Friday, November 24, 2017

Islands in the Stream: on a lack of mentoring in ELT in Taiwan

Just recently, an opportunity more or less fell in my lap.

Well, I say that as though it appeared out of nowhere with no work on my part, but that's not entirely true. As a result of completing a Cambridge Delta, I made useful connections in the professional teaching world in Taiwan: a network I wouldn't have been able to build if I hadn't put in that work and, I suppose, stood out while doing it. One of those people helped ensure we had access to the reading and sources we needed and has been a supportive person in the field since. He hasn't been the only supportive person, but he's certainly been the most supportive one. Hence, a chance to level up. Climb one ring higher on the professional ladder.

In other ways, I've had peers, trainers and other TEFL professionals - yes, it is a profession if you do it properly - who have been helpful or supportive. What I've learned on all of these qualification and degree courses, including in my current MEd program, have been useful and interesting and have helped me develop as a teacher, but arguably the biggest benefit has been connecting to this international network of professional teachers more as I progress professionally. This is true in any field - TEFL is no less different once you get out of the "fancy daycare" sewer end.

I have tried to pass that on as much as I am able, referring people I felt were talented, doing classroom observations and giving feedback, being a part of a group that meets to discuss TEFL-related issues and loaning out books from my now-considerable professional library. I hope to do more of it in the future.

But, I've been lucky. I was in a position where I was able to do the Delta and move on to the MEd (again, with support not just professionally but financially), and having the foothold to even do that can be an obstacle for many in Taiwan. Even so, despite my good luck, local support is minimal: a handful of dedicated people at best.

Yes, there are associations - well, there's one - and very few of the long-term professionals I know attend their events. I've been given several reasons for this which I won't repeat here.

In any case, associations aren't really the answer - what the TEFL world in Taiwan seems to lack is mentoring. 

Some could benefit from group or individual support when studying for Delta, as it can seem like an impossible feat. Some need the security of knowing there are people who can be their Delta tutors - but in Taiwan, the pool of qualified people is tiny, and most don't have the time (myself included - I'm not there yet but I will be soon, and I can only hope that at that point, I will have the time).

Some have trouble even accessing the readings they need for Delta and Master's programs - someone in Taiwan likely has the books they need, but it's hard to know who.

Some quite rightly want to find work that will help sponsor them for professional development, which is not impossible but certainly rare.

Some burn out as university teachers in an academic setting with little support, because the language department is so poorly run - low pay, purposeless meetings, large class sizes, with no incentive to publish nor many opportunities to collaborate with others on development, research or publication. There don't seem to be too many mentors there, either, nor much advice they can offer for dealing with such poor working conditions.

Some are talented but can't get their foot in the door at institutions that would value them because of bad timing and a lack of opportunities to demonstrate that talent.

The support I'm talking about doesn't have to be very high-level: it needn't be advanced degree holders working together or reaching out to bring others up. It could be peer-to-peer, with teachers working together within schools - yes, even buxibans - and finding, creating or referring opportunities to receive or provide training, observe each other for learning/feedback, design or improve a curriculum or syllabus or research or write. Yet not even that is always readily available. Not even the "fancy daycares" need to be the "sewer end" of the industry, and arguably would be far more pleasant places to work if there were more incentives to work together. It doesn't have to be as horrible as it is, and it should be easier to climb out and do better than $600/hour in an insecure job where educating the learners is not the chief priority.

All in all, people just don't seem to talk. The official learning and classwork inherent in professional development is important, but so is talking, and it's not happening. I know quite a few professionals in the field, and none so far has described to me a real mentoring experience they've had in Taiwan. Having that former Delta tutor who has passed opportunities my way - essentially a form of the mentorship I'm talking about - feels like a stroke of luck few others get in Taiwan.

I'm describing what I see in the foreign teaching community here, but I'm not sure it's much better in local circles. Certainly, local and foreign teaching circles don't overlap much, which is another problem. They can and should. Why they don't is beyond me, although I can't help but think we are actively disincentivized from creating such an environment.

Across the sea, I see a friend teaching at a university in Japan who goes to conferences across the country, has a strong professional network, is able to publish and attend conferences abroad, and is not only able to climb the ladder, but there is a ladder to climb. She has people to talk shop with, people to meet, avenues of collaboration.

I want that for Taiwan. While I know that anything that happens here will necessarily be smaller-scale, it's sad that it doesn't seem to exist much at all.

One problem is the difficulty in accessing the professional development training where one builds such networks. While arguably fair for a fresh college graduate to be earning NT$600 a month - this works out to about US$20/hour in a country that's cheaper to live in - it's not enough to save to go abroad to do training. There is little professional development available in Taiwan itself (yet).

Another is that the vast majority of English teachers in Taiwan are unqualified. A strong professional support network of mentors and mentees requires a mix of leaders and learners, and there are so few leaders in education in Taiwan. I can name maybe 20 whom I know personally in the foreign community outside of the international schools, and I'd imagine some out there whom I don't know - but the number is likely quite small. Many schools have teacher trainers, most of whom were given the job because they've been teaching a few years longer, nothing more. While there is value in this, teaching for a longer period of time doesn't necessarily make one a better teacher (though it helps) or necessarily qualified to train. Many of the truly qualified ones I know in Taiwan are either too busy to take on that kind of role, and some have either left or are planning to leave. Of those, I've heard more than one story of someone who doesn't want to leave, but feels pushed out by how education works in Taiwan.

Of those who stay, as far as I know not one of them stays because they think the situation here is great. They stay, as I do, because they want to be here. It actively costs them career-wise, as it will probably cost me.

It doesn't help, either, that most institutions are run by businesspeople with no background in education. Although the atmosphere is collegial at my various workplaces now, I've seen plenty where building professional relationships for development purposes wasn't even considered, because it didn't occur to the businessperson at the top that teachers were professionals who could benefit from it. Other times, it's simply not encouraged, or seen as an active threat (in one memorable case I think they worried about us organizing, and organized labor is more difficult to exploit). Certainly as all such work is currently unpaid at most institutions, leading to a further lack of incentives.

I'm not sure what to do about all this except to do my best to be a mentor myself to the extent that I am able. When I reached out my arms, a few people pulled me up; I want to do the same for others. But if we create a stronger professional support network in Taiwan, it will make professional development easier and more accessible. We might not have a ladder in terms of training programs (yet) but we really ought to have one in terms of networking and support.

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