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Why is Taiwan the best place in the world to teach ESL?

You may have never heard of Taiwan. Probably, if you are moving here, many people you talk to have never heard of Taiwan. They will most likely think you are mistaken, and actually talking about Thailand (just in case you are mistaken, you’re not talking about Thailand).

So, if you know nothing else, here’s a good place to start… Why is Taiwan the best place in the world to teach ESL? You will notice that the way I wrote that sentence implies that it actually isthe best place in the world to teach ESL. Why?

Get work (somewhat) easily

For one thing, finding jobs is relatively easy. Teaching jobs in Taiwan are subject to shifts in economy and recessions / layoffs / etc., just like any other occupation on the planet. In Taiwan, however, there is an inexhaustible market for English teachers.

Being a native speaker (or very close to it) is essentially the only requirement for the Taiwanese, who study English grammar, structure and vocabulary starting in elementary school but are lacking in interaction with English as a living language. For that reason, simply being a native speaker (again, or close to it) immediately qualifies you in the minds of the Taiwanese market, which they hope will give them a naturalness to their language skills that no amount of grammar drills can replace.

Many expatriates who have been in the Taiwan English teaching scene for several years will tell you that the market is terrible, it used to be much easier to find a job, the pay is lower than it used to be, English schools have gone down in quality and lots of other grievances. Some of these claims may have a good bit of truth to them.

However, the reality of the situation is not that finding a teaching position has gone from “no problem” to “nearly impossible”. More accurately, it has gone from “ridiculously easy” to “not very difficult”. While in the past you may have basically been able to show up with the passport of an English‐ speaking country and have the job offers come pouring in automatically, now you actually have to do a bit of searching. That said, you will definitely find something if you put in even a small bit of effort.

Rich culture

Another reason to be in Taiwan – the culture. Taiwanese people are most likely some of the friendliest you will ever come across. As a foreigner, you will be treated as a welcomed guest to the small island dubbed Formosa by the Portuguese, its first (European) foreign residents.

Chinese customs surrounding good hospitality really make a strong appearance in Taiwan, and you will notice that quickly.The culture is also rich and diverse, offering a unique mix of the Asian experience. The Chinese influence, along with that of the Japanese occupation, Western colonialism, Southeast Asian immigrants and more come together for a kind of feeling you can’t really get anywhere else.

The Chinese language should also be mentioned in looking at the reasons to give Taiwan a fair shot. You may have heard things about how difficult or strange Chinese is, but being able to study the most‐spoken language in the world is no small opportunity. Taiwan offers a ton of language schools that are pretty cheap by international standards.

Prices are cheap, but the quality is not

And that brings us to the last point: cost of living. While Taipei is considerably more expensive than the rest of the country, even there things are probably quite a bit less pricey than what you’re used to. Big, delicious bowls of noodles for US$1, spacious apartments for US$400 a month, excellent and affordable public transit across the island; be careful, the low cost of living might prevent you from ever leaving Taiwan. That’s surely one of the reasons why many have stayed here for so long.

Who goes to Taiwan to teach English?

Well, you! (Perhaps.) English teachers in Taiwan come from a variety of backgrounds, and are in the country for a variety of reasons.

Practicing teaching skills

Often, English‐speakers who have taught in the English‐speaking world, or hope to, use the experience of teaching in Taiwan to give themselves some extra teaching experience. Seeing how students from different cultural and educational backgrounds learn is beneficial to any teacher or instructor for students at all levels.

Something different

Taiwanese expatriates often ask each other how or why they ended up in Taiwan, and one common response is simply “I wanted something different,” or “I was sick of things back home”. Taiwan is very different from western countries, and exceeds the expectations of anyone that is looking for a unique experience.  This also applies to those who had well‐paying jobs in their home countries but felt like the western 9 to 5 daily grind was not for them, and escaped halfway across the globe just in time.

A means to an end

Many English teachers in Taiwan are, well, not exactly or exclusively English teachers. They use teaching, and the relative free time it gives them, as a means to an end. You will meet a lot of teachers who are in Taiwan studying Chinese. Perhaps they are cyclists and want to take advantage of Taiwan’s famous cycling culture and beautiful, rolling mountains. Maybe they are climbers, exploring the rocky shoreline that is characteristic of coastal Taiwan’s geography. Launching a writing career, starting a restaurant, forming a band, these are all things that have come out of the experience of teaching English in Taiwan. Because of the relatively good pay and easy schedule of teachers, the doors to other opportunities can be opened as well.

Tough times at home

Nobody can ignore the effect that the global recession has had on job hunting. Looking for any kind of work in Canada, the United States, Australia, England or elsewhere is considerably more difficult than it used to be. On the other hand, finding work in Taiwan is actually pretty easy. These are just a few of the more common reasons that you come across in Taiwan. When it comes down to it though, everybody comes for a more or less personal reason, and no two expatriates are built the same.

Requirements to Teach English in Taiwan

Physical objects that are required

First, let’s discuss the basics, the things you need to physically bring. In order to legally teach English in Taiwan, a university degree, Bachelor’s or higher, is required. Master’s and teaching degrees will get you better pay and a chance to teach at universities, but are not required per se. Other than that, you will need a valid passport (obviously) and a health check that will be done by a Taiwanese hospital once you get here.

IMPORTANT NOTE: It is illegal to teach English in Taiwan without a work permit (ARC). You can be fined and deported if you are caught doing so. 

Emotional requirements

So you have a passport and a Bachelor’s degree in sociology or history or religious studies or something. Does this mean you meet all the requirements necessary to teach in Taiwan? Yes and no.

It’s important to know how profound the value put on learning English is amongst Taiwanese people. For the most part, it is seen as the ultimate window of opportunity. Nearly everybody and their brother is constantly carrying an English textbook. Strong English skills mean a Taiwanese person can study at the world’s top universities, work abroad or at international companies, read a bottomless pit of academic articles in any field and more.

Therefore, to be a good English teacher in Taiwan, you must be willing to care about the job you are doing and the impact it will have. Caring about the education of kids and people in general is a must. Being patient and tolerant about cultural differences that one may come across is a must. Having an open mind about pretty much everything ‐ traffic laws, lifestyle, eating habits, the sweetness of tea, language, approaches to education ‐ is a must.This isn’t written to sound preachy or parental, or to make you stay away from Taiwan. It’s only a warning about what can happen if your interests or goals don’t lie squarely within the realm of teaching.

Do I need teaching experience?

To teach English in Taiwan, the primary official requirement is a Bachelor’s degree. This means that no, you do not need any officially recognized teaching experience in order to score a teaching job. Many (if not most) English teachers in Taiwan have little to no teaching experience when they first start out. Having a background in teaching, however, will help you immensely. It will make you more attractive to schools, and will of course improve your ability to teach material well. Schools will generally be overjoyed to hire a teacher with a teaching certificate from their home country or a degree in education. Teachers holding any Master’s degree will have an easy time finding work and are even qualified to teach English at Taiwanese universities.

Iʼve never taught before, therefore Iʼm screwed

To those without teaching experience – you are definitely not doomed. Many schools in Taiwan are used to the notion of hiring first‐time teachers. Some even prefer to look for teachers with little or no experience. This is either because they can’t afford (or don’t want to pay for) those who have been around longer, or because they want a kind of a “blank slate” teacher who won’t bring all kinds of preconceived notions about how teaching should be done.

Also, keep in mind that the main requirement is a university degree – which qualifies that you at least understand English relatively well yourself – and a strong desire to teach. If you are nervous about teaching for the first time, try to look for schools that offer or require training programs. Many of the larger chain schools, most famously Hess, require multiple training sessions that may not prepare you completely, but will almost definitely leave you better off than when you started. If you show a desire to learn about teaching and teaching methods, rather than assuming it’s a walk in the park (it’s not), schools will respond by offering training or perhaps a kind of probation period. The most important thing a first‐time teacher can do is be open to new ideas, read loads of material about teaching methods and ask fellow teachers for advice.

In the end, the more experienced teachers will be the most valuable resource to you, and it will be your job to pick their brains for advice, evaluate it and decide whether to use it or not. On the other hand, you could always just slap down several thousand dollars for a Master’s in education.

Maybe teaching English in Taiwan is not for you!

Picking up your life and moving it all the way to Taiwan to teach English can be a huge commitment. Before you decide to sell your car, give away your dogs, break up with your boyfriend/girlfriend of five years and throw down several hundred Euros on a plane ticket, let’s go through some of the things that might make you say shòu bù liáo! (That’s Chinese for “I can’t take it anymore!”)

Weather and Air Quality

If you hail from a land with crisp mountain air and fresh‐running springs, Taiwan may be a bit of a shock to you. The island is very small, so air pollution from industrial centers can easily make its way across to other areas of Taiwan. Also, many of the mainland Chinese Special Economic Zones – the makeshift industrial cities that are fueling China’s rapid growth – pump polluted air across the strait to Taiwan. If pollution is a big grievance for you, you will want to either set up shop in very small cities in Taiwan or stay where you are. 

The weather can also get to a lot of fresh Taiwan expatriates. Even in northern cities like Taipei, the air is humid all year long, which makes the hot hotter and the cold colder. Summer months are subject to debilitating humidity; the moment you step outside is the moment you start sweating. In the south, it’s even worse. If you can’t stand heat and humidity, you might have a tough time making it on Formosa.

Extended release culture shock

For some people, culture shock is just that – a shock. A shock meaning, after an adjustment period, there are no major problems. On the other hand, for some people some things about culture work backwards; something that you didn’t mind at first, but that gets increasingly frustrating as time goes on. A good example of this: haphazard driving. In Taiwan, cars always get the right‐of‐way over bikers and pedestrians, and if you happen to be in their way, well, don’t be. Scooters weave in and out of traffic like a swarm of self‐important locusts, consuming everything in their path.

Also, be prepared for lots and lots of Chinese cuisine. Food in Taiwan is extremely various, but unless you dedicate lots of time to experimenting, learning all kinds of obscure food words and going where few westerners have gone before (pig blood cake, anyone?) it can all start to taste the same. If you don’t cook and aren’t a particular fan of Chinese food, you may want to think twice.

You despise children and/or teaching

This one may be obvious. However, there are a number of teachers that move to Taiwan not for any specific purpose except to make money and have a bit of fun. While these are completely legitimate reasons to do anything, keep in mind that making money and having fun will come at the price of your sanity if you think kids are evil and teaching is a bore.

“Hello Mr. Foreigner, sir”

While more and more foreigners have been establishing themselves in Taiwan in the past decades, the stigma attached to being an “outside country person” still exists. This is decidedly less so in Taipei, the most international city in Taiwan, but even there it is prevalent. Children will stare at you; old men will randomly approach you and attempt to speak English with you; people will avoid sitting next to you on the bus.

Again, it will be for you to decide. A huge number of expatriates are well‐adjusted to all of these aspects of Taiwan, even if they complain about them now and again. Just let these serve as a warning that living and teaching English in Taiwan may not be a golden paradise for everybody.

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