Similar to most ESL teachers living in Asia, my brother and I landed our first gig in Taiwan over the phone. Actually, we had the job even before we made the call. A buddy who had been teaching here at the time made the arrangements on our behalves. The phone call was nothing more than a formality needed to ensure that we spoke English without an accent. It wasn’t important that my degree was in law or that my brother’s was in computer sciences. Likewise, our potential employer wasn’t concerned about our lack practical teaching experience or training. All that mattered to him was that we were both from Canada (check), had university degrees (check) and could be in Taiwan by the end of May (check). By the end of a very brief long-distance conversation my brother and I were, for all intents and purposes, employed over seas.
We taught our very first class on Monday, June 1st, 1998, three days after landing in Taiwan. I guess this was (and still remains to be) par for the course. My boss didn’t need to waste time training us as most parents were completely satisfied on sight. Our being Caucasian was all that was needed to keep enrolment high.
This doesn’t mean I wouldn’t have liked to have been given a bit more guidance before stepping into the classroom. Quite the opposite, in fact. One whiteboard game and a quick overview of the course material wasn’t enough to keep the butterflies out of my belly. Hell. Who am I kidding? I wasn’t just nervous, I was freaking scared. I had no idea if my students would understand what I was trying to teach them or if I would understand what the hell they were trying to say.
What I didn’t know, however, was the fact I had an ace in the hole. I had something that connected me with half the class before I even opened my mouth. I had something that pretty well made me a celebrity the second I walked into the class. I had the look of a Backstreet Boy. (Well, to the students in that class I did, anyway. You know how it is. All of us Caucasians look alike.) A girl sitting in the back was quick to point out the resemblance (Thankfully their English level was pretty good.) and the whole class had a good chuckle as I did my best to sing a little song and do a little dance. (Backstreet’s back, alright!)
These few moments of laughter gave me the edge that I needed to get through that class and the rest of the day with ease. It also taught me the benefits of having no shame in the classroom. I had little difficulty acting like a clown and the students in turn had no problem listening to me. They even seemed to pick up a bit of what I was trying to teach. I quickly learned that children react well to laughter. (Then again, who doesn’t?) By communicating and fooling around with them instead of just speaking at them, I was able to engage their minds enough to make the class enjoyable for almost everyone.
For the next few months everything was smooth sailing. I kept the students laughing and learning and had some fun in the process. It wasn’t long before, I decided to extend my days and find some extra teaching hours. I figured the additional coin would help me pay off my school loans within a year. (Which I did! Yea!) I scouted around and secured morning work at a business college and a kindergarten (What was I thinking?). Both stripped me of my free time and kept me working for twelve hours a day on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
During this time, my days began at 8:30 at the business college. I taught advanced level students how to navigate their way through English newspapers and other types of social media. The students were all bright, outspoken and extremely motivated. I felt blessed to have been given the opportunity to interact with them on a more personal level. It was also inspiring to witness just how far their ESL learning had taken them. These undergrads were wearing the brass ring that my younger students were just starting to see. They provided me with the incentive to work a little harder in the classroom and to do my best to encourage my beginning students. I now could see their end goal even if they couldn’t and promised myself that I would do my best to see that they achieved it.
From the college, I busted ass over to a small kindergarten where I taught twenty minute lessons to three classes of four year old children. This sudden shift in gear quite literally left my head spinning. I taught the alphabet and vocabulary to kids who could barely say their English names. In order to keep their attention on what I was teaching rather than the cookie crumbs lying at their feet, I had to be full-on and non-stop throughout the class. Unlike my college gig, this gave me zero satisfaction. Sure, it was great to be able to entertain the little rug-rats, but at the end of the day I didn’t see any progress. Twenty minutes a class, three times a week was doing them little to no good. For me this was a waste of time. I hate wasting my time. It wasn’t long before I began to regret my decision to work more than one job.
I did manage to get through a full semester at the college before saying my goodbyes. Although I took great pleasure in teaching those kids (Kids. Ha! A quarter of the class was older than me!) and looked forward to the conversations that spawned from each article on the curriculum, I found myself struggling to find enough time to pursue other interests such as studying Chinese and exploring my new home. As well, the bureaucratic bullshit and politics that plagued the school was way too much for me to handle. (Homie don’t do office drama!) Had I stayed on for the full year, I would have had to participate in meetings and staff functions, neither of which I had any interest in doing. I enjoyed being a shadow on the wall of the school. Once they started to bring me into the light, I was out.
My kindergarten career, unfortunately (fortunately?), didn’t even last that long. I reached my limit there after two (very long) months. I quickly realized that, I am not a kindergarten teacher. A class of fourteen four year olds is way too much for this cat to handle. And so, one Monday morning I woke up and decided that I had had enough. I didn’t go in. I also didn’t call my boss to tell her that I wasn’t going in. (Sigh. Even I am shaking my head.) I realize that the responsible and adult thing to do would have been to have called my boss and filled her in on the situation. Regrettably, I was neither responsible nor an adult. I was also in Taiwan and this sort of thing happened all the time. So, instead of being upfront I chose the more passive route and waited for a week before walking into the school with a bandage over my left eye. I lied and said that I had been in the hospital the week previous with a serious eye infection. I informed her that the doctor thought my ailment might have been due to stress and suggested that I cut down on my teaching hours. The principal of the school gave me a hug and told me to take better care of myself. Not one of my finer moments but it did do a lot to brighten my days.
Despite not lasting long at either position, by moonlighting as a kindergarten clown and a college professor I gained enough experience and insight to better understand what kind of teacher I wanted to be. I realized that in order to remain happy teaching ESL in Taiwan I needed to have a goal. My goal was to push my students so they would rise to the level of those at the college. But in order to push them I needed to make English fun, stimulating and a little off the wall. I might have learned these lessons on my own without putting my self through the torture of teaching twelve hour days, but I like to think that each step of my journey has had a reason.
As odd as it may sound, Sympathy for the Devil, by the Rolling Stones, reminds me of why I enjoy teaching. It is the song that ran through the credits of a movie that a few of my students and I made during a summer camp. All of the students who were in that camp have long since graduated from or left our school. A handful of them, however, still keep in touch and drop by my classroom from time to time for a visit. Last Friday night, I was blessed with such a visit by two of these students. The girl stayed for about a half hour and the boy for about five. We chatted about their lives and reminisced about old students and events. By the end of the evening I was on a high.
Those moments are the reason I choose to teach. Every time I sit with a student or former student and communicate with them on a personal, more intimate level, I feel like I have achieved my goal. Of course I am not responsible for the success that they have accomplished. The ability to communicate in another language takes hard work and dedication. I have done nothing more than help to facilitate and encourage their learning. However, when my students come to me on their own volition to talk about nothing more than what is on their mind, I feel like I have won the prize. Not only was I a part of their journey to becoming fluent in English, but I have also been given the opportunity to remain a part of it. This, for me, is pure satisfaction…
Sympathy for the Devil youtube link