Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Doing the Delta in Taiwan: final thoughts

I've meant to write a blog post detailing my Delta experiences in Taiwan for a few months now, and with results coming any day now, I've been reminded that it's been put off for far too long (in my defense, immediately after finishing Module 2 this past December I came down with bronchitis).

Overall, we did manage to do all three modules in 3 years, and could have done them faster. I would say the only reason we chose to do one every September for 3 years was money, and yes, money was a consideration (Modules 1 and 3 aren't that expensive but Module 2 is; besides, it may not look like heaps of money but we also like to travel and have things like student loans to pay).

But really, the main reason I think we didn't push through and do one in March, the next in September and then another one the next March, to finish in a little over a year, is that while a Delta isn't a Master's degree, it's still extremely stressful. It's hardcore and takes up basically all of your free time. Although I feel I have better 'academic endurance' now, after the first two modules I did, I just didn't feel ready to start a new one just a few months after the last one ended.

So, although it took us 3 years, we've proven it can be done from Taiwan. We're not the first or only Delta holders here - there are a small group of them across the island, mostly in Taipei, who mostly seem to know each other, but we are two of the very few who did the entire thing from Taiwan (there are likely a few others at, say, British Council whom I don't know personally). Others either left to do the three-month intensive course, or had Deltas when they arrived. A few are in the midst of doing the modules, as well.

I'm going to start with this - specifically doing the Delta from Taiwan. If you're reading for reflections on the Delta in general, well, that will probably be my next post!


Some good things about doing it here:


- Getting books: Websites like Book Depository (free shipping!) and Bu ke Lai make it easy, if you order in advance, to get the books you need. Sometimes used bookstores like Whose Books (Shilin, back behind the MRT and Gongguan) have used copies, as well. Of course Caves has a solid ELT selection, but it's easier to go in person than to try and order online.  It's not that easy to get books here - see below about that - but it's not that hard, either. While it's no Tokyo, London or New York, I imagine Taipei is far easier for Delta candidates than, say, those stationed in Africa, the Middle East or most of rural China. Not having restricted Internet is great, because while China probably wouldn't ban sites you'd need to get articles and studies, you just never know.

- Weird working hours: these often seem to be a bane in this industry and seemingly especially in Taiwan (I could write a whole critique of capitalism based on what the free market has done to ELT here), but when doing the Delta they are not necessarily a problem - bring a book or printout of the journal article you need to read, and you can get work done at odd times of day rather than feeling stuck at a job all day, unable to study. Split shifts are great for this, as you can find a cafe or just go home and do a bit of studying before heading back to class.

- The lower cost of living: this means that, if you're willing to be a bit skint (this assumes you make enough money at a job where you are reasonably professional enough to be well-paid, it might not hold up if you're at, say, Hess where joke wages mean a joke job...#sorrynotsorry), it's easier here to free up your time and still be able to afford to live. I don't know how I could have afforded to live while working more or less part time to do the Delta in the USA, where I was always, always broke even when I was working full time at a salaried job (and even when I had a second job on top of that, which would have made the Delta impossible!). The generally lower hours of an English teacher (more in the range of 18-25, maybe 30 with prep time, rather than a full-time 40) are also beneficial.

- Good Internet - no seriously, due to various family issues I've been in the US a lot over the past two years, and the Internet there just isn't as good as the excellent fiber optic cable Internet in Taiwan (which Chunghwa Telecom will upgrade for you for free, or at least they used to). You'll be doing the courses almost entirely online, so having access to superfast Internet not slowed down by "ho hum, looks like one section of cable actually rides on 1920s phone lines, and I can't fix it, no fast Internet for me, dum-de-dum" which you get in the US).

- The time difference! Man, when the deadline is 9am GMT, that means you have until late afternoon in Taiwan to finish your assignments! Woo! A Sunday night deadline (as is the norm for Module 3) means Monday morning for you.

- British Council - they are fairly active in the ELT community here and there you will find the greatest concentration of qualified teachers. They are able to hold Module 1 exams and are a good place to go to do your Module 2 observations. There isn't always a British Council wherever you are, which may be a hindrance.

- Fairly reliable group classes
- I mean, unless you're at, say, Global Village. But it won't be like my friend who worked in Saudi Arabia at an actual university and was having trouble getting everything ready, on time and energetic for students who weren't that interested in an actual education (and she's a good teacher, that wasn't the problem).

- People here who do Delta really care about their teaching and their learners - I'm sure they do everywhere, that's not to poop on Delta holders in other countries, but there are enough challenges (below!) and little enough professional payout (though we'll see), and it's hard enough to find a tutor and pay for the course on low Taiwanese salaries, that those who do decide to go for it REALLY want it. You won't find anyone who does it because 'that's what you do' or because they were asked to, but maybe weren't even that enthusiastic. I'm sure such people exist (I'm also sure they're in the minority, as Delta is stressful enough that you wouldn't stick with it without a good reason), but you generally will not find them in Taiwan. It makes for a good community of professional teachers who care about their learners, their own competence, and the industry.

- It's a good filter - it's far easier to tell good schools from bad, good jobs from bad and good bosses from bad (as well as suss out the attitudes of your coworkers, who may not be bad but may not value professional development, which is at least useful to know about them) when you have done something like Delta, based on how they react to it. Do they look worried that now you are going to cost more? You don't want to work for them anyway. Do they seem excited that you care about your career and learners? Great, you've found a winner! Having one is also good for getting to know the professional ELT community in Taiwan, small as it is. It puts you on the map as a serious person and just by dint of observing teachers and finding a tutor you are likely to meet others who are at the level where you want to be.

- It leads to some good opportunities - good employers will give you pay raises and more responsibility, it'll be easier to get an 'in' as an IELTS examiner (for example), the qualification looks good to potential students (it is something of a credentialist society), you are in a better position to take on teacher training roles - perhaps someday as a CELTA tutor or other type of teacher trainer? - and it helps you specialize, leading to more lucrative work.

- It simply makes you a better teacher, which I do believe and which is worthwhile regardless of where you are. But more on that in another post.

...and now for the bad:


- Finding books: yes, I'll put this here too. The cheapest books are usually used books bought via Amazon or associated sellers, and it is impossible to get a good rate on shipping to Taiwan. To get the best possible rate, which was important as I was going part-time every semester except the last one to give Delta my all, we had used books shipped to my in-laws at the far cheaper domestic rates, and they were kind enough to forward them all to us in one big box. I don't know how we would have otherwise gotten some of the titles we needed. And unlike a major Western city or even perhaps a city like Tokyo, there is no library you have easy access to that will have the titles you need.

- Exam snafus: there are two registered exam centers for Module 1 in Taiwan - British Council Taipei and a YMCA location. The British Council location wasn't listed on Cambridge's website at first, and nobody seems to know why. It was hard to convince them, once we did manage to register, that there was a special rate for Distance Delta candidates at BC. They originally wanted to charge us a ridiculously high rate per paper (there are 2, so for 2 of us that's 4 fees) which would have cost almost as much as the course! YMCA's contact window was not very helpful and avoided our questions about fees, so we can assume they'd be high, or he wasn't very good at the 'communication' part of his job.

- Finding a local tutor for Module 2:  We were lucky, we had an offer of a tutor from someone who is personally invested in raising the bar of English teaching in Taiwan and we arranged to do the course in time, as there's a fair chance he'll move to Australia in the not-too-distant future. There are plenty of qualified people to be tutors, but many, if not most, are very busy people and not necessarily able to take on the fairly heavy workload of tutoring a Module 2 candidate. I have heard of people who want to do Module 2 in Taiwan and just...don't, because they can't find anyone to tutor them (and in fact this is one reason why we left it to the end - finding that tutor seemed impossible when we started).

- Low pay - Delta is not a particularly expensive qualification compared to similar-level qualifications in other professions and especially compared to a Master's degree, but it can't be denied that the pay in Taiwan is below average for East Asia. This is usually OK as the cost of living is also on the low side, but when you start looking at programs that cost in the hundreds or thousands of pounds, well, it's just not that easy to finance them on the salaries provided by Taiwan's stagnant economy. I'm fairly well-paid as English teachers go and I found it hard to come up with Module 2 tuition (1 and 3 aren't so bad, they're in the hundreds).

- Lack of a CELTA (or decent alternative to one) program in Taiwan - though I hear this is going to change, the lack of a good practicum-based initial certification program creates another hurdle to anyone who arrives in Taiwan, gets a job with no certification, and (like me) actually decides to stick with it because they find something of value in the profession. Before they can even consider Delta, which can be done remotely from Taiwan, they have to do CELTA, which can't. That means a 4-week vacation from work (at no pay, though to be fair even jobs that offered paid vacation probably wouldn't pay for such a long leave), tuition fees, an international trip and international accommodation and living expenses when you may be maintaining an apartment in Taipei (or another city, but Taipei is by far the most expensive place to live). It's no wonder that so many English teachers never even begin, because while getting a CELTA is supposed to be less of a commitment time-wise (and to an extent financially) than getting a Delta, in Taiwan the opposite is true and the folks at Cambridge would be wise to consider that in their market analysis. I hear, several times a month, from teachers who actually do want to get a CELTA but can't because they can't afford to leave for that long. Offering one in Taipei would help to mitigate the problem, especially if it were a part-time program.

- Lack of any sort of face-to-face Delta courses in Taiwan - I mean hey, if we can't even get a CELTA course running, a Delta course isn't going to happen either. But a face-to-face Delta course would make it easier for those who don't do distance learning well, and would help in having a tutor automatically provided. Also, for the Distance Delta, Module 2 requires a face-to-face orientation (with a fee) that is only two weeks, but that's still a fairly big expense, especially as few if any such orientations are held near Taiwan or in relatively cheap places to stay. (This is why we did Distance Delta for Modules 1 and 3, but moved to Bell for Module 2, and I'd recommend you do the same).

- An unprofessional ELT industry/work environment for most people - people will argue over and over about whether training is important to a good teacher but I'm gonna stop that on my blog at least with "yes, of course it does". It's a no-brainer that a teacher who gets professional feedback, assessment and mentoring is going to be a better teacher than one left to their own devices. This can be informally done, yes, but training programs such as CELTA and Delta are quality programs that provide proof that it was done. This is not to minimize the importance of experience, but to point out that experience with guidance and outside feedback is going to be better than experience where you spend the entire time finding coping strategies inside your own head.

So, related to that, it astounds me that schools in Taiwan are just so unprofessional in this way. I am lucky to work for two schools (and have a bevy of private students) that do care about professionalism and training, but my situation really is not the norm. It's terrifying how many schools would rather hire an inexperienced teacher for NT$600/hour than a trained one for NT$650 or a very well trained one for NT$700 or $800, or a salary (without then overworking them). The dollar is the bottom line, and quality doesn't seem to matter - that's not to say all qualified teachers are good quality but yes, generally, the overall quality of education will go up. The result is fewer job opportunities for experienced, trained teachers, and not really much more pay (you'd be lucky to get a 10% jump) for those who do seek professional development. That encourages people not to do something like the Delta, because it's a big time and money investment for not that much payout in Taiwan. On one hand, it's good to narrow down the job field to only the best jobs, on the other, it stinks that the industry is so unprofessional when it could be better. It's also no wonder that the English level in Taiwan, while not bad - I'm not one of those "Taiwanese can't speak English!" types -  could be better.

- Unsupportive bosses: again I didn't have this problem. The directors and managers at the two places where I take group classes were quite supportive of my doing the Delta, but I recognize that my situation is not the norm. When I worked at my former company, in theory they were supportive of Brendan's and my doing the CELTA, but in practice they completely screwed Brendan visa-wise by first approving our leave, and then suddenly, just before our trip, refusing to hold his visa/work permit while we were gone. Technically legal but a super crappy thing to do and the top reason, among others, why both of us quit. It would have been understandable if they'd said it was impossible to hold two visas when we first asked, or before we paid for the trip, but to wait until a few weeks before is just unprofessional and crappy, and if you hadn't noticed, I cannot and will not forgive them Other bosses might refuse to modify your schedule, not give you classes with a minimum of 5 learners (especially important for Module 2, and to some degree Module 3 although for that you may design a course for a one-on-one class) or give you other necessary support to finish.

- Visa issues for those who do modules abroad:
if you don't want to do a distance course, or want to do something intensive abroad rather than spending a whole semester on it part-time, depending on the module, employers may not be overjoyed to hold your visa/work permit while you are gone, which pretty much forces you to do it as a distance course. If you do all three modules intensively, it will take 3 months and almost no employers are willing to hold a visa for that long, which means a visa break, which can create problems. (I didn't put this under 'unsupportive bosses' because it is understandable to a degree why an employer would not want to do this, my point is it creates problems, not that it is entirely the school's fault). Not everyone handles distance learning well, or likes the format. Distance learning also means finding a local tutor for Module 2, which can be difficult for the reasons above, so making it harder to take an intensive course where a tutor is provided is problematic.

* * *

I know it sounds like there are more downsides than upsides to doing a Delta in Taiwan, and there is some truth to that. It is definitely not as easy here as it would be in a city where you had more access to books, were paid more, where schools and employers were more supportive of professional development, local tutors were easier to find and you could expect a bigger career boost, or could take a course locally.

But it is important to remember that some of those upsides are pretty big ones - the lower cost of living making it easier to work part-time and the less rigid work schedule are two big ones, and it is certainly better to do it here than many other countries that have even fewer ELT resources, where it is more difficult to order them. It may have been easier resource-wise to do it in the West, but I might not have been able to afford it! So, it's not all bad.

And all in all, even though it's not always a huge boon to one's career in Taiwan, although I am willing to bet more opportunities will open up to me for having it in the long run, it is good for development generally and a worthwhile thing to do, and what's better in terms of getting something done than intrinsic motivation?

Questions? Comments? I'm always available!


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