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This post is a reflection on a year teaching abroad in Taipei from BGL’s Teacher Leia:
After three years of teaching in a high-needs public school in East Harlem, I was thrilled to take the opportunity to teach at a prestigious private school in Taiwan. For the first time ever I would have pre-selected materials provided to me, ahead of time at that! I would have parents who helped their children with their homework and who were eager to communicate with me – but in a good way! To boot, Taiwan is a country where education and, by extension, teachers are well-respected and highly valued! I expected this whole thing to be a cakewalk.
I also expected that compared to East Harlem the kids would be angels, whereas what I got, instead, were kids. And instead of a cakewalk I got an experience that was challenging and rewarding in ways I never expected.
The biggest challenges came from the language and cultural differences of not only teaching in a different country but also of moving from public to private. Having come from different educational backgrounds, my expectations didn’t always match those of the other teachers and administration. This could be fixed with some clear communication, but oftentimes people found it difficult to communicate with me and avoided doing so as a result. Normally in this situation I would turn to my fellow teachers or friends for support, but I was living 8,000 miles away from my usual social supports.
But like many things that do not kill you, I left Taiwan stronger than before. Now safely back home, the trials and tribulations of that year seem far away and so manageable. Retrospect is easy like that. Also, I take pride in my successes there because they resulted from patience and persistence. It was also permanently life-affirming to have lived and worked in the kindest, warmest culture I have ever known.
So how did I make it through? Put simply, I gave it some time.
For those of you thinking of taking a similar journey, here are my top tips:
1) Build slowly as you constantly assess and reevaluate
Students are not only learning from you a foreign language, but in most cases they will do so through methods that are unfamiliar to them (in my case, it was an explicit goal of my position to introduce Western methods such as small group work). Take nothing for granted and assume that thing will take longer and be more challenging than they were back home. Don’t give up, but constantly assess and reevaluate your goals and pace. Break things down into the smallest components possible, proceed slowly and step-by-step, with constant review. This is especially important given that you might provide the students’ only interaction with the target language.
2) Be patient with yourself
Give yourself the same patience you give your students. In some ways this experience made me feel as though I was a first year teacher again (though really, it wasn’t nearly as difficult). I didn’t have that familiarity and automaticity that made everything so much easier in my last teaching position. But I came to realize that it was more a matter of being different than of being difficult. You need time to process and to adjust. Everything will gradually, subtly become easier (both personally and professionally).
3) Put yourself in others’ shoes
Many countries have different notions of work ethic, and despite America’s teasing of European 30-hour work weeks, Asia tends to put in more hours at the office than most Americans can imagine. Furthermore, it is expected that workers will do whatever is asked of them whenever it is asked of them, even in relatively low-paying jobs like teaching. During these times, it was important for me to remember that everybody at the school had the same goal in mind – to provide the best learning experience possible to their students. Taking their perspective helped me to not expect them to understand, anticipate, and accommodate differences in work ethic when it was myself who was on their foreign soil. Reminding myself of this helped me to take it in stride.
4) Tread softly, but keep going
The values of respect and face are strong in Taiwan and in many countries that value education. Foreign guests must be tactful and gentle, but you can still be proactive and advocate for your educational beliefs and ideas. Offer suggestions for consideration, or frame your suggestions as discussions of your experiences.
5) Find an outlet, and then another
Most likely you have extensive travel experience if you make the choice to teach abroad. The defining difference between a trip and living abroad, obviously, is time… and it’s easy to forget that the initial excitement of being in a place will fade into a more comfortable (if less exciting) everyday reality. Part of that reality is finding the things that make you happy on a daily basis. My personal outlets while in Taiwan were doing yoga regularly (where I got exercise and community), jogging, hiking, and cooking. I also kept regular Skype dates to keep me grounded. In between, I forced myself to explore new corners of the city and to exalt in the random.
In following these steps, I was able to fulfill my goal of going abroad: to learn, to grow, and to become better. It is an experience that I will always recommend to others and will never forget.