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Friday, August 19, 2005

 
The Taiwan Debacle
The following is a somewhat edited account of my time in Taiwan, as I reported it in email to the international teacher recruitment agency that brokered the job in Taipei for me. To the recruitment agency's credit, this was the first year they had ever recruited for this particular education company in Taiwan.

***

Before I left the US to go to Taiwan, I was already getting the feeling that things were not terribly organized. It seemed rather odd to me that even though I was never actually interviewed by anyone from the hiring company (Foresight) in Taiwan, they still seemed eager to offer me a job. I had originally thought that because I was in South Africa when the English director, J., first called me for the interview (even though I thought I had emailed to say I wouldn't be there with enough time for him to get the message), I wouldn't hear anything back. The message he left me said he wanted to get in touch with me ASAP when I got back, but left no contact information to do so. Having no other contact information, I emailed my recruitment agency to pass on the message, but a week went by and I had still heard nothing, until the recruiter called and definitely offered me the job. In addition, when I asked specific questions about more details on the school's dress code for teachers and whether or not I actually had housing included in my contract, there were no real details forthcoming, and I still had no contact with anyone in Taiwan. Because I thought the job offer still sounded good, though, I decided to go anyway and hope that things would become more clear once I was in Taiwan.

When I arrived in Taiwan, I was picked up at the airport, and when the driver called J. for confirmation of where to take me, I spoke to an actual Foresight person for the first time. I was told that I would be taken to the hostel for the night, and the next day someone would come to take me to the hospital for my medical exam to start the ARC process. When I asked when the person would be coming, I was told, "Oh, not before 9:30. I'm not sure who I'm sending yet." Upon arrival at the hostel, the hostel owner looked extremely stressed out that yet another person was arriving with a year's worth of luggage. She didn't feel her 8-person room was equipped to deal with that.

The next day, at around 10:30, a person from Foresight did come and take me to the hospital to get the medical exam performed. She also gave me NT$800 as my food allowance for the time I was staying in the hostel, but since I had not managed to get any money changed at the airport the night before, I used all of that to pay for the medical exam. After the exam was over, she took me to a bank to get my money exchanged, and they wouldn't take it because my bills were "not pretty enough." Given that I had just gotten them from my US bank before I left, I had no idea what to do. Eventually, we found a bank that would exchange about half of them. (I know that this has nothing to do with Foresight, and is instead a Taiwanese thing, but I found it very odd. I've never had so much trouble exchanging money anywhere else in the world.)

I was then taken to the office, where I met J. He asked how I was doing and if I had any questions. I asked what exactly my job at Sacred Heart was going to be, since I originally was told high school teaching, then briefly elementary, and then high school. He said I would be splitting my time between the high school and the elementary school, while the other two teachers would be full time, one at each. I know this was never mentioned in my contract offer. He then asked if I wanted to work at a third summer camp session, since I was originally scheduled to start work 10 days after everyone else. (We were required to work at 2 summer camp sessions as "training.") He told me I needed to decide if I wanted to work at the Heng Yee camp for the first week very quickly, because his spaces for that were filling up. Since I couldn't think of what I would do in Taipei on my own for 10 days with no income, I said sure, though it would mean that I would be working for 27 days straight with no breaks. He then sent me back to the hostel in a cab and I spent the rest of the day sleeping off my jetlag.

The next day we (the 5 new recruits staying there) were told by the hostel owner that we were supposed to be picked up and taken somewhere else that next day, which was the first any of us had heard of it. One of the girls who had been there longer than me knew who to call at Foresight to ask, so she did, was told they would get back to her, and then we all sat and waited for the return call. (We quickly learned that "I'm not sure, let me call you back" would be the typical answer to any question.) They did eventually call back and say that we would be picked up sometime the next day, in the afternoon, and then we would need to make our way to the orientation meeting in the evening. At 10:30 that night, they called the hostel for one of the girls to tell her that she would be working at a camp in Taichung, starting the next day, and they needed to give her an orientation before she left. Originally they told her to be at the office at 6am the next day, with all of her stuff, but then they called back and said she should just come to the office that night, so she could have an orientation, sleep at J.'s place, and then already be there to go to Taichung in the morning. She left, with no way for anyone to get in touch with her.

The next day, a van was sent for us eventually in the afternoon to take us to Wesley Girls' School, near the Natl. Palace Museum. The driver was, of course, appalled at all the luggage we had. We got to the school, some of the girls who were there helping set up for the camp helped get our luggage upstairs, and we were shown to our 6-person dorm room. There was no bedding, nor had we been told to bring any.

We took a cab to the Foresight office for the orientation meeting that evening. We were given our textbooks and given basic explanations of how the camp would work and what the rules for the sports games were (including two games that were not included in the manual, while two that were in the manual were to be ignored.) We were also told that the dress code for the camp meant no shorts for anyone, and close-toed shoes for all. No one had been given a dress code before the meeting, though some of the camps started the next morning, and many of us were fresh off planes and living out of suitcases.

After the meeting, J. asked the 4 of us who were being housed at Wesley whether we had made it to the accommodations okay. We mentioned that there was no bedding, so he had a Chinese-speaking assistant call the school and secure 4 of the campers' sleeping bags for us. He then took us to the night market to buy pillows. Since one of the other girls started teaching the next day, we went back to the dorm and went to sleep. (From her, I heard that her first day at camp was nearly a disaster, what with the teachers being told they had to sort their own craft supplies into boxes that were already supposed to be prepared, and then being nearly 20 minutes late starting the placement exam as a result.) It was on our first day in the Wesley dorms that I finally figured out how to use a pay phone to call home. When I had asked if there was any way for the teachers to gain internet access at the school, I was told under no circumstances. We eventually found an internet cafe within bus distance by asking at every 7-Eleven along one of the main streets.

The Heng Yee camp began 3 days later. It was a very large camp, because all of the incoming students for that school were required to attend. There were 23 classes of approx. 20-25 students each. The overall theme of the camp was supposed to be "Create a Nation," for which all of the classes were going to build their own state over the course of the week. Each day, the students had 2 hours of English, an hour of math, an hour of PE, and 3 hours of crafts related to the nation project. We were required to finish at least 7 of the 14 provided English lessons, none of which were related to the crafts. This was unfortunate, because the craft projects quickly came to dominate each day. At the lunch-time meetings, we were told over and over that the crafts *had* to be finished, and we were given detailed instructions on exactly how they were to be done (often including redundant steps such as multiple drafts of designs), as well as a prioritized list of the minimum number of completed projects that needed to be produced by each class. (For example: 1 large class flag, 5 group flags, and one individual flag for each student, with individual small copies of the class flag optional.) The projects were in addition organized in an illogical order, so my Basic-level students had no idea that we were supposed to be designing a state in a nation until almost the end of the week, even when my TA explained things in Chinese. I don't think they enjoyed any of the projects, judging by the way they were so eager to either destroy or abandon them on the last day. The teacher next door to me said her students asked the TA every day what the projects had to do with learning English.

To return to the actual English they were supposed to be learning, the textbook was a disaster. Apparently, it was written as a supplement for the textbook they would be using in the coming year, meaning they hadn't learned any of the basic knowledge out of said textbook yet. For the Basic level, which is all I saw, the worksheet pages were much too difficult. For Lesson One, the first thing the students were confronted with was a 20-line dialogue about losing a friend at the mall. The point of the lesson was supposed to be describing a person, which the main character did about halfway through the dialogue, but it was unclear that this was the purpose of the lesson, because none of the other exercises on the page were related to it. The pictures next to the dialogue, which should have been visual cues about the context, were completely unrelated (cartoons of Shakespeare, Van Gogh, and Abraham Lincoln). They were apparently intended to be used as example people for the students to describe on their own. This task was made difficult by the fact that none of the vocabulary centered on making descriptions, and there was no pattern to follow. The vocabulary instead included colloquial expressions such as "red in the face" and "feeling blue". This was followed by a question-answer matching section on meeting someone for the first time (Q: "What do you do?", A: "I am a student."; Q: "Where were you born?", A: "I'm from Taiwan.", etc.) Lastly, there was a grammar section on picking the correct verb form to finish the sentence (-ing or plain form). There was no grammar explanation for the students to reference anywhere. My students had basically zero English skill coming into the class. Some of them had had English twice a week in elementary school, while others had never had it. The textbook was incomprehensible to them. J. made it clear that all he wanted was for the students to fill in the worksheets so the parents would see something concrete, which was also the reason for the push for the craft projects. When the Basic level teachers said the worksheets were too difficult, we were told that our students were just shy and didn't want to show their English skill, but by the end of the week, they'd be fine. However, when J. came to my class and yelled at two of my students for running around during craft time, he was shocked to realize that my students truly did not understand anything he was saying. He had my TA translate into Chinese.

While I think the general ideas for the camp were good (having an overall theme, projects, etc.), it does not seem that they were well implemented. There was no flexibility for the teachers to create materials more appropriate for their students' needs, nor were the English lessons connected to the craft projects. I find the latter especially sad, because the projects could have been an excellent and fun way to reinforce English learned earlier, and if they had been put in a logical order, could have quite easily built on one another to a beautiful culmination at the end. I saw it done at the pilot program I worked on in China last summer, and that was with no real preparation on the part of the teachers before arriving.

At the end of the Heng Yee camp, I was told that I would not be working the camp I was originally scheduled to be at, Wesley Session 2, because the enrollment had dropped, but I would be working Wesley 3. This gave me the next 10 days off, but also meant that I got paid NT$3000 less than I originally would have, because Heng Yee was only a 7-day camp, whereas Wesley camps were 10-day. While I didn't mind this very much, it was annoying, particularly since we were being paid so much less than the other teachers (NT$1000/day, as opposed to NT$500/hour.)

During my free days, I got in touch with my mom's friend, who was in Taiwan visiting her family. When she met me, she wanted to go to the Foresight office and try to talk to one of the Taiwanese people there, to see if she could get a more clear idea, from a Taiwanese perspective, of what the situation was. This turned out to be ill-advised. J. intercepted us when we walked in, became convinced I was trying to go over his head to talk to his boss and say bad things about him and the camp, and told us that his boss would only route us back to J., as the boss has no idea what goes on in the English teaching division. He said that if I had questions or concerns, I needed to make them known to him, because he was my boss. Though I had already made many of my concerns known to him in as constructive a manner as possible, I said that I would also like to know what my teaching requirements would be at Sacred Heart. He showed me the textbooks the Chinese teachers use, and then said I would continuing to use the supplemental textbooks he writes, because I would be supplementing the real English classes with this "more natural English" material. He said he writes 8-10 of these books a year, for the various schools he works with. My mother's friend made known her concerns over the confusing miscommunications that seemed to be continuing. He said that I should have gotten clear information on every step of what to expect during the summer camp period before I moved to my school. I said that I had not received any of that information, nor had I had any contact at all with anyone in his office before I arrived in Taiwan. When I also mentioned the confusion about what age group I was supposed to be teaching, and how my contract had not mentioned both elementary school and high school, he said I must have received the wrong contract.

The next day, J. came to our dorm room while he knew the others were out working at their camps. He told me I had acted completely unprofessionally, both in allowing my mother's friend to come to the office and in emailing my recruiter about my concerns about the recruitment company continuing to work with Foresight. He said he had no desire to continue to have a professional relationship with me. He added that he had talked to "all" of the other teachers, and that the other teachers sharing the room with me were sick of me, which is why they all left the room when I would come in. This was not behavior that I had ever seen, and when I talked to the other teachers, they said he had either not spoken to them or that they had not said any such thing. He said that he thought I had been coddled by the JET program, which had given me overblown expectations for working overseas, and that when he had talked to my recruiter the night before, he had concurred with that evaluation. He then told me that I could stay in the dorm until I found some way to leave, but that if I had friends in Taipei, I should arrange to stay with them as soon as possible.

I left on a plane two days later.

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