Saturday, April 22, 2017

Taiwan doesn't value professional educators, or, why I'm still pissed at the government


Yes, I know that sounds like a giant duh headline, something we all know. But bear with me, please. 

Earlier today, I got a message from a student thanking me for helping bring his IELTS score to the level he'd need to go abroad, a fairly dramatic improvement for what was a short class (this is not typical; it usually happens when a student has the language level needed but needs guidance as to how the test works and how the productive skills sections are assessed). Another student let me know recently that she also got the score she needs, and will be attending a top school in the UK. These are young people who are Taiwan's brightest lights and future leaders - in the two examples above, they'll be going to some of the best schools in the world and studying in a science faculty.

It felt great, but it also hit me: this is why I'm angry about the new dual citizenship qualifications in Taiwan on such a personal level.

I have worked hard to be the sort of teacher who can bring about that kind of improvement, or at least identify where longer-term study needs to be focused. I've put myself through CELTA (not a big deal certification-wise but it was a huge commitment to leave Taiwan for a month to get it done, as no course is offered here), Delta (which is a much bigger deal and a real professional qualification), received other useful training - there is a reason why I can't be specific - and I'm about to start a Master's program in the field. After that, I might go on to a PhD, or I might get a teaching license if I want to work in an international school. I might do both. 

This is in addition to getting results in the classroom while still building rapport with students, and a decade of experience doing it.

Nobody can say that I haven't done my time professionally. I've neither over-relied on experience without a training foundation nor leaned too much on credentials. In any other field, including education focusing on any other subject, few would dare to imply that what I do is not professional.

And yet, this is exactly the message the government is sending with dual nationality regulations that seem designed to keep English teachers out, to differentiate them from everyone else as some sort of lesser labor.

I won't deny that a lot of English teaching jobs are like this. Many are just fancy daycare, where the purpose is to provide a place for kids to go after school so Mom and Dad can work insane amounts of overtime. A lot of teachers really are not qualified, either - and I don't just mean through lack of credentialing, I mean through lack of meaningful training or improvement. I would like to see this change, while still providing a place in the industry for new potential talent to find work (and I'd like to turn the majority of the industry into something worthwhile and respected enough that true talent is more likely to stick around).

The problem is that the new laws, essentially, say that we all work at fancy daycare. That none of the work many of us put into professional development - essentially what makes us real professionals - matters. That not only could we be replaced by 22-year-old Whiteguy McBackpacker, but that if we were, performance would be essentially the same. That working for a university teaching 65-person "conversational English classes" (if you're wondering how one teaches conversational English to 65 people at once, the answer is that one doesn't) is more valuable than working one-on-one or with small group classes to bring about real improvement that has real world effects. Effects like, oh, I don't know, ensuring a business presentation goes well enough that it plays a tiny part in keeping the economy humming. That one of Taiwan's potentially great future scientists gets to go to Oxford. In ensuring a speech delivered abroad makes Taiwan more visible to the world. 

They lay bare what Taiwan (the government, but also many people) think about English teachers: that we're useful but our job is not meaningful, that those of us with professional qualifications don't have serious qualifications, that it doesn't matter, any unqualified person could do our job, because all English teaching work is essentially unskilled, undifferentiated labor. That they think we don't do real work at a real professional level. They make it clear that the government, and many people, really do believe one native speaker is as good as another, and any native speaker is better than a local (this is, of course, not true).

This is why I've asked you to bear with me: most people make this argument in terms of wages or jobs. They say improving yourself through training and meaningful experience won't get you a raise, and most jobs aren't worth it. They're right that most jobs in Taiwan aren't worth the effort, but not all jobs are created equal. People saying this generally have not worked to get to a higher level themselves, and are thus not aware that there is a whole level of better jobs available if you just make an effort to be a professional. My argument is different: I might complain that wages are stagnant and there are deep issues in TEFL in Taiwan that need to be addressed, but I do essentially believe that if you work towards professionalism in ELT, the industry will reward you somewhat. You will find better-paid jobs with better employers. To some extent, ELT takes seriously those who take it seriously. My issue is with the government essentially turning a blind eye to this, paving the way for so many everyday citizens to do so, as well.

I find intrinsic meaning and professionalism in my work and don't need the Taiwanese government or people to take it seriously for me to do so. That's important; I need that if I'm even going to carry on. I do truly believe my work is meaningful. I won't even hedge that with a sentence header expressing a personal opinion. My work is meaningful.

It seems clear to me that Taiwan would be a stronger country if everyone who was committed to this nation - from blue-collar workers to the folks mopping up kids' pee at Hess to me to a tech worker somewhere - had a path to citizenship. I do not mean to imply that I deserve one but others don't. The purpose here is to point out a problematic attitude held by the government and many people here.

Of course, this issue is not limited to Taiwan, and finding intrinsic meaning in what I do is important.

But it still stings, y'know?

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