may i do sub

I have certain attributes that count as privileges when it comes to getting hired as an English teacher in Taiwan. I am white, female, American, straight, conventionally attractive, etc.

None of my quirks show up until after I’ve been working somewhere for a while and I start realizing that every move is lateral and I am teaching to pay for the lifestyle that is my Sisyphean quest to fill the hole that is never filled by teaching and buying new jackets.

Anyway for some people it’s harder. It sucks for people of color who come from English-speaking countries. You hear horror stories about black people being called dirty, or Asian folks being told they aren’t actually American or otherwise. A white face reassures the parents that they are dealing with a “respectable” foreigner, and is a lot less of a headache for the schools.

So I get hired, but the Korean-American woman does not.

So the white Afrikaners who speak heavily accented English as their second language get hired, but the Nigerians and the Singaporeans do not.

This is gross and awful, that goes without saying, but so is not working, so even if we complain, we rarely quit. We still have rent to pay…

For me, I mostly think anyone who speaks English a couple levels better than the students can teach English. The public-school English teachers here aren’t uniquely qualified to teach English: We all have stories about the weird stuff that our kids have been taught as rules at school. For me,  German guy who speaks English pretty well or a Jamaican woman who is just trying to earn some money for the semester she’s here can definitely teach English. Otherwise, it’s just me saying that one accent is objectively better than another, and somehow it’s my accent, and somehow colonialism and globalization are like accidents of history that have magically worked in my favor.

I don’t give a shit. As long as we can communicate in English, you probably speak English well enough to teach Taiwanese kids for an hour a week.

But sometimes, you need a sub, and you post in one of the big Facebook groups, and somebody sends you a message like

may i do sub

and you just have to say no, sorry, dude, you cannot do sub.

Are you going to come to an unpaid meeting on Saturday morning?

this is how i feel when you talk about my working without your paying me
this is how i feel when you talk about my working without your paying me

Are you going to come to an unpaid staff meeting on Saturday morning? 


We’ll take everyone to lunch afterwards.


I am a part-time teacher at your school. I am only there for four hours on Fridays. I only teach two classes. Combined, I see only 12 students every week. I always come early. I often stay late. Continue reading “Are you going to come to an unpaid meeting on Saturday morning?”

Everything I need to know, I learned teaching kindergarten

This old thing was drafted during the years I wasn’t teaching. I’ve dusted it off and posted it so you can appreciate everything I knew circa 2012. Every. thing.

Break tasks into the smallest possible steps.
The first time I ever got observed as a kindy teacher, I tried to wow the head office with a very involved arts-and-crafts project. I brought all the ingredients for kids to make paper pizzas: paper plates, colored paper, tissue paper, glitter, stickers, gold and silver paint pens, markers, crayons, pom-poms, you name it. I explained every step to my kids: take a plate, glue on some red origami paper, okay, well, tear the paper first, then put on some stickers, and if you can be careful, dab some glue here and there and sprinkle the glitter on it, wait, but, put the stickers on first…

I made a pile of materials on each table and the class went into meltdown. They glued the paper in clumps, stuck the stickers on the back of the plates, spilled the glitter, and drew on everything with that damn silver pen. My observer explained to me that I should have given them just one item at a time and showed them one step at a time. In fact, I could have taken two days to finish the project. I felt bad because in my inexperience I had set them up for failure, but I learned something that day: Kids can’t make pizza. 

Provide an example
It’s no use to explain to twenty five-year-olds how to fold a piece of paper into an origami frog from scratch. They aren’t going to visualize a frog while you’re talking. You need to have an already-made example to show them what they’re making. Next time it’s your turn to show your colleagues how to make origami frogs, make a few examples ahead of time to compensate for their inability to conceptualize frogs.

Do a little something every day.
I taught kindy  at a school that provided us with a vague schedule and some teaching materials without expecting us to follow strict lesson plans. This gave experienced teachers a lot of latitude when it came to deciding what to do each day. But there’s no way twenty kindergartners can all cram a semester’s worth of English phonics in the last week of classes before their assessments like a bunch of undergrads strung out on Ritalin. Baby steps. That goes for you in your 40s trying to learn how to hula hoop or play the guitar.

You have to learn how to learn.
Kids literally know nothing when they are little. Most adults don’t know much. Why? Because they don’t know how to learn. In kindy, this means memorizing lots of information about the way we categorize the world and also learning to look for and identify patterns–colors, numbers, correlated events, phonics patterns, etc. Show me a kid who never picks up a book on their own because they don’t know how to read it until it’s been taught in class, and twenty years later I’ll show you the people who need to be walked through the Starbucks menu like it’s a whole new world every time they go. Every.single.time. Nobody likes those people.

Do it right AND fast
In Taiwan, even my kindy kids had to prep for an entrance exam into the next level of the program. The test was difficult, but it was also timed. Other teachers were generous with their students, requiring the whole class to move no faster than the slowest kid and letting them finish their practice tests at their own pace. In my class, once I was confident my students knew how to finish it, I put pressure on them to finish it quickly. Time limits and prizes for the fastest kids had them working at high speeds. In the end, more of my kids passed the test than anyone else’s. WHAT’S GOOD, DEBBIE WITH THE SHORT HAIR?!

Fake it til you make it
The parents of the students at my school expected their kids to be reading age-appropriate English books within weeks of studying English. It was kind of nuts. BUT their spongy little minds could memorize books in just a few days. The kids didn’t know they weren’t reading, but neither did the parents. Mom and Dad were happy, the kids were happy, and so the teachers were happy. And by the end of the three-year kindergarten program, the kids were actually literate. Like once I started reading about the wine I was drinking, I got tasked with ordering the wine all the time. The extent of my knowledge was “Merlots are generally fruity and accessible”. I ordered a Merlot, everyone loved it. I was a superstar because none of them had seen Sideways. You got this!

Cheaping out: 7 silly ways cram schools and kindies in Taiwan cut costs

These are not candied apples.
These are not candied apples.

Taiwanese people are really money conscious, and at the Taiwanese schools where many of my friends and I work, this can make for some funny stories. My friends and I came up with a list of times our schools cut corners in really memorable ways.

To be honest, some of this stuff really annoys me, but I’ve learned to throw up my hands and say “this is Taiwan.” What I don’t get is that we all teach at private schools where the parents pay a lot of money for their kids to learn English, just for the school to make it hard on us to teach. Just like teachers at public schools back in the U.S., we end up buying a lot of our own materials for class projects or requesting parents bring in supplies. It happens so often, though, that I am not calling out any school in particular. Some of these examples actually happen or have happened at more than one school.

  1. Very few schools I know provide both toilet paper and hand soap in the bathrooms for teachers and students. It’s kind of a cultural thing, because many places here with public bathrooms still don’t provide toilet paper and soap in 2016. You’d think that with kids being tiny germ factories that the schools would prioritize hygiene, though. Not providing antibacterial soap, or diluting liquid soap until it looks and feels like water, is not in anyone’s best interest.
  2. A cram school owner promised my students we’d have an Easter egg hunt. She really talked it up and we did a lot of Easter activities in the days leading up to it. Then on that day, she hid in the office one plastic egg per student, with one piece of generic candy inside. The kids were so disappointed. They were polite about it, but I hated seeing their sad faces.
  3. I’ve talked about this before, but my school promised we’d get all the materials we needed to make candied apples. We confirmed with them many times because we really didn’t believe they’d come through. And when we got back from our lunch hour, ready to prep for class…they had bought the ingredients to make chocolate-covered cherry tomatoes. For the record, that’s not actually a thing, not even here in Taiwan. They just pulled it out of the air.
  4. At another school, I had to teach a little cooking class, so I was going to make some nice, easy-to-assemble lettuce wraps with some shredded chicken breast meat, assorted veggies, green leaf lettuce, and a vinaigrette dressing. Again, I check in with the admin person a bunch of times to make sure we’d have all the ingredients ready on that day. When I showed up, all we had was iceberg lettuce, a very greasy roast chicken, and Thousand Island dressing. I tried rolling with it, but the first little girl to snatch the bottle and pour some into her wrap accidentally doused it with orange dressing. She didn’t want to eat it, and I wasn’t about to make her eat it because it looked gross, but the Chinese teacher insisted. The girl was bawling. This was all before 9:00 a.m.
  5. One school promised the attendees of their summer camp a morning at an arcade and sports center, but when they got there, each student only got 5 tokens, which they disposed of in about 15 minutes. The rest of the time, their teacher tells me, they went on a sad tour of all the games they couldn’t play.
  6. Another teacher tells me that at her school if you want to request dried beans for an art project, you have to specify how many beans you need per student. And then someone in the office will be tasked with counting out the exact number of beans you get. They are literally bean counters.
  7. I taught at a school where the principal insisted the classrooms had to be decorated, but refused to budget any money for decorating supplies. The whole place was passive-aggressively done up, all year, with orange-and-green stripped candy canes and cut-outs of the the kids scribbles on A4 paper. If art is expressing your emotions in ways other people can see and even touch, this place would have been the Museum of Resentment. The principal had a big, beautiful SUV and lots of unhappy employees.

If you have any more funny or sad stories about your school pinching pennies, share them in the comments.

How to be an awesome language tutee

This is the flip-side of yesterday’s post about how to be an awesome language tutor. After teaching and tutoring for a decade, I feel like I can work around a lot of my students’ “shortcomings”, but you can learn a lot even from a tutor who isn’t very experienced or motivated. Being a good tutee means you’ll get the most out of your time with your tutor. Given that one-on-one language learning can be pricey, you won’t want to waste time or money.

These are tips to learn to use the language you study, and not just study the language with an expensive coach walking you through the basics.

1. Know your goals: Students who can’t explain their motivation or goal for learning English are not going to be successful English students. If you only have a vague idea about how learning another language would be “cool”, maybe you had better think about taking guitar lessons or learning to crochet. If you need to learn enough English to pass a test, get a job or a promotion, or talk to your partner or their family, then you have a specific goal/destination to move towards.

Personally, the most Chinese I ever learned was when I was preparing for a standardized Chinese test called the HSK. I didn’t need to take the HSK, but I wanted to learn more Chinese and the HSK was a useful measure of my progress. It gave me a goal and a deadline. That motivated me to cram far more characters into my head, in a shorter time, than ever before.

2. Prepare ahead of time: Have a sense of what you want from the tutor in the long-term as well as questions you want to ask each class. For example, if you know what lesson you’ll be doing the next time you meet, look up on your own the words you don’t know. That way you aren’t using your tutor as an expensive human dictionary. Instead, your tutor can use their time to check your comprehension and practice speaking with you.

3. Keep a consistent schedule: This is good for you, anyway, and will go far in creating a good relationship with your tutor. Your teacher is a person, too, and as such, they need to earn rent money. If you’ve booked two hours a week with them, that’s two hours that another paying student can’t have. If you cancel on them whenever you feel busy with other things, that’s two hours of pay they’ve lost. Don’t do that! And don’t do that to yourself–if you don’t make time to study, you aren’t going to learn.

4. Force yourself to use your foreign language for the whole class. You might be scared to do this in the beginning, and that’s okay. But as soon as you can, make sure that you and your tutor are only communicating in the language you are studying. If you don’t understand a word, ask your tutor to define it, in your second language. Otherwise, you aren’t learning a language–you are just learning about a language.

How to be an awesome language tutor

I’ve been teaching English for nearly ten years now and I’ve had Chinese tutors off and on throughout that time, so I have some ideas from both perspectives about how to be a good tutor. If you have any more suggestions, please share them in the comments!

1. As early as possible, have a good chat with your student about their goals for your sessions, what materials they have or want, who’s responsible for purchasing the materials, and what pace they want to work through any books or workbooks you decide to use. If you can swing it, this first consultation session should be free (and doesn’t need to last a whole hour.)

2. Lay down some ground rules about how you’re going to manage the relationship. How much notice do you need before class is cancelled? Will you still charge the student if the class is cancelled without sufficient notice? Will you stop working with them if class is cancelled too often? When do you want to get paid–once a month? In advance? At the end of each session? Tutoring has never been my bread and butter, so I always had a fairly casual relationship with my students. But if you need to be able to count on getting paid regularly, you have to set the terms of engagement, clearly and firmly, from the beginning.

3. Be professional: be on time, be neatly dressed, don’t smell like you just walked out of the bar or the gym. I always have mints and minty chewing gum on me. It’s hot in Taiwan, so I like to show up a couple of minutes early so I can freshen up in the bathroom before we get down to business.

Additionally, as a tutor or tutee, I don’t like it when the other person shows up sick with a cold: eyes watering, nose running, coughing, etc. I don’t want to sit next to a person on a bus who is behaving like Typhoid Mary–why would I want to sit next to someone like that for two hours at a dining room table? If you can’t not be gross, I think it’s better to skip class.

4. Don’t eat a meal during a lesson: I shouldn’t have to say this, but I’ve had teachers who have shown up with their lunches and sat their chewing, slurping, and talking with their mouth full for the whole class. You use your mouth to teach, so if it’s constantly full of food, you aren’t teaching at full capacity. Water is always good to have, and necessary to stay comfortable and hydrated when you’re doing a lot of explaining. Some of my students offer me fruit or other small snacks–use your discretion and aim to be polite and professional!

5. Prepare extra materials: Many students who are motivated enough to study a language with a tutor are also capable of reading their textbook on their own. The tutor is not there to read through the chapters like a brainless recording. Your lessons should build on what the student is reading in their books and give them an opportunity to practice speaking their foreign language.  There are innumerable resources online to help teachers of any language come up with fun and creative ways to practice real language skills.

6. And overprepare: It’s incredibly unprofessional to breeze through what you thought would take two hours, and then look at your student with 30 minutes left in the lesson and expect them to come up with something to talk about. I’ve been on both sides of that pickle and it’s no fun. Always have a couple of learner-appropriate backup activities ready to go as seamless extensions of your lesson. With time, you’ll collect a library’s worth of resources for conversation starters and language activities, but only if you prepare for your lessons from the beginning.

7. Bring in realia and technological resources to share: Realia is just a technical word for “real stuff.” Bringing in age-appropriate stuff in the language you are teaching. Menus, real estate ads, board games, comics, magazines, podcasts, videos, etc. will engage your learners. They’re categorically more fun than textbooks and a good way to show you care about your students. And when they can understand something that was written for native speakers, it’s a huge boost of confidence. Nothing motivates students to learn like confidence in their abilities.

P.S.- If you overdeliver, you can “overcharge.” In Taiwan at least, charging a little more than the going rate will weed out the casual students who aren’t going to do the work they need to do to learn. And if you are professional and prepared for every lesson, you can be compensated for it. Motivated students will pay extra for motivated teachers.


Teaching in Taiwan: Private students

This is a continuation of my posts about the pros and cons of different teaching gigs in Taiwan.

Most of us call our one-on-one tutees “privates” and after all these years it still makes me giggle because that was the preferred euphemism for genitals in my family.

Pros: You usually get paid more per hour to teach one-on-one than you get paid to teach a class.

Cons: I hate privates. I get so bored teaching one person, a kid or an adult. The kids are exhausted already–they’re in school forever and ever, then buxiban classes, then you come right into their living room with extra brain work. Some of them are cooler than others, sure, but any eight-year-old can have an off night. And the last thing I want to do after teaching all day is teach for another hour, especially when my student is a surly, tired kid who really just needs to be set loose in the park for an hour like the human animal s/he is.

As for adults, I’ve been the English tutor and the Chinese tutee, and either way, things can get weird. First of all, Chinese people have no patience for this silly Western idea about free time. Like they will ask you what you are doing at all hours of the week and then come up with some crazy suggestion about teaching them on Sunday mornings or Friday nights. And if you say no without lying about having some other money-making opportunity, they will be confused or annoyed that you aren’t trying to earn as much money as possible, whenever possible. Beyond that, I find that students don’t always stick to the lessons, including me. After a few weeks, if you get along with each other, then the “classes” turn into these friendly, low-key therapy sessions. So you end up having a fairly intimate conversation with this other adult woman, and then you exchange money. I don’t like it.

I am sure that there are plenty of teachers in Taiwan who have taught privates without this problem, but I am telling you how it went down for me. I stopped taking on privates and stopped going to private Chinese classes because it just got too weird or boring to be talking about husbands and housework and maybe like dreams deferred at the same time for an hour every week.

The other drawback is that privates can and will cancel at the drop of a hat. Teachers who rely on private students for an important part of their income will often come up with some kind of contract that mandates that they still get paid even if the student remembered just an hour before class that it’s grandma’s birthday.

Also, you have to come up with your own materials and lesson plans and I find that it takes a lot more work to come up with a really engaging private lesson than it does to put together a fun lesson for 12 kids.

And finally, privates are technically illegal, though it has always seemed like there’s much lower risk of getting caught teaching in someone’s home. If you’re teaching a lot of privates, you might want to keep it on the down-low though.

Conclusion: Some teachers love privates. Some teachers make most of their income from privates. Some teachers believe that teaching privates is more enjoyable and less stressful than teaching classes. I am not one of those teachers.

Teaching in Taiwan: Illegal teaching gigs

This is a continuation of my post about different teaching situations in Taiwan. I’ve already talked about my experiences teaching in a big chain school and working for a salary.

After a couple of years, I found myself in a new situation where the school who was sponsoring my ARC was paying me an excellent hourly rate, but for only a few hours a week. I was greedy and I wanted to keep those high-paying hours, but all told, they weren’t enough to pay my bills. I took on hours at a bunch of different schools to make up the difference.

Pros: I felt more free in this situation than in any other situation I’d been in and I loved it. I worked here and there for just a day or two a week, two-four hours a week. I showed up early and tried to do my job well and my managers loved me because the kind of teachers who want to work off the radar aren’t always the kind of teachers who give any kind of shit about teaching. When I wanted to take a whole week off, nobody complained because I was only missing a class or two at each school and because they wanted me to come back when I could.

Cons: But, I was teaching illegally and I felt very nervous about that. I know people and know of people who have gotten deported for teaching at schools they didn’t have a work permit to teach at, so it felt a lot more risky than teaching even at a big kindergarten with pictures of foreign teachers on all the advertising. (It’s also illegal for foreign teachers to teach kindy here.)

Conclusion: Ultimately, I looked for and found a better salaried position because I wanted to get my APRC and wanted to be working enough hours legally and making enough money legally to qualify in five years. The thing is, once I have my APRC, I can teach at all those schools legally, anyway, and I won’t have to worry about getting in trouble.

NB: I live in Zhongli in Taoyuan and there’s a really nice ratio of well-off people who want to learn English to foreign English teachers. If you want to live somewhere cooler, I don’t blame you, but the job market will be a lot more competitive.

Teaching in Taiwan: Salaried jobs

This is a continuation of my post on the pros and cons of different teaching situations in Taiwan.

I left my big chain school job in 2006 to work at an English-immersion kindergarten from 9-4, Monday-Friday. I had two hours for lunch while the kids napped. I also taught cram school classes from 4-6 for an hourly wage.

Some people work hours like 11-6, five days a week. They aren’t teaching all those hours, but they are expected to put in face time in the office. You can use that time to prep and grade homework, and then it’s like you’re getting paid to do all the stuff a responsible teacher would do anyway. I found that just the fact of being paid salary instead of hourly made me way friendlier about putting in extra prep time for my classes without feeling like I was volunteering my free time to my employer.

Pros: Working for a salary was great. I got a big raise just by switching schools, and I didn’t have to work evenings or Saturdays anymore.

Cons:  Teaching kindy full-time more of a “real” teaching job: I had to come up with lesson plans and activities on my own. I was prepared to do all that after two years at a corporate buxiban, though. Occasionally, I still had to do some activities on Saturdays or evenings without any extra pay, but I didn’t mind so much because I was salaried and not hourly. BUT I was at a school that respected the [foreign] teachers’ free time. Be aware the some schools will give you a salary and then feel entitled to take up a lot of your time outside of your teaching hours, too. I’ve seen foreign teachers have to show up, unpaid, to scrub the walls alongside everybody else on a Saturday morning. Any owner/manager who steals any employees’ time should get lost. Fortunately, I didn’t work at a school like that. However, at my school, it was a big problem if I wanted to take even one day off, for any reason. It’s difficult or impossible to find subs for afternoon classes because just about everyone who is working at all is working in the afternoons. The school made promises about having a foreign teacher in the room for every single class, so our options were always very limited.

Also, be aware that it’s illegal for foreigners to teach kindergarten here. I’ve heard many different reasons why this is the case, but the bottom line is that you can get in trouble for it, as in deported. However, there’s also a big market for English kindergartens, so the schools and the authorities usually work together to avoid creating situations where anyone would get in trouble. Generally, the authorities give the schools lots of advance warning about when they are doing their inspections, and the schools set up escape routes or hiding places for the foreign teachers to avoid confrontation with the authorities. Generally.

Conclusion: If you have a low tolerance for risk, don’t teach kindy. But a lot of foreign teachers and schools believe the risk of getting “caught” is very small. You make more money working those morning hours, too. I happily worked full-time for a salary for many years. I quit when I started to feel like the responsibilities were taking up more and more of my time outside the classroom and the salary hadn’t budged for ten years. Also, after a couple of years, I was bored teaching kindy full-time. I think it’s very possible to find an excellent salaried gig, but do your homework before you commit to a contract at any school.

Teaching options in Taiwan: Big Chain School

I’ve been teaching in Taiwan for about eight years, off and on since 2004. I’ve had a few different teaching experiences during that time and I thought it might be helpful for those interested to discuss the differences and what I think are the pros and cons of different situations.

From 2004-2006 I worked for a big chain school. It was my first job out of college. I didn’t like it there much, but I stayed because it took me a long time to work up the courage to leave. I don’t think I’d like it any more today for the same reasons I didn’t like it back then.
Cons: It’s a really corporate environment. You have to punch in ten minutes before class, grade a pile of homework right after class, follow the pre-made lesson plans EXACTLY. You have to go for training a lot during your first year. You might get observed a lot by middle managers who feel obligated to complain whether or not your class was well run. There are weird rules about bonuses and raises that look and feel like ways for management to play mind games with the staff. And the staff is really big, so everyone has to follow the same rules. For example, when one of the new American teachers requested a couple of Saturdays off because, hey, she wanted to see some of Taiwan during the year she was here, then management lashed out with a new “rule” that none of us were allowed to take any more Saturdays off–indefinitely. What I resented most probably was that they felt like they owned all our time. There was no saying that you were unavailable certain days of the week or times of the day. Your schedule could change for the better or worse at the drop of a hat. Also, the hourly pay at the chain schools is generally lower than it is elsewhere, especially for the newest teachers.

Pros: If you’re new to Taiwan and new to teaching English, a big chain school will make sure all your visa paperwork is in order, help you find a place to live, train you, and provide the materials they want you to use. Not having to figure all that out when you probably don’t even speak Chinese is a big, fat luxury that you might want to take advantage of. And after a year at a big chain school with a recognizable name, if you want to stay in Taiwan, you’ll be extra-qualified to find a better-paying gig elsewhere.

Conclusion: Despite my criticisms, even I’ve considered going back to a [different] big chain school for the next two years to make sure I could get my Alien Permanent Resident Card (APRC) on time. It would be a stable place to work and I know they would handle my paperwork correctly. If you’re new, you might like working at a big chain school for similar reasons. But most people who want to live in Taiwan beyond a year would probably be able to find more comfortable situations at other schools.

This is turning out to be longer than I expected, so I’ll put information about other kinds of schools in the next post.