Livin’ la vida freelance

by ashkaufen

Nowadays I like to consider myself an English-language freelance extraordinaire. But back when I first came to Taiwan in 2010, in my full-on newbie naïveté and kicked off my career as a cram school teacher, I was bad, maybe even awful. Despite having attended a 60-hour TESOL course to prepare myself, it was still that way.  And it wasn’t one of those “you’re just being too hard on yourself” situations. I was really and truly shitty. I’m much better now, thank god.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that I am not a teacher of children. I have neither the patience, the fortitude, nor the tolerance. I don’t like to shout, but then I also struggle to keep my cool in the presence of screaming rugrats who climb all over the place, disobey my orders and ignore whatever lesson I’m trying to teach. You might say, “just lighten up and play some games.” Except there were expectations from the boss, who in turn was receiving pressure from parents (customers) about the content and material of  said lessons. Furthermore, this job was in a rural area and the pressure to achieve was even greater than that in the city. City kids are often much more laid back because they have more opportunities at their doorstep, but privileged (as those kids were) kids in the Taiwanese rural areas have shown me that they can be stubborn as hell. I think they’re regularly getting their asses whooped by their parents because they hope they’ll stay motivated and competitive.

Whatever the fuck. Anyway, that school had all the lessons streamed to a large screen in the lobby that was divided into squares that offered a glimpse into each classroom . Parents and staff could watch what was going on at any given time. A casual observer of my classroom on a semi-regular basis could readily deduce that I did not have ‘control’ of the students most of the time, which would probably warrant some follow-up viewing, by concerned parents, which would then probably and unfortunately confirm their suspicions. Remember, I sucked.  First of all, I am not a disciplinarian. Second of all, even if I had tried to discipline those kids, there were limits on what was allowed. No sending kids out of the classroom, for example. And so it was.

The whole ‘kids out of hand thing’ was unique to foreign teachers, like me. Another coworker of mine had a strategy wherein which he would reward his kids with pizza if they did well, and revoke his promises of rewards if they misbehaved. Frankly I couldn’t be bothered with that. It seemed like too much trouble. So I continued to plod onward in my own meek and mediocre way. If a Chinese teacher strolled into the class, the students unfailingly straightened right up. Why? Well, he or she could potentially call their parents, or worse . Things that I couldn’t do and they knew it, I had no knowledge of Chinese.

Regarding the Chinese teachers’ military-seageant-esque demeanor that made the kids fall right into line in an instant, well, it was something to behold. Had I had teachers like that back in my student days I cannot imagine they’d have gotten the same response. They would have been loathed. American kids are smart asses, for one thing. Chinese kids have a lot of respect for authority, well, Chinese-speaking authority. Predicaments like my constant struggle to get the kids on task, therefore, didn’t garner much sympathy from these teachers. I wouldn’t be surprised if they scoffed at teachers like me. After all, our wages were more than double theirs. So they usually offered me vague tips like, “Maybe you can be more strict,” but I just didn’t see the point. I’d already given up. I didn’t care anymore.

Fast-forward 5 years and I’m still in Taiwan. Different city, different jobs, married. A lot’s happened. I’m not at the mercy of some stressed-out boss’s convoluted expectations, nor do I have to work alongside Chinese teachers receiving an inferior wage for doing the same work (and no doubt resenting me for it). Chinese teachers in my current job teach their native language to foreigners (and I’m among their students).  Perhaps best of all, I don’t have to teach kids now.

The switch-over to teaching adults was the best choice I ever made. Adult students are self-motivated. They’re paying, after all. Even when they’re not paying, it’s just a whole hell of a lot more interesting for me to talk to an adult than it is to talk to a kid. Okay, okay, that’s just my opinion. But when you’re teaching someone a language, what do you need to do most? I won’t even say it. Pretty often, Taiwanese English students haven’t talked in their previous English classes, the education here is extremely traditional and teacher-centered. So one of their main goals is often that they would like to “talk more” or “talk with foreigners.”

I’m usually more than happy to do that. And even though I don’t find myself universally well-received everywhere I go, I’ve gained a lot of experience and met a lot more different kinds of Taiwanese, as well as Japanese, Brazilian, Argentine, etc. kinds of students/people. Of these,  I’ve had several students stick with me for a few years, and that’s done a ton to boost up my confidence. Not to mention, I’ve been able to set up some private classes on my own after getting a work permit, and to diversify the kinds of jobs I do. I don’t just do plain-old conventional teaching anymore. I do editing, help students prepare to apply to overseas universities, on-site Business English, and yes- even the occasional kid’s class. But I always, always emphasize it is not my forté.