Teaching in Taiwan

Published 11/07/2022 in Scholar Travel Stipend
Written by Alyssa Chiang | 11/07/2022

Prior to spending my summer of 2022 in Taiwan, I had visited only a handful of times to the place my parents once called home. They have now spent a greater proportion of their lives in the U.S. than in their homeland, so I never had the chance to get to know Taiwan beyond my infrequent visits as a tourist with my family.

As a Taiwanese American, I often yearned to be accepted by people of my generation there as more than a token “American”, someone from “outside” who was only halfway in. I was extremely fortunate to be offered the opportunity to teach English at MaGuang (馬光) Junior High School, as a volunteer with the Overseas Community Affairs Council of Taiwan over this past summer. The program places its volunteers in schools across Taiwan that are located in rural areas and considered under-resourced, with high demand for teachers.

For students there, learning English is perceived as a valuable and marketable skill, essential for competitively entering the workforce. My students’ ages ranged from nine to fifteen, and I worked with the other overseas volunteers each day to put together daily English classes that consisted of fun topics such as hobbies, holidays, and food. We worked hard, staying up late at night each day to make sure our lessons were full of engagement and interaction. At first, my students were painfully shy and guarded. I was unsure how to ease them out of their shells. The first few days were admittedly difficult; I would end the afternoons burnt and disappointed in myself, because I was nervous about leaving a poor impact behind, especially given such a short time span.

One of the things I noticed on the first day was that the students were expected to arrive early to do classroom chores that consisted of sweeping the floor, wiping down the tables, cleaning the
blackboard, etc. I was fascinated by this mini-society concept the students were raised with. Doing your part for the community you coexist in. They learn to separate their trash to help with recycling; there’s no need to scold them to throw their trash away, it’s ingrained. I mentioned this to the summer camp director, Peter Chao, who explained that this is the daily norm for the students. On top of coming early, after classes end around 4pm, the school stays open late for students to study. “Such hardworking students,” I’d commented naively. He responded that it was important for school to serve as a safe space for students, especially those whose home life isn’t so stable. It gives them a place to go that keeps them from getting involved with the
wrong people or places. In the rural areas, he explained, students unfortunately face many temptations that could draw them away from a healthy path.

Many of the students were growing up with limited resources at home. Wages aren’t high in the rural areas and parents often have to work long hours. Students would be careful not to let too much food go to waste, and they were frugal in their spending. School was seen as a powerful means to success, and oftentimes, parents would resort to shame as a way to push their children to do better in school. Even then, many students would struggle when it came to taking the college entry exam–an exam that, for many, was a large determining factor in one’s future. A good number of students would choose to attend vocational school starting in high school in order to aim for landing a good job rather than putting all their eggs into the college basket. This bubble of perceived limited choices is a breeding ground for students who may look to other places outside of school to find affirmation, some of which may be unhealthy or unsafe. This gave me a greater appreciation for my education and the environment provided to me, all of which I had taken for granted. Furthermore, it strengthened my appreciation for the acceptance and patience the students extended toward me. It made me even more determined to better understand my students; it was so meaningful to be a part of their education in some small way, and to be able to share a little bit of my own world outside their day-to-day norm.

Throughout my time teaching, I learned a lot from my students, who were diligent and hard-working, especially when content and activities were engaging and presented in a supportive way. The students looked out for each other, selflessly helping each other out during activities. Furthermore, the patience and support from my teaching partner, Louis, an alumni volunteer of the school, also helped me grow immensely, as I watched him make an effort to reach each student on an individual basis. From Louis’ one-on-one attention with the students to the students’ adeptness at being team players, I learned how important their sense of community is. To reach the students, it was about more than just teaching English. It was about being a part of their community, too. The experience became incredibly humbling and meaningful, as we traded bits and pieces of our worlds and found lots of common ground. Making the effort to integrate into their community was what ultimately made the classroom experience more fun, relaxed, exciting, and ultimately memorable. A good listening ear can be stronger than any classroom lesson.

Beyond our teaching experience with the students, the experience of spending time in rural Taiwan was also an enlightening experience in itself. The alumni volunteers running the program went to great lengths to make us feel at home there. These volunteers were our bridge to the students, because they had once been in their shoes, and I was moved by their choice to spend their summers coming back to help because of what the program had meant for them. Too often I’ve overheard people I went to school with saying things like, “I would never want to go back and be reminded of middle school,” etc. It takes so much humility and compassion to turn back and extend a hand to those who are stumbling through what you once had to so they, too, can climb to where you are now. Interacting with the alumni volunteers made me realize what it really means to be a team player. I’ve had “works well with others” on my resume for years, and suddenly, I realized this was a skill I needed to learn. They were selfless in the way they looked out for each other and put common goals before themselves. They extended utmost generosity to us, treating us like family from day one, even before we got to know one another. The volunteers were curious and accepting and, most of all, eager to share. They didn’t hesitate to exchange Taiwanese swear words, share the school gossip, or offer whatever food they’d just purchased at the night markets. They truly made MaGuang a home.

The experience both in the classroom and outside of it made me realize how much just the simple sharing of time and energy could be a greater teacher than any classroom lesson, and that this was what would last beyond the time I spent at MaGuang for both myself and for those involved in the program. “Teaching English” really is too simple and vague a label for the experience of getting to know others who have such a different day-to-day life from my own and connecting in our shared sliver of time. It was a rare experience I will always look back on fondly for years to come. My hope for my students and for the dear alumni volunteers who have become my family is that they will continue to be themselves and will keep pushing themselves outside their comfort zones because they possess such bright minds and big hearts with so much to give.