The Powerful Powerless

Superhero-Kid

There’s a thin veil of power and control when teaching those who don’t share your same native language. Sudents might respectfully listen to what you have to say and maybe they can get the gist it, but inevitably there are times when the inability to articulate instructions in an understood manner results in mutiny: the students can’t understand you so they do what they want or nothing at all. This thin veneer of pedagogical influence is even more frail when dealing with toddlers and preschoolers– those cute uncalibrated snot buckets that I liken to miniature uncalibrated robots.

When hiring for teachers of young learners, many buxibans in Taiwan will ask about classroom management skills. This, I feel, is pointless. It’s easy enough to offer up some bullshit about a foul-proof method you’ve contrived to control thirty or so Taiwanese 5-year-olds whose English proficiency stretches little beyond  “Hello how are you? I’m fine, thank you,” but a more honest response might involve explaining how you plan to make an example of the first student who cuts up, no matter how minute the infraction. Answer a question without first raising your hand? Minus 100 stickers. You might send a kid home in tears (it took him all semester to earn those stickers), but the message–this teacher is not to be fucked with– will resonate with the rest of the class, and if you’re lucky, the entire student body.

Regardless of any class management method you employ, at a certain point the kids are so young and the language gap is so wide, that asking a non-Chinese speaking foreigner to brave such a classroom alone is about as useful for teaching English as plopping a group of students down in front of a stereo and cranking up The Very Best of 2 Live Crew.

I teach a very young group of students –we’ll call them the Tangerine class–and luckily I have a Taiwanese co-teacher to help heard them around and fill the lingual gaps during my 2-hour lessons. Eighty percent of the reason I’m able to teach anything is because of her. Among the twelve or so students that I see daily she is both a source for love and trepidation. They turn to her when they’re hurt and cower in front of her when they’ve done something wrong.  Her pet peeves are like draconian laws for preschoolers. Run a foul with her and you run the risk of being taken into the bathroom for “readjustment.” Every kid that enters returns teary eyed.

While my co-teacher is in the room the kids are as responsive and well behaved as you’d hope any preschool class of ESl learners would be. There’s always a few laggards, but my instructions are more or less followed and when I need to bring the class back to attention I can usually do so without strain. That’s when she’s in the room.

Believe me when I tell you that if my co-teacher is absent I’m vulnerable to student rebellion.

Eyes watching.
Ears listening.
Mouth quiet.
Hands nicely.

These are the classroom commands that are most effective on a good day. Beyond that, I got nothing. I know it. The students know it. After five minutes solo they begin testing the limits of my patience: the defiant nose picking, sprawling out on the floor, eating pocket lint. At twenty minutes I’m left shouting the same commands that ceased being useful ten minutes ago.  Eyes watching, ears listening…

Not all is lost, however. They comprehend and execute “put your book away” with lightning efficiency.

Some teachers employ “the look,” that stern face of dissatisfaction meant to scare students into compliance. With the Tangerines, there’s not a shred of logic behind this tactic. They only understand maybe thirty percent of what I say anyways. Instead of the “look” being synonymous with “Teacher Jeremy is serious,” they interpret it as “please keep screaming at the top of your lungs and continue playing with your saliva.” Maybe it’s a cultural thing.

As young as they are, the students are keen enough to understand that the control I wield over them is easily circumvented due to my lack of Chinese and their lack of English.  They agree that as a teacher I have at least a morsel of authoritative power, but beyond that I’m just the facilitator of  English games who is to be repeatedly contested or ignored in the absence of their more fearful lao sieuh.  The Tomatoes’ perception of me is similar to my perception of any substitute teacher I encountered in the seventh grade: You’re not my REAL teacher hence any interest I show in what you’re doing or saying is provided as a courtesy at best. Unless, of course, I start shilling out candy and Sponge Bob stickers.

Before leaning to ask permission to use the bathroom some of my students would get up in the middle of class and stare me down as they trudged slowly to the toilet, ignoring my every protest which helplessly morph from demands (“Kate,  you need to sit down.”), to denial (“Kate, you can’t just get up in the middle of class…”), before finally, acceptance (“Yes, Kate. You may go to the bathroom.”).

With each act of defiance the class grows bolder; my grip on the throne–looser.

This is often accelerated by attention spans that pitter out after about seven seconds. A microscopic dust mite crawling across the floor has the ability to derail a lesson at not even a moment’s notice. Again when my co-teacher is around I have no struggles in getting them refocused. If she’s gone however, and a few students decide to take a mental break (perhaps to admire the wrinkles on their knuckles), it might take ten minutes to get them back on course.

By then it’s snack time and they’ll have successfully orchestrated a thirty minute break from the strange looking teacher whom they can barely understand.

Alas, the struggle continues tomorrow and I’m nearly out of candy and stickers.

The Search Continues

The last few weeks have brought about a lot of change. Kay and I were able to move out of our temporary housing into a spacious two-bedroom apartment that we both enjoy, we were able to set up internet service (though it wasn’t installed until after Chinese New Year) and we survived copious amounts of time spent at Ikea Carrefore, and the ever helpful Daiso (Japan’s take on the dollar store).

Life in Kaohsiung is slowly creeping toward normalcy except for–despite my sincerest efforts–I haven’t been able to find a teaching gig.

I was more than happy to suspend my job hunt during Chinese New Year. All  schools closed up so that employees could enjoy the holiday and join the hoards of Taiwanese traveling around the island and crowding every shopping mall, movie theater and any other public space to celebrate the year of the snake. Besides taking a break from canvasing the city for job leads, I took advantage of the CNY sales. A family pack of toilet paper was going for less than two bucks.

But now that the holiday is over I’ve returned to my daily routine of searching expat forums and cold-emailing potential schools hoping to find one that is in need of a teacher. I’m kicking myself (a little) because a school that I previously did a lesson demo for called me back; not to offer me a job, but to allow me to provide a second hour-long demo. I turned the “opportunity” down mainly because the atmosphere seemed frantic, with teachers scrambling to prepare for their lessons in between sips of tea. Also there’s a good chance that most of my hours would have fell on a Saturday with the rest being scattered throughout the week. I’m not against working on Saturdays, but a six-day work week isn’t for me.

Other potential job leads include a single conversation before the holiday with a recruiter from one of the bigger chain schools. She sounded confident that she could help me out after Chinese New Year and told me she would email some info regarding the position, but I have yet to hear back from her and all my efforts to contact her have been unsuccessful. I’m beginning to think I’m annoying her somehow. I’ve also walked into schools and handed them my resume with a smile. Maybe there’s a postion about that’s about to open up; if so I’d like to be considered for it. Today I called a school that I recently left a resume at and the manager couldn’t remember if she took a look at it or not. She took my number and promised to get back to me.

Some teachers I’ve talked to have claimed my lack of success with landing a job is because I’m black (one woman all but told me to give up) and employers are nervous about hiring people of color because they don’t want to agitate parents who would rather see their kids taught but someone with less melanin. I did some research on this before I came to Taiwan and found that while it may be true that some cram schools are partial to non-whites, there are still plenty of blacks from all over the English speaking world teaching in Taiwan and enjoying it. I’d be taking the defeatist approach if I were let this deter me from seeking employment at any school, rather it be a small mom-&-pop Buxiban or one of the bigger chain schools.

With frustration mounting, I’m curious as to how others–either here in Kaohsiung or elsewhere in Taiwan–have gone about finding gigs. Subbing is fine to gain some quick cash, but it doesn’t provide an ARC and making visa runs every few months is not a habit I’m looking to get into. I understand the time of  year matters a lot and that lately there are more teachers than jobs available, but I’d still like to hear how those currently employed went about finding their teaching job, particularly when they first arrived. The tips could prove helpful to other newbies like myself.

Peace

Job Search and Lesson Demos

hireme

For most of the last week my routine has been the same: wake up, check my email for replies to job queries, scroll through a few expat forums for new job postings, take off for an interview, return home, check the forums again. It’s a painfully mind numbing  yet necessary process. I’m here to teach, but first I must find a job.

From what I can tell the job search process is broken up into three parts: resume submission, interview and lesson demonstration. Depending on where you apply, all of these could happen on the same day or across several. There’s really nothing to the interviews as most schools just want to verify the info on your resume and make sure that you’re A: relatively sane and look presentable, and B: able to commit to a one- year contract–pretty standard stuff.

The tricky part (for me, at least) is the lesson demo. This is where they hand you lesson (or a blank sheet of paper), give you some prep time (anywhere from five minutes to several days) and push you into a classroom. The idea is to see how you interact with the students and to get a feel for your teaching style, with the possible added benefit of seeing you freak out and collapse under pressure.

Luckily I was able to line-up two demos this week. The first is at a small Buxiban (private school) catering to elementary schoolers, and the other at a large chain school with several branches across the city.

I show up at the first school and am greeted by the foreign director of the school; a tall middle-aged American whose hair reminds me of a less red, slightly silver version of Conan O’Brien’s. The small lobby contains a few tables with kids doing homework and teachers are milling about sorting through folders and talking with the kids at the tables.  The entire school is no bigger than most of the Mom & Pop stores around Kaohsiung and I almost clothes-line a passing student as I extend my arm to shake hands with the director.

After a solid interview I’m handed a lesson book and told that I’ll need to demo a review lesson for 15 about minutes. I look over the curriculum and jot down a simple lesson plan before walking into a tiny classroom of  smiling third graders. They all let out a collective “whoooa” when I walk in and I take a few minuts to tell them my name and show them on the map where I’m from. My lesson plan is to hit them with review drills in which they can gain points for correct answers, make a few self-deprecating jokes and knock out a quick song from the lesson book; simple, direct and proven.

The plan goes over well.

I’m able to get all the kids to participate, they chuckle at my jokes and no one notices that I lip-sang more than half of the song at the end of the lesson. I like the vibe I get from the staff and the laid back approach to the curriculum. The director tells me he’ll let me know by Monday and I leave feeling good about my chances of getting the job. Moreover I’m feeling like my next demo across town will be equally successful.

When I arrive, I’m shown into an office where several teacher’s are hastily preparing for the evening’s lessons. Packets of books are being tossed into boxes, copies are being made, student rosters are being discussed.  Someone comes in to announce that dinner and tea orders need to be placed with the secretary immediately. The wall behind is lined with staff lockers and several shelves containing an array of folders and giant flash cards sorted under ‘Transportation’, ‘Foods’ and many other phonics categories. I’m introduced to a handful of teachers who barely look up from what they’re doing.

The manager of the school (also the person who interviewed me a couple days ago) hands me a book and tells me that I’ll be teaching Lesson 19 for my demo. “Let me know if you need to use the copy machine,” he says.

Copy machine? What do I need to copy?

I flip open the book and give the material a quick once over. The details about my demo are (purposely) vague so I begin sketching a lesson plan relying once again on old strategies I learned teaching in Korea. I don’t know what age group I’ll be working with, but judging from the material I assume they’re slightly older than the third graders I had earlier. Like the last demo. I’ll need to include some review of previous material, but this time I’ll be teaching for an hour instead of 15 minutes.

Along with the review I plan a couple of listen-and-repeat activities and two simple games for added excitement. Before heading into the classroom I’m asked if there are any other materials that I’d like to bring in with me. I quickly grab a toy hammer and declare myself ready.

I stagger through the first part of the lesson and play the wrong CD track during the listening exercise, but still manage to retain my confidence. The students (mostly fifth graders) are receptive to my lesson but don’t show any signs of excitement until the word recognition game towards the end, which my observer fails to observe because he leaves to go administer a test. So the best part of my demo goes largely unnoticed.

The hour goes by fast and I return to the teacher’s office to talk about how the lesson went. An hour goes by before the manager shows up and he looks surprised to see me still there. He thanks me for waiting but tells me that he unfortunately has to go administer another test and that it will be another hour before he’s finished if I want to wait for feedback. I get an email from him later that night telling me that due to a busy upcoming weekend, he won’t have time to discuss my demo until sometime Monday evening.

On the subway ride home I consider which of the two schools I’d  rather work at: the smaller operation with miniature classrooms, or the bustling chain school that wants me to wait several days for lesson feedback.

Meanwhile, the search continues.

Jay