For the past fortnight, I've been getting to grips with the fundamentals of teaching in Taiwan, quite aside from the lofty ideals poured down onto our naive little heads during the training week in Taipei.
I say naive little heads. With one exception, everyone at that training week had been in the business for at least a year and so they were comparatively prepared for the strain of walking into a new school and being expected to perform.
I on the other hand was bricking it in new and exciting ways not yet documented by science. Should researchers in years to come need to examine examples of strain on the minds and bodies of their subjects they could do worse than transplanting them into an alien culture, slapping them in front of a room full of children and expecting them to teach. In fairness, this was always going to happen. I inevitably panic when thrust back into a teaching situation. It happened on the first day of the last two summer schools I taught at. Of course, the general tone of a summer school means that things are a lot more laid back than at a buxi-ban.
A buxi-ban, I should mention, is what we would in English call a cram school. However the term is broader in Chinese, and covers all extra-curricular educational institutions, including those which don't specifically exist for the purpose of cramming exam answers into students' heads.
This does however mean that English language learning, like any kind of educational undertaking in Taiwan, is taken incredibly seriously by the parents paying for their child to attend. The children are tested, re-tested, drilled, checked, streamed, sorted and then tested again. Results are very important. Low results are seen as a sign of one of two things:
a) the child is stupid and shouldn't have money wasted on trying to improve them
b) the school is incapable of extracting the best from the child and the parents should remove their child and find a buxi-ban able to appreciate the educational needs of their progeny
I feel it prurient to indicate at this point low results are seen as anything below 90%.
Needless to say, a) is a rare scenario, since parents are understandably reluctant to think their little cherub is an inattentive, witless oxygen-thief. The end result is the same for the school though: withdrawal, and the loss of revenue that represents. In some ways, a b) is worse than an a), especially with multiple-child families (which aren't as rare in Taiwan as they are in the PRC, though still not as common as in Europe). A child perceived as stupid may have brothers and sisters who can still attend, but if the parents perceive the school as failing they'll withdraw all their children, and like as not warn their friends and family away into the bargain.
All of this does impinge somewhat on the capacity of a teacher (especially a Western teacher, not brought up in this culture of obsessive testing and validation of one's efforts) to effectively assess and tutor a child. You know how ostensibly, English language schools don't exist to help students pass exams for exclusive high schools or universities? Apparently that doesn't make much difference. Students are put under a huge amount of pressure to pass every test, check, quiz and exam they're put through, and if one is thought to be underperforming they'll be heavily coached by one of the Taiwanese teaching assistants until they can. It's a pretty rigorous system, and I can't help but feel if I was a student in this sort of system I would be kicking against it with all my might.
That's not to say that there aren't upsides to this approach to education. With standards set so high, even artificially high, there is a consequential impact on the attitudes of students to their studies. Even if they've already been at or around school for the last twelve hours, (which is frequently the case for evening classes, poor buggers) they know that they don't have a lot of time for mucking about, and so the majority of students behave impeccably. There's also the rider that students at buxi-bans are having their lessons paid for by their parents, at considerable expense (these are not the affluent Taiwanese children that I taught last July in Oxford, these are the children of bakers and other lower-middle class families) and so they tend to have a greater appreciation of the worth of a lesson.
Mind you, with my summer school experiences in mind, there were rather a lot of extraordinarily rich European students -- children from Mafia families, children of diplomats and the like, who were inattentive, lazy and sullen in spite of the huge sums of money being spent on ensuring they had an interesting and beneficial summer. So I suppose there's a great deal that may still be attributed to the general work ethic and reverence for teachers and other figures of authority within Eastern cultures.
It's a complete departure, in many ways. English teachers in Taiwan are treated with something approaching celebrity status, and earn staggeringly, embarrassingly high amounts compared to most other people, to the extent that the majority of us rattle around in slick, secure high-rise apartments far too big for us, while the rest of the country suffers from the kind of overcrowding you'd expect when you try and fit 22 million people into a country approximately the size of (and somewhat less habitable than) Wales. People approach Westerners, especially ones that look like they might be English teachers, and unabashedly enquire whether they can practice their English with them, or sometimes just out-and-out ask whether they'd consider taking on a private student. People shout "Hello!" or, less frequently, "America!" across the street. (yeah i dont even either)
The flipside of this is that when we're not being stared at agog in the street, Westerners in general are considered intimidating, slow, or just aloof for the most part. This is fair to an extent: our Chinese is largely very poor, and on average, we are considerably larger, even a relatively stringy fellow like me. Western men in particular have stigmas attached to them; this tends to be because many Taiwanese women are treated appallingly by the Western men they pursue (or are pursued by). I've heard some real horror stories in my first month: although in fairness this is not a huge departure, because Taiwanese women are apparently treated appallingly by Taiwanese men for the most part. I'll probably post an extension of my thoughts on this particular issue when I've got a bit more to go on, but it's been depressing, living across from Taiwanese families and hearing the state of affairs in their household.
Rather than end on a sour note, though, I'd like to share something positive. One thing that shines through at my buxi-ban, my little hothouse conveyor-belt for rote-learned English, is that everyone smiles. Not all the time. We're not talking Disneyland slasher smiles. But it's pretty difficult not to smile there. You can try. But you're surrounded by so many infuriating, impossible, adorable kids that you can't help yourself. I know I'm not going to do this job forever. But thinking about back home, where you could spend the entire day without so much as crossing paths with a smile that wasn't selling you Coke or lingerie or an ISA, it's a very welcome departure. Warts and all.