Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Teaching English in Taiwan: some ethical issues

I'm sitting here in my dorm near the graduate campus of the University of Exeter, listening to birdsong and trees rustling in the wind out my open window. It's July but I'm wearing my new Exeter hoodie, because England apparently does not have any season which can be properly called 'warm'. This is quite different from Taiwan where I'd be wearing as little as possible and still sweating, possibly even with the air conditioning on, and outside my door would be a cacophony of human sounds that would be welcoming in the way that they ward off isolation.

We've just had a seminar exploring two topics: varying perceptions towards native and non-native speaker teachers first, followed by CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning, in which a subject course is taught in a foreign language, with the primary goal of subject learning with the hoped-for added benefit of improvement in foreign language proficiency).

A common theme developed in my mind as the discussions of both of these issues rolled on.

When one thinks of teaching English from an ethical standpoint, if they think about it at all, the two most common issues they tend to come up with are some form of "linguistic imperialism" - the idea that by teaching English we are somehow 'ruining' or forcing 'Westernization' on a local culture - and racism in hiring practices as well as pay. I'll explore these first, although I have to admit that the issues I discuss later are the ones I find meatier, or simply of greater interest.

These are of interest to me, and I'll explore them below. However, they feel a bit warmed-over, and I'm more keen to talk about the issues I explore later on. Not because these two aren't important, but because they feel so done.

That said, I'd like to say a few things about each before moving on.

There's little merit to the first opinion - while teaching a language does require some transmission of cultural knowledge (regardless of what some governments may mandate), simply being an access point to one of the cultures of the English-speaking world is not itself enough to destroy a culture any more so than Americans learning a foreign language, or living alongside speakers of languages other than English, are doing harm to American culture, regardless of what some less thoughtful people might believe. If anything, we are a resource for the non-privileged to learn the language of the comparatively well-off English speaking world, and therefore offer them the possibility of entry into it. You can't create equality by denying the less privileged access to the cultural touchstones of the more privileged.

The second, however, does make a fair point. I'm a white native English speaking American. The privilege inherent in this is striking when I hear about how my Black friends who teach in Taiwan are treated, not to mention the lower pay and sub-par working conditions offered to Taiwanese teachers. My classmate is Taiwanese and going for the exact same degree I am, and yet you can be sure that I will probably end up earning more over the course of my career. This is absolutely not fair. I am not 'better' because I'm a 'native speaker', that's ridiculous.

The ethical question is, of course, is it acceptable for me to continue teaching in a context where I know I have at least some of the opportunities I do because of my race and native language, rather than my actual teaching ability? Is doing so a form of perpetuating the system? Would it even be possible to find a teaching context where this is not the case? Is it too much to ask of me to give up a job I am committed to and find meaning in, in a country I love, because I am a part of a flawed system? Would doing so fix anything?

The answers to the above, to me, are:

No, it is not really acceptable (yet I do it anyway).
Yes, it is a form of perpetuating the system.
However, no, it is likely not possible for me to find a better context - almost every ELT context has these flaws. Those that don't are not generally available to Americans (e.g. in Europe) or would not pay enough for me to cover my basic expenses, including student loans (e.g. in the US, given that I want to work with adults and don't yet have a Master's).
And finally, no, I don't think it would make a difference if I left, nor do I think it is fair to expect me to do so.

The best I can do is fight day-to-day for a better industry, although that strikes me as unsatisfactory. I'd love to see local teacher pay be on par with foreign teacher pay (with them getting a raise, not us getting a pay cut). I'd like to strike the law limiting who can be hired as a foreign teacher based, ludicrously, on passport. I'm not sure that advocacy will have much effect at all, though. It doesn't seem to have so far.

I wish I had a better answer. This has been the go-to answer for the Defensive White English Teacher for decades, and it doesn't seem to have done much good.

There is so much more to explore, though.

As I mentioned above, I don't think much of the idea of cultural imperialism through language teaching. However, there is a sort of domestic cultural and economic imperialism at play in Taiwan (and elsewhere in the world, surely) that makes my skin crawl.

Taiwan has been a place where, over the centuries, various colonial regimes and invading forces have tried to assert their dominance over the island, and their primacy in the cultural hierarchy, through the enforcement of foreign-language medium education in schools. Most notably, the Japanese did it by making the education system in Taiwan Japanese-medium, and the ROC did it later by forcing all students to learn in Mandarin, to the point where today many foreigners and some Taiwanese do not realize that, although it can be debated what the historical 'native languages' of Taiwan are, Mandarin is certainly not one.

Now, it seems that English is one of the tools used to bolster dominance in Taiwan's social hierarchy. The 'cultural imperialism' isn't coming from us whiteys this time, it's coming from Taiwanese who have a privileged socioeconomic position in their own culture. It raises their profile, and the profiles of the adult children they've raised, to speak English well and have connections to the Western world. While not essential for political or business success (I'm fairly sure Chen Shui-bian doesn't speak much English at all), it certainly helps (every other elected president in Taiwanese democratic history has been educated, to some extent, in the West).

It costs money to raise children who have this cultural cachet of speaking English well, unless you have a particularly bright child. Cram schools - the good kind - are pricey. Local bilingual education is even more expensive. International schools are yet more expensive, and not open to those who don't have a path to foreign citizenship. Studying abroad is the most expensive route possible, and in some cases not available if you aren't able to put in the money to get your princeling to a certain level of English ability first.

The rich keep control, to some small extent, because they can afford to learn English well. It affords more respect, more connections and more opportunities.

These are the people whose princelings find themselves in our classes much of the time, although I appreciate that buxibans that offer more affordable classes to families that don't have such means do exist. As adults, they find themselves in my classes, either bankrolled for expensive IELTS preparation or successful businesspeople who have access to a high-quality teacher who charges accordingly.

It's easy to stereotype these children of privilege as the same KMT diaspora 'Chinese elite' who seem to hoover up all the money, privilege and power in Taiwan in every other way. Many of them are - do you think Sean Lien got to Columbia on his own merits? Or that Hau Lung-pin would have earned a PhD from UMass-Amherst on talent alone? Maybe, but I doubt it. Many, however, are not. It's a problem pervading all segments of wealthy Taiwanese society.

The problem, then, is not that I'm here teaching English. It's that I'm earning good-enough money teaching it, and you don't come by good-enough money without being expensive by local standards. Therefore, those who can afford my services are already privileged, and I'm helping to broaden and extend that privilege as they widen the gulf between what they have access to and what others of more modest means do.

It is, in effect, a domestic sort of cultural imperialism, which is not at all one unique to Taiwan. I'm not afraid of the Big Bad West here, I'm afraid of wealthy locals who do the same thing to their fellow countrymen!

I'm not sure what to do about this, either. I've considered volunteering, and likely will once the burden of tuition fees is lifted. That's really the problem - people talk about missionaries in Taiwan as though they are so generous and giving, sacrificing their own gain to help others. There is surely some truth in that, for some missionaries. But the other truth remains: most people have bills to pay, and it's not possible to offer one's services for free if one has bills to pay as well, and does not have a large religious organization making sure that issue is taken care of.

I don't charge so much because I'm greedy, I don't think. I do it because I have family to consider in the US as well as US-based bills to pay.

I'd work for less so that more could afford access, and often do give steep discounts to real friends who need help (I'll even work for free if I believe it will make a real difference, in fact, I prefer offering help as a favor rather than charging a nominal fee). However, again, I can't really pay my own bills if I do that as a part of my regular work. I offer it in my freelance capacity because I generally know the situation and the person, but if I did so as a teacher employed by a school, I would most likely end up being taken advantage of as the school continued to charge high rates and simply keeping the difference. In fact, this is exactly what my former employer did in a few circumstances.

Frankly, if accepting less were a feature of my regular work, I wouldn't be here at Exeter bettering myself professionally so I can offer ever-better teaching to my learners. Period.

I'd like to get to a point where I have the resources - as in, I can afford to do something like this - to try and bring high-quality English teaching to those who could benefit from it but can not generally afford it. That's a long way from here, though. That's something the Exeter graduate does, not generally something the tuition-paying Exeter student does.

Another issue is whether it is ethical to work in a system where so little attention is paid to qualifications. By agreeing to work in a system where you don't need any basic qualification to teach - where, in fact, teaching English is looked down upon because it is simply assumed that it is a job anyone can do, which requires little or no training (yes, the link is relevant because in his book Cole does exactly that) - am I not conferring some level of legitimacy on that system?

This is a conundrum for my context, at least, where I mostly work freelance but do take classes with a few places that are technically 'cram schools' (in the legal sense as it relates to their business registration, though they do not embody many of the negative connotations of the term). It takes a level of qualification far lower than my own to work in either school, although I will say both offer high-quality English classes. Some 'schools', if you can call them that, require even less.

Despite being generally good, neither school offers paid lunar new year leave (despite this being a legal requirement) or paid annual, sick or typhoon leave. Both treat teachers well, though there is no greater contractual job security than in any other cram school. Neither has many career-furthering opportunities for those who want to teach (as opposed to being an account or business manager). Neither offers nor sponsors training. One offers a small bonus (and I am grateful for it), but neither offers the 1-to-2 months' salary bonuses on offer from more traditional employers.

I do like the two employers who provide me with group classes. I recommend them as both employers to teacher friends and as schools to local friends who might be prospective students. I want to make clear that I have no bone to pick with either, and the downsides are tempered with a lot of advantages: all the (unpaid) leave I want without complaint, and higher-than-average pay. However, by continuing to work at these places, I do wonder if I'm legitimizing the downsides.

The issue can be expanded, however. If I worked at a school that didn't require at least a basic minimum of training such as a CELTA, I'd wonder if I'd be legitimizing the lack of qualifications necessary to "teach". If I worked at a public school or university, I wonder if I'd be legitimizing the sub-par working conditions that many institutions take as a norm, such as useless reams of administrative work, high student-teacher ratios (up to 65 students in a conversation class in some places!), over-reliance on testing, a poorly-constructed curriculum and generally lower pay.

I want to end by circling back to one of the issues I explored above: racism in hiring practices here. I've covered issues of pay, treatment and opportunities, but another issue I find disconcerting is how many people - locals and foreigners alike - try to justify native speakerism. I've written about this before (linked above already but here it is again) but now feel I have something more to say on the topic.

It is impossible to ignore - and I'll write more about this later when I really sit down and write about the experience of doing a Master's as a part-time student, splitting my time between Exeter and Taipei - the fact that I have learned so much from my professors and classmates here at Exeter. Most of my classmates are not native English speakers, and many professors are similar. I've been hanging out mostly with female classmates because we happen to get along so well, and out of 7 women, only two of us are native speakers. My Delta local tutor is not considered a native speaker by many. Although as a native speaker who has sought to upgrade her qualifications, I cannot say that native speaker teachers generally are less motivated to attain a level of professionalism in their work as such a generalization would exclude me, it is quite clear that generally speaking that level of qualification, and the important conversations that go along with it, seems to be populated by the non-native English speaking teachers.

I can surely imagine leaving my soft academic cocoon for the sharp idiocy of Facebook commentary, finding myself on one of the many groups for English teachers in Taiwan, and feeling my face fall as all of the nuanced points and brilliant ideas of my Exeter cohort are not reflected in the general Taiwan English teacher commentariat. It hasn't happened yet, but that's mostly because I've abandoned many such groups in dismay, not because the screamery isn't there.

What I mean is, it seems as though the general sentiment of the foreign English teacher population - although I do realize this is by no means a stereotype I can apply to all of them - is that native speakers are best (perhaps because they themselves are native speakers and they are scared of losing their privilege?), this is because that's what 'clients' want, qualifications aren't necessary because most employers in Taiwan - the not-great ones - don't care about them and won't pay more for them and being a better teacher isn't a good enough reason to pursue them (and yet pay is low because unqualified teachers don't deserve more), and many other beliefs I will charitably call 'ignorant'. At times it feels as though trying to address some of these beliefs - e.g. "it's fine to discriminate by only hiring women for certain jobs" or "non-native speakers are never as good at English and therefore deserve to earn less!" - with any level of nuance is an exercise in futility.

I do wonder if continuing to work in an industry where - at least in Asia - that 'ignorant' attitude prevails to some extent legitimizes it. Again, however, I'm not sure where else an American can get a job that pays sufficiently well where the industry has not only more professional working environments, but also more professional teachers with more nuanced and thoughtful attitudes.

Basically, although I find great meaning and pleasure in my work as a teacher and have a great love of Taiwan, I have serious qualms with working in the educational field here, not only in terms of employment but also in terms of the problematic attitudes other privileged teachers hold, while talented and thoughtful educators are held back.

And yet, basic economics would dictate that the way to push for something better is to not accept something sub-par. If good, qualified professional educators would not work in Taiwan, the industry as a whole would have to improve in order to attract them. Yet here I am, agreeing to work for what is on offer now, although I find it lacking. I don't mean in terms of pay - I'm talking about general working conditions and attitudes in the industry that lead to socioeconomic inequality, poor treatment of non-white and non-native-speaker teachers, a lack of adherence even to the benefits accorded us by law, and the overall attitude toward teaching not only of those on the outside looking in, but also of other teachers here.

How can we force things to improve if we accept what's on offer now, as unsatisfactory as it is? And yet, what else can we do if this is the work we want to do, and Taiwan is where we want to be, and it wouldn't be much better anywhere else?

I don't know.

The other day I was thinking about how one trains a teacher to be successful in a flawed context. Much teacher training focuses on training the teacher but assuming a generally good context, or at least one with flaws that can be overcome with yet more training. I was thinking about it in a Saudi Arabian or, to some extent, Chinese context where certain discussions or topics might be forbidden, and where many institutions unrealistically expect qualified teachers to teach English with no controversial cultural content. The assumption is that you can read up on cross-cultural communication and overcome these issues, but I'm not entirely sure that's true; I doubt that any amount of training can fix such a problem when the issue is not with the teacher.

This is why I work neither Saudi Arabia nor China.

However, it's also true in Taiwan. The system is perhaps less flawed, but I wonder what kind of training would help me to more efficiently navigate the ethical issues I do face here. Is the Taiwanese educational system, from public schools to universities to buxibans, so flawed that it presents an ethical issue to even work in it?

I used to think, putting on my well-worn Defensive White English Teacher hat, that the answer was no. At least, I thought, I would eventually end up at a university where things might be better. I'm coming to realize there isn't necessarily any improvement even as one 'moves up'.

Now, I'm not so sure. I don't intend to leave Taiwan simply because I love the country, even though I don't have much praise for its TEFL opportunities. However, I can't ignore the real ethical questions that working in such a problematic system has raised.

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