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Saturday, March 29, 2014

professional culture shock

I don't often write about teaching and work on my blog because I am very intentional about separating my work life from my life life. It would be so easy for me to write about really, really good days with my 8th graders, and it would be way too easy for me to write about bad days, and that is so not the point of this blog.

However, the fact of the matter is that I moved to Taiwan to teach, and work is a huge part of my life because I spend 40 hours there each week. As with any job, there are things that I love, like, tolerate, and loathe about it.

Ce la vie.

The other day, I was walking around campus with a photographer's eye thinking: wow, this place is so incredibly different from any American school I have ever taught at, learned at, or simply been to. Then, I began to notice and think about all of the little things that might surprise you about a Taiwanese public school.

Then, I thought it wouldn't be so bad to share a little bit of my work life with you.

Here are the things that most boggled my American mind about the Taiwanese public school system:

It is not free
Each semester, students have to pay tuition. I think it is roughly $1,000 USD. Further, they have to buy textbooks and workbooks for each class. They also have to purchase a set of summer and winter uniforms. The students are also responsible for paying for the AC we use when it gets warm. Each class has an AC card & card reader. When it's out, the students have to add more money to the card otherwise the AC won't work.

Obviously, accommodations are made for students who cannot afford the fees, but it does not seem like many, if any, of my students have that problem.

Classes stay together like in elementary schools in the US but all the way through 12th grade
I teach two sets of 8th graders: 8A and 8B. They each have their own class rooms, and teachers come to them for each subject. The students do not get shuffled for different classes nor do they change seats. Essentially, the groups become these little families that spend all day and all year together [sometimes from first grade through 12th grade].

I think that there are both benefits and drawbacks to this. The positive is obvious: these kids become close, and I imagine their bonds transcend their public school years. Many of them seem more like siblings. The drawback is also obvious: lack of learning to socialize in diverse groups of people and with new people. I imagine transitioning to college in the states [which is where 99 percent of our students go] is extremely difficult after being so sheltered.  
There is no cafeteria or "school lunch"
Students eat in their classrooms unsupervised. The only "school lunch" provided is a vat of rice, veggies, and meat. It's the same every day. Only a handful of students actually get the "school lunch." Many just bring their own and use the microwaves in the classrooms.

There are no free school buses
Most students get to school one of three ways: walking, public transit, or a ride from mom and dad. Some parents opt to hire charter buses, and a few students take those.
The school day is 2 hours longer and the school year 20 days longer
In my opinion, my students are way overworked. They are at school from 7:40 in the morning to 4:10 in the afternoon. They have seven classes each day and even more classes in all because the schedule is different every day. They quite often have anywhere from three to four hours of homework each night. Most of them are involved in extracurricular activities, and even more of them go to cram schools after school. It is common for me to get emails from my 8th graders [13 & 14 year old students] at midnight on a school night.
Nap time is built into the schedule [twice a day]
For 40 minutes each day, there is a period of time called Quiet Time. My international school is one department of a larger public school. The local side takes naps during these quiet times, from grade 1 through 12. My department knows that kids coming from America are not going to do that, so we just have free time. Mostly, my kids make me listen to really bad music and beg me to get a rodent as a class pet. I say no.
There is no janitor, the kids clean the school
Clean up time is every day from 3:00 to 3:20. Each homeroom has a public area cleaning duty as well as the duty to clean its own classroom. Typical jobs that students have are garbage/ recycle/food waste [the most dreaded job that requires a visit to the blue compost bin swimming with maggots], chalkboard, desks and chairs, sweeping, mopping, etc. The only job the students are not responsible for is the bathrooms.
Midterms and finals are a mandated 30% of students' grades, even in elementary school
At the end of each quarter, my students enter this stressed out frenzy of studying for their 10 classes and each of their midterms or finals. According to school policy, those scores account for 30 percent of their grades, which is something I definitely do not agree with, but what are you going to do?

We use chalkboards and technology is non existent
Basically, nothing works. The printers don't work. The copiers don't work. The computers don't work. The internet doesn't work. The projectors don't work. Essentially, I am teaching in the stone age and go home every day with chalk smeared over my clothes. Amazingly, my students still thrive because we are flexible and creative in how we get things done.
Between each class, students have 10 minute breaks & a convenience store to visit
The American in me could not believe this: in between each class, there is a 10 minute unsupervised break. There is also a mini mart on campus that students can visit to get ice cream cones and Cheetos and soup and school supplies. The most remarkable thing? They are never late to [my] class!
Saturday School
Sometimes, we have to go to school on Saturday. It only happens about once a quarter, but it really sucks! We go for things like field day or parent teacher day. Usually, from my experience in the states, those events always happen in the work week and not on the weekends.


When I first stepped foot on campus, I was shell shocked and floored. Things I had a hard time coming to terms with: a pack of stray dogs lives on the school campus and is well taken care of. It's totally normal to see a cockroach or two foot long lizard or five inch snail or six foot long cobra mosey on by. It's normal for the water to shut off for two days [and no, school does not close on those occasions], and the other day, the power was mysteriously out in the middle of the day.

I have had to adjust my expectations and set aside my American perspective in order to function in my place of work. I am not going to lie; some days are Bad Taiwan Days, and I become very ethnocentric and nit pick, but most days, especially after nearly two years, this setting and set of circumstances feels so normal that nothing seems out of place anymore.

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  1. Really gorgeous photos and they really are unlike anything I've ever seen in America.

    1. Thanks! It's hard for me to find many similarities between education in Taiwan and America. So different.

  2. I absolutely love this post! I've been meaning to do one that compares U.S. public schools to Korean public schools. There are so many similarities between Taiwanese and Korean schools - I had no idea. It seems like you manage to keep a good sense of humor, because sometimes these differences can be frustrating!

    1. Some days are really, really hard. I got to school this morning and just wanted to print one poem for a poetry unit I am doing and none of the five printers in the teacher's office work. It's so normal I don't know why I am surprised. I guess I will be writing it on the chalk board. If nothing else, teaching here has taught me to be incredibly flexible. I used to be so rigid when I taught in the states and would get upset if things did not go exactly as I planned. I sure learned to let go of that here!

  3. Thank you for sharing your experience and thoughts about teaching in Taiwan. Some of the things you describe actually sound great (breaks between classes, cleaning, etc), but some of the things are less great (exams, the stress...).

    1. I agree. There are definitely some perks for the students [and teachers... I used to have to hold it for hours if I had to go to the bathroom in the states!]. But the overall pressure and stress and work overload is frustrating. Their long hours mean my long hours too. I don't think I can teach in Asia for too long because of that.

  4. This was so fascinating and just the thing I love to read and learn about another culture! Wow! It definitely would be a professional culture shock to me too! Wow!

    1. Thanks! I think institutions like education shed a lot of light on a culture's values and inner workings.

  5. As a teacher in china, I notice lots of similarities to your post! Except in china, the hours are even longer. Some kids have study til nine pm! Crazy!

    1. I know. The American in me asks: where is the four day weekends? Where is spring break? Where are the half days and pep assemblies and FUN?

  6. I loved this! So many things are similar to Korean schools.

    1. Thanks! I hate to say this but I think that means I have to cross Korea off the list of future places to go to for work. I know when I leave Taiwan I will be ready for something new.