Two years ago tonight, I met some of my students for dinner at N2, a local restaurant run by a cranky old British expat named Nigel and his Taiwanese wife, Nunu. This was our final class of the semester and we voted to get out of the classroom and practice our “restaurant English” in this British pub. We order Western food, fish & chips and chicken quesadillas, and share them among the table, dining Asian style. Once the fish and chips are gone and the conversation has run out, I jump on my scooter and head towards home. Suddenly, it dawns on me: this is my final class! My career teaching English in Taiwan is over!
Although I officially retired from teaching after I finished my fish & chips that night at N2, I’ve been receiving emails recently from people asking for information and advice on teaching English in Taiwan. So, two years after taking off my teaching hat for the last time (hopefully!), I’ll try to offer a realistic look at what it’s like to jump into a new life teaching English in Asia.
The Beginning – Volunteering in Vietnam
In 2013 I was working for a company that was obviously going under and I spent my time at the office researching my escape route. The thought of job hunting at age 51 really didn’t appeal to me, so I started planning my own version of a “Peace Corps-type” of volunteer experience.
In my research, I ran across an organization called IVHQ (International Volunteer Headquarters) and began to use their volunteer opportunities as a way to create my own path. My goal is to create a new life in Asia and support myself by teaching English, but with no teaching experience and a fear of public speaking, the thought of teaching actually terrifies me!
After narrowing my focus to Asia, I start throwing darts at the IVHQ map. The dart lands on Hanoi, Vietnam, so that’s where the adventure begins!
I paid IVHQ a fee of around $1000 for 10 weeks of room and board in Hanoi and an organized volunteer teaching plan. At the same time, I enrolled in an online TEFL certification program. This turns out to be a good plan since I’m able to practice what I’m learning online in a real classroom of a Hanoi high school. Without this practical teaching experience, I think I would’ve lacked confidence going into a real teaching job.
Landing a Teaching Job in Taiwan
After 3 months in Vietnam, I head to Cambodia where I had organized a 6-week volunteer teaching opportunity through a private organization. This volunteer opportunity doesn’t work out as planned and lasts exactly one horrible night. My original plan also included 3 months in India teaching English to Tibetan refugee monks in Dharamsala. But the plan changes when I have trouble renting out my condo in Tampa and realize I need to find a job to continue paying my mortgage.
I apply for jobs in South Korea at the recommendation of one of the volunteers I met in Vietnam. After Korea rejects me because of my age, another friend suggests Taiwan and I start to open my mind to that possibility. I’ve never even been there, but I apply for a job in Hsinchu, Taiwan.
In my Skype interview, the boss mentions that she appreciates “mature people with life experience”. It’s a refreshing change after the age discrimination I faced in Korea. I point out to her that I’m not mature but I definitely DO have life experience and I get the job!
Other basic requirements: a Bachelors Degree (in anything) and a TEFL certification (minimum 120 hours). Also, you must be a native English speaker from one of six countries: the USA, Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand, or South Africa.
Teaching English in Taiwan – Kids Classes and In-House Classes
In my first year contract, I’m forced to teach kids’ classes along with adult and Business English classes. It becomes obvious pretty quickly that I’m just NOT a kid person, which is something I already knew.
My worst class was a double-header (1.5 hours) with a class of 15 students, all of them around 7 or 8 years old. The class was horrible and I was frustrated and exhausted by wasting so much time on discipline. They didn’t want to be there and neither did I. I felt I was thrown into the deep end had to either sink or swim. I quickly learned to swim.
The adult classes taught “in-house” (at the school) focused on basic daily-life conversation skills. The newer teachers often started with these classes, allowing us to gain more classroom experience before moving to the off-campus classes at the tech companies. Here, the expectations were a bit higher and the classes focused mainly on business English.
My students were all higher-level so, thankfully, I rarely taught any grammar. The Chinese-speaking English teachers handled the lower level students and taught grammar.
Teaching Business English in Taiwan
When I was researching the TEFL course options, I briefly considered adding a Business English certification. Instead, I focused on getting the most basic TEFL certification (120 hours) that would enable me to get a real job.
Fortunately, the job I stumbled into in Taiwan was located in the city of Hsinchu which is about 30 minutes (by high-speed rail) southwest of Taipei. Known as the “Silicon Valley” of Taiwan, Hsinchu boasts a Science Park where many of the Taiwanese high tech companies are based. The school I worked for was located on the edge of the Science Park, which allowed me to jump right into teaching Business English without the additional certification.
The teaching materials we used were as varied as the classes we taught, which was both a blessing and a curse. Some classes were more structured and used a textbook that required us to find supplemental material to make it more interesting.
Other classes were “No Book” classes meaning we totally created the course outline and all teaching materials from scratch. The first few times teaching a “No Book” class was a bit challenging but after that, I just recycled previous teaching material for new classes and it was much easier.
We designed the course outlines in collaboration with the students and they ended up looking quite similar, usually focusing on things like presentations, negotiating, small talk and socializing, and restaurant vocabulary.
Examples of classes I taught in Taiwan
We did our best to comply with whatever the companies requested when arranging the course. If they want Business English, we’ll give it to them. They ask for a Presentations class? No problem.
Once I was assigned to teach a “Presentations” class at a local technology company. During the first class, I began with the basics of structuring a presentation. After class, I found out they didn’t want to actually learn about presenting, they really just wanted to practice talking: impromptu speaking.
This class was larger than normal with about 20 students of very mixed levels. Some of the lower level students were barely able to utter a phrase in English much less do an impromptu talk for a minute or two. It would be like asking me to do an impromptu talk in French – I just don’t have the vocabulary! There are way too many students, way too few classes (only 6), and way too many skill levels.
But if they want impromptu speaking, I’ll give it to them. So, I think of really random topics like “If I won the lottery I would…” or “My favorite hobby is…”, write them on a slip of paper and throw them into a bag. Then I have each student draw a number from a pile.
Student number 1 – “Here, pick a random topic out of this paper bag and speak for one minute.”
It was torture for all.
One day my boss assigns me a class at a local company called ITRI. I was taking over for another teacher who has suddenly left Taiwan and there’s no one else to teach it. The class: Journalistic Writing. (Huh?)
I arrive at class my first day and discover the students, all employees in the Marketing Department, have Masters Degrees in Communications from universities in the USA! THEY are actual journalists and far more qualified than I am with my Bachelor’s degree in “nothing related” and an online TEFL certificate. I’m so underqualified and so overwhelmed!
There is no book. There is no curriculum. I am required to create a course outline to teach some journalists about journalistic writing. (Thank God for Google, where I get all of my ideas and inspiration!)
The last semester the students suggest focusing the course more on marketing instead of journalistic writing. I know NOTHING about marketing but, once again, study it in order to teach it. We use a book called “Growth Hacker Marketing” and I manage to fake my way through it.
The moral of the story is this, in a non-traditional school setting – be prepared for anything! My experience is probably much different than those who teach in a more traditional school setting with a set curriculum and organized lesson plans.
The pros of this more non-traditional setting: increased use of creativity, more challenge, and personal growth. The cons: extreme stress, fear of failure, and the potential for a total loss of self-confidence!
During my first year, I was on a full-time teaching contract of 25 teaching hours per week. This doesn’t sound like a lot, but it sure felt like a lot! I did not get paid for prep time and when I was just starting out, I spent a lot of time preparing lesson plans.
Contractually, my “work day” could begin at noon and end as late as 10 pm. The classes were rarely scheduled back-to-back so there was a lot of wasted time during the day.
My work schedule was different every day. Kids classes usually started around 2 pm and ended around 7 pm. Adults and Business English classes were usually held at night, however, some companies had classes during their lunch hour from noon to 1:30 pm.
During my second year, I negotiated a reduced work week with only 20 teaching hours per week. My final year, I negotiated a four-day work week with Fridays off while working only a maximum of 15 hours a week (sliding into retirement!).
There was no paid vacation time but the boss was quite flexible in granting time off. During my first year, I didn’t take a day off. Not one day. I traveled only on weekends and holidays. After I felt I had proven myself, I was bolder in requesting time off and was able to travel a lot during my last two years, with a few trips back to Thailand as well as quick jaunts to Bali and Hong Kong.
Teaching Wages – Teaching English in Taiwan
One of the reasons I chose to teach in Taiwan rather than Thailand is money. As much as I love Thailand, the teaching pay is much lower and I didn’t want to struggle financially. My hourly pay varied depending on what type of class with kids classes paying the lowest at about $15 – $18 per hour. Business English classes paid the best at up to $25 per hour for writing classes.
We were paid only for teaching hours but some companies also paid for travel time getting to their location. For example, MTK located in Jubei paid an extra $15 per class for the 30-minute drive. A scooter was necessary to avoid relying on taxis to get to the more remote locations.
It would be difficult to live on these teaching wages in the US, but in Taiwan it was easy. My rent was just over $300 USD per month and the cost of living in Taiwan is quite low.
My first year was really tough and I struggled with becoming confident in teaching and culture shock living in Asia. But after my stressful months wandering around Asia, I was just relieved to be settled in my new life and I appreciated the stability and the paycheck.
I didn’t immediately LOVE Taiwan, but I didn’t hate it either. The same applied to my experience teaching English in Taiwan – I did it because I had to. I never grew to love teaching but feel really fortunate I had a way to support myself and was able to experience life in Asia.
My life in Taiwan was quite peaceful and interesting but never truly AMAZING. It always felt kind of temporary, like a chapter in my life or a stepping stone to somewhere else…like Nice.