Teaching off the beaten path -- not recomended

I post this summary of my experience here in Taiwan not as a cathartic rant, but as a warning to anyone looking at doing some English teaching at places where few foreign teachers go, and places that are not experienced at dealing with foreigners and their visa situations. Much of what went wrong was a result of my own naivete, stubbornness, and stupidity. Some of it was plain old bad luck. But a lot of time and money could have been saved if I just came to teach at an institution that hires foreigners regularly.

In the summer of 2001, I received a call from a friend from college. She’s half Taiwanese, and her Taiwanese mother’s old college classmate from Cornell U. was the chairman of the board of a private junior and senior high school in Taipei county, which will remain nameless. They were looking for a full time English conversaton teacher. No one told me this school had never hired a foreigner before. Nor did anyone inform me that foreigners were not yet approved to work in compulsory schools in Taiwan. No one told me that my employer would be importing me under the category of “skilled laborer”, a visa category which requires a professional license or certification.

I planned to arrive in Taiwan after a 2 month 20,000 km rail trip from Estonia to Macau. In my e-mail and fax correspondence with my future employer, I made this clear. I was thus not happy to receive an e-mail from them asking me to fax a “teaching certificate” to them. “Teaching certificate”? WTF?! I just graduated from college. I had no such qualification. In retrospect, I should have either sucked it up and cancelled my backpacking trip in favor of a CELTA program, or turned down the offer and told them I wasn’t qualified. Still, I’m only young once, and the Russian train tickets were already paid for and in hand.

I ended up having to send my REAL college diploma and transcript to the TECO office in Boston to get verified copies made. (Heh, good thing I asked my future employer for clarification on what he meant by “verified”!) The TECO would not verify my diploma, because it was in Latin. So they needed an official English translation on college stationery with a raised seal or dean’s signature. There were inflated fees and postage for all of this. My employer ever so kindly offered to dock this from my first paycheck, so I wouldn’t have to pay right away. Then, I ended up having to FedEx my REAL diploma, transcript, and verified (read: rubber stamped) copies to Taiwan, again, all at my expense.

I ended up joining a cheap online TEFL program (which wasn’t actually cheap – about US$300!). I came to Taiwan on a tourist visa, thinking I could finish the certification program fast. Hardly. I had to leave the country three times. All at my expense. The people at all the visa offices were very suspicious of me, and none would grant me an extendable or multiple entry visa, despite letters written and much pleading.

Once I got my teacher’s certificate, the ordeal was not over. There was the problem of this document not having a TECO rubber stamp on it, and then the courts questioned its validity, since it was not from a well-known institution. This process took 6 weeks. I explained my situation to the MoFA and humbly requested a 2 month exension on my latest tourist visa. Denied. The MoFA folks were also very suspicious of me AND my employer, and informed me with a raised eyebrow that foreigners were not permitted to work in compulsory schools.

All the while, my school’s administrators began to veiw me as a troublemaker, asking for the repeated copies of my contract (real copies, with a watermark or raised seal) to give to the MoE and MoFA. They didn’t appreciate having to give me days off for visa runs. I think some of them regretted hiring me.

All the trips to the MoE, MoFA, the hospital, and the Foreign Affairs Police in Panchiao were done by yours truly, on my time. All the fees (which altogether totaled over 2wan) were paid out of my pocket. My employer surprised me one month by docking NT$5000 for translation fees for my documents. I never asked them to send these things to a sworn translator – my girlfriend and I could have gladly translated these things ourselves.

Why didn’t I quit my job? Why did I put up with this much hassle? Because I’m thinking about a career in teaching at the college level someday, and teaching in a compulsory school, unlike in a buxiban, is solid career experience that’s worth something on a resume. Forgive me for being romantic or self righteous, but I have a job that looks like a real job. Plus, I HAVE leared a lot about classroom (and administrative bureaucracy) management skills, which I treasure. I’ve had to design all my own syllabi and curriculums, too. (I was given NO materials or guidance, just given 12 classes of 40+ students each, and told to do my stuff.) After my two year contract is up, I’d feel confident teaching middle school and high school English anywhere, including back home. Teaching in American public schools is no dream job, but if times got tough for some reason, it’d beat Micky-D’s (or unemployment!) any day.

I’d say the way I went is not the way to go for most people. If you’re just looking to put a little cash in your pocket, don’t take a job in a compulsory school, or in any other institution that has no experience hiring foreign teachers. (Speaking of money, I don’t get payed any better than most full time cram school teachers. In fact, I’ve met ones that make more than me.) Pick up your ARC from a place where the path to getting a foreign worker an ARC is a well-trodden path. Save yourself a wad of cash and an ulcer, and and get your ARC from a place that’ll jump through all the hoops FOR you.

Peace, and happy Chunjie.