerners were imaginative and creative.

We promised to come back another day and do the teaching demonstration.

Two days, and a little more investigation later, my friend, Neil, had taken a plane to Australia because he had found you had to be a little further up past white on the evolutionary scale to teach than originally expected.

“It isn’t for me,” he had said. I had sensed that teaching wouldn’t be so easy before he had left, but hey, I wouldn’t be the first person on the earth to fall for the one about the normal rules don’t apply when you go abroad.

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