Teachers’ Stories: It’s All Fun and Games

teachers' stories

Teachers’ Stories: It’s All Fun and Games

This memory is one of many from a makeshift career that has lasted over 5 consecutive years and three countries, enjoying amounts of relative success in each:

I heard the weird howling the second I came through the door. I gave my manager, who was making busy noises on the phone, a questioning look as I passed her permanently fixed position behind her desk. Unflappable, she merely shrugged and then pointed at the clock.

I grumbled a, “Yeah, yeah.” Lumbering back to my room, at the far end of the building, the howling became far more intense, and I was quick to realize that my workspace was the source of the emanation. As I opened the door to the smallish closet with a heavy desk and a few chairs, I saw Mr. Blue. He was screaming his head off at a potted plant in the corner, a long, drawn out howl of anguish and rage.

Mr. Blue was a nickname for Ao (Japanese for blue and a fandom of Quentin Tarantino in conspiration), a diminutive 5-year old Japanese boy. We met once per week to improve his reading and speaking English, and his temperament was usually as sweet as could be. I ventured a “Hey, Mr. Blue, what’s gotten to you?” and he paused for a moment, as he’d been completely unaware of my entrance. “I’m angry!”

“Really? Why?” the only response I got was a shrug. He turned back to the plant, screamed for an exact sixty seconds more, and then plunked himself down in his seat, a beatific smile on his face, ready to begin his lesson.

If that sort of thing nonplusses you and you expect to work with kids, get over it. It came as a shock to me as well, but much like Mr. Blue, I shrugged and went about my day. Now, looking back, it makes me smile, which is indicative of how far I have come. I started working as a teacher abroad because it would get me moving, get me a job, and give me a chance to get out of the rut I was working so hard at getting myself stuck in. If nothing other than a cautionary tale, I hope to inform you of some of the trials and tribulations you’ll encounter should you choose a career abroad.

Acquiring the Job:

To the uninitiated, the most crucial part of working abroad is, oddly enough, getting the job. And the nature of the job market has changed. Not only in my home country of America, but all over the world. English is becoming ubiquitous, even more so than before. That means if your only marketable skill is being able to read, write and speak English at a collegiate level, you’re out of luck. At the moment, there are many foreigners who are trying to make a living here. Quite a few of the “old guard” came in on the initial tidal wave where being from an English-native country and willing to work was plenty. They are now finding themselves uncomfortably hemmed in or denied the favorable work they preferred because people who have real credentials are outclassing them at every turn.

It is even harder on people who don’t have a foreign “look.” There are quite a few websites and Facebook accounts dedicated to an odd kind of racism at work, especially in Taiwan, where I teach. There is a marketability to a distinctly foreign face, and many people have cited issues with their Asian heritage in finding or keeping a job, specifically with regards to submitting resumes, getting interviews, showing up to the interviews and then being turned away because they look “too Asian”. However, these stories should be taken with a grain of salt. It is real, it is a thing that happens, but there could also be other factors at work; the teacher had a bad attitude or was otherwise difficult to work with, or there was some other genuine reason. In any event, I have not personally encountered it and am therefore not qualified to speak to the truth of that experience.

What I do know, and what I can confirm is that before I came to Taiwan, where I am currently, I had 4 years of teaching experience. I have taught every age, from toddlers who could barely speak their own language to pensioners who think having a hobby like English is something to do, to business executives for Sony and factory workers. I have seen nearly every kind of student in nearly every kind of teaching situation. That is barely enough to keep my head above water. The reality of it is that you work where you can, doing what you can. The market is saturated with people looking for work, and if you don’t want to do a particular part of your job, don’t worry. There is someone else who definitely will. You are a replaceable part in a giant machine. If you don’t like it, you are encouraged to leave.

Getting and Keeping the Job:

Teaching is not easy. Anybody who says differently deserves a sharp slap in the mouth. Most of the teachers I know work 12-15 hour days prepping their lessons, tests and homework, as well as spending their own money on rewards and supplies for their kids. Today, for example, was a typical day. On a said typical day, I punch in at 7:50. I then teach three 40 minute classes, take two periods to plan and grade and write exams. Then, I have a blessed free hour for lunch. Here, I should count myself lucky, my Taiwanese co-workers are not allowed to leave the premises to get food and we foreigners are. After that I have four classes in the afternoon until 5pm. Then I spend the next two and a half hours grading math books so my kids are ready for the exam. If this sounds scarily like working at home, you are correct. Teaching is an incredibly serious business, and academic scores in Asia are closely scrutinized by anxious parents hoping for the best for their offspring.

The work culture abroad is also extremely different. It incorporates the culture it’s immersed in. Taiwanese people, thus far in my experience, are extremely results-driven. You, as the employee, will do anything required of you by the company to make sure your kids are passing their classes well. More specifically, you are absolutely responsible for making sure the parents are getting their money’s worth. In Japan, there were specific tests everyone had to pass. At the adult level, the business/TESL classes garnered special focus, and the workers (my students) received a bonus (as in extra pay) if they got a high score. They were extremely motivated and enjoyed the effort I put in to make their mandatory lessons entertaining. Conversely, if they scored poorly or didn’t show improvement, they were docked pay for the cost of the class and the books. Malaysia was a different situation altogether; the students at the university were largely in the ESL program because they had to have a certain amount of English to enroll in the university proper. They were under an insane amount of pressure from Mom and Dad to pass through the initial program as fast as they could and get on with their schooling. Every level of the program was a month long, and that was an extra month of inflated, expensive food and rent that their parents felt they were “wasting”. Conversely, they were torn by the college desires to party and emboldened by the fact that once they made it to the upper echelons of class, they didn’t have to get out of bed until nearly 1pm to sit through 4 hours of class.

As you have probably deduced, my time teaching has been spent largely in Asia, and here things work very differently from home in the U.S., even down to the intra-office mechanics. Your boss will have zero qualms about telling you what you are doing wrong and ripping apart your work, but if it comes to actually firing you, no one will actually fire you. You will simply be tolerated until your contract comes due, and then not asked to re-sign. Only if there is some huge, egregious error will someone directly confront you about your actions and fire you, but honestly, you almost have to try to make that happen.

Beyond that, people take the idea of “saving face” to a whole new level. The way Americans are used to thinking, if we have a problem with the way our teacher is teaching our kids, we go see them. If it’s not resolved, then as a last resort we go over them to their manager. Instead, if a parent has a problem, they talk to the co-teacher. The co-teacher then talks to the manager. The manager will choose to acknowledge the complaint or defend the teacher. Some parents feel they are more entitled and go two or three steps up on the chain of command, which causes all kinds of fallout. The teacher, meanwhile, unless tipped off by the co-teacher, has little to no idea that this is occurring and is living in a serene, trouble-free bubble, blithely unaware of the storm of problems swirling around them. This also means they are unable to change whatever is purportedly causing this huge, catastrophic problem. In many cases, this ‘eye of the hurricane’ phenomenon can last for quite some time and the sudden termination can come as a shock to the teacher. The reasoning is simple; if you are fired or released from your contract for something that isn’t explicitly stated in it, you can legally make a case against them. Your odds of winning a court case in a foreign country against an established, native-run school are laughable. However, it taps into the whole “saving face” cultural tenet, and, really, it’s much easier to just let someone go at the end of their contract and not re-hire them. Then, if they try to bring a suit about wrongful termination, they haven’t a leg to stand on. The work they were hired to do is done, end of story.

If it flatters the ego, when it comes to the actual job itself think of yourself as a superstar athlete. You signed a contract for a set term and amount. Nothing you do (or don’t do, in some cases) can alter that. It also means that the company can and will ask you to work weekends, extra hours, stay late, and respectfully receive, mark, and then dustbin your suggestions, ideas and requests for change. They have a very specific idea how the company should work, and they will stick to their plan, for better or for worse.

This is crucial for everyone who would like to become a teacher. It is far more crucial, however, for those who already are teachers and are looking to spread enlightenment across this little blue-green sphere of ours: you do not work at a school. You work for a company whose sole product is kids who can pass classes. Lying, cheating and stealing are totally acceptable as long as the grade point stays up and the parents stay happy. This doesn’t apply to everyone. Some people, through the twin virtues of training and blind stinking luck are able to land awesome jobs in for-real schools. They are then able to be the best teachers they can. I tip my hat to them. Most of us, however, work for private schools or companies. For my current employment, I made the jump from a buxiban (boo-shi-bahn) to a private school, and the private school insanity was a welcome change from the cram-school variety I had gotten used to.

Work, no matter where you go, is still work. It is exactly what you make of it. My suggestion is to make a choice, commit to it and try to be optimistic. If, however, it gets really bad, you can always find another job for equitable pay with a different kind of craziness.

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