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.

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TADIT Fights for Diversity and Fairness in Taiwan

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The Taipei Times recently published a story about a group of foreign English teachers who have  launched an effort to combat discrimination in Taiwan’s ESL market. The group–Teachers Against Discrimination in Taiwan(TADIT)–was started by Annie Chen, a Taiwanese American with dual citizenship who had trouble finding work as an English teacher in Taipei because of her Asian appearance and last name. Her experience echoes that of many other non-white English teachers who have come to Taiwan eager to teach.

I remember sifting through hundreds of threads on Forumosa and Tealit before I left the states that mentioned the discriminatory (and in some cases, racist) attitudes of English cram school operators and Taiwanese citizens. When I arrived almost all the expats I spoke with told me that I would have a harder time finding work due to my skin color. It’s not that I took it in stride per se, but I wasn’t going to let it deter me from from trying. I’d survived living and working in Korea–perhaps one of the most xenophobic nations in Asia–so I didn’t think Taiwan would present me with anything I couldn’t handle. Or so I thought.

For me, reading about TADIT could not have come at a better time.

Last Monday I was called into a school that I had sent a cold email to the previous week. They were in need of a part-time teacher and I was invited to come in for a demo and interview. I arrive to the same surprised expression I’ve been getting when walking into schools; the “oh shit, he’s black” look. No problem. I smile and inform them I’m there for a scheduled lesson demo and interview. I expected to do the demo in front of an actual class, but instead had to do it for one of the managers and a Taiwanese teacher. It doesn’t bother me at all and I feeling like I nailed it. A quick vocabulary activity, some simple sentence structure and I’m done. As I’m leaving the manager tells me that when I come back she’ll show me how to use the special interactive white board. Her choice of the word “when” has me feeling like I got the job.

The next day that same manager gives me a call and explains that there is a “small problem.” I need to come back for another demo–this time for the director of the school and a different manager– because they’ve never had a teacher who was black. The explanation leaves me offended and a conflicted about rather to return for the demo. I contemplate going in and giving a lesson on the importance of diversity in leaning environment instead of anything from the textbooks. During my second demo I’m made to feel as if they were now looking for reasons to not  hire me. The director leaves after only a few minutes and I keep being interrupted with requests to demonstrate how I would teach some minute detail of a lesson I had all but five minutes to prepare. This time when I leave I’m told they will all me if they need anything else. The “if” left no question as to rather I’d be hired or not.

I didn’t plan on sharing this story via Dreadlock Travels, but after reading about Chen and others efforts to fight this type of behavior I felt I needed to share it. Everyone seems to be aware that this is happening, yet until now no one has taken the effort to do anything about it, possibly because of the assumption that nothing can be done.

According to Taiwan law it’s illegal to for schools to discriminate on the basis of race class, religion, etc–something I didn’t know until this morning.

The face of the English speaking world is a muti-ethnic one and I applaud TADIT for understanding that this is not just an employment issue to be fought in schools and courtrooms. There’s also lot to be done in changing a social psyche that perpetuates the myth that a proper English education can only be attained from someone who is caucasian. Schools become reluctant to hire people of color because they’re afraid parents will pull their kids out. No students, no profit.

TADIT has set up a blog and Facebook group urging teachers who have been discriminated against in Taiwan to share their stories. They also have projects in the works that include lobbying politicians and media outlets, as well as hosting a Diversity Day event to show the many cultures of English speaking foreigners.

From the Taipei Times article:

“We think this fear of non-white English teachers comes from a lack of exposure. If we can expose people, especially families, to greater diversity, we can help change things,“ added Hales, who is organizing a soccer tournament, face-painting, live music, yoga classes and an Aboriginal dance performance to feature in the event.

TADIT is also seeking to garner close ties with schools by creating a brochure to encourage them to become equal opportunity employers and there is talk of working with schools to give presentations on diversity awareness to students. All of these projects require help from volunteers. The group is based in Taipei, but the problem is island wide. I encourage anyone who teaching in Taiwan who wants to help to join the Facebook group and help spread awareness. I’m of the mind that this common practice can be stamped out. Chen and her TADIT organization have already taken the first step.

Big shout-out to Byran Harris and the Taipei Times for the feature article on TADIT.

Peace.

Job Search and Lesson Demos

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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