Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Does Taiwan already have the English teachers it needs? Yes and no.


As a result of an online petition to allow foreign English teachers to enter Taiwan, some have said that Taiwan already has the teachers it needs -- basically, that there are plenty of locals with high enough English proficiency to teach, as well as immigrants from Southeast Asia who are often not ignored as potential teachers, stuck in lower-wage jobs despite potentially having strong English proficiency.

And a comment in response to this article (quick pull quote because eventually Focus Taiwan will archive it): 

The cram schools and the Foreign Teachers Coalition are appealing for inclusion in the categories of foreign nationals who recently received special permission to enter Taiwan, following those of international students, professors, and scholars, coalition member Oliver Ward told CNA Thursday.

I didn't black out the name because it's a public comment and doesn't say anything scandalous or wrong.

It's worth noting that other versions of this story say that most of the teachers who are waiting to enter are qualified teachers, and many have contracts to work in Taiwanese schools. They don't appear to be random foreigners, or at least not all of them are.

There's truth to the negative reactions, however, and ideologically I agree as well. Taiwan already has plenty of teachers who, from a language proficiency perspective, could potentially be English teachers. And yet, they're ignored in favor of hiring mostly white foreigners.

Native speakerism -- the idea, unsupported by research, that a "native speaker" teacher is preferable or better than a non-native speaker -- is a massive problem. First, it's difficult to even define "native speaker" with any sort of specificity or academic rigor. Someone who has been using English since childhood might not be proficient enough in it to teach it, and someone who learned it well after learning their first language(s) might be indistinguishable from a native speaker (including accent, though this is fairly rare, although I know two real life examples). There are so many accents and dialects as well that the mental picture that the term "native speaker" conjures up is, for most people, not in line with reality. 

Most professionals instead use the term "L1 user", but that doesn't change the core problem: when people say "native speaker" they often just mean a white person, or perhaps a white person who also happens to be from an English-speaking country. That's obviously racist, so employers obscure what they really mean. In some cases this racism affects what salary is offered, both to L1 users and non-native speaker teachers who are not white. Not all native speakerists are racists, but the latter use the same excuses of as the former to hide their racism.

If the industry could get over this and end racism and native speakerism in the profession, then yes, it would be easier to find and appropriately pay potential English teachers who are already here. Taiwan doesn't "need" to import a bunch of foreigners at higher pay than locals receive.

When it comes to the 'native speakers' who arrive in Taiwan with little or no experience and no training but still get hired, there's no reason why a suitably English-proficient person who is already in Taiwan -- local or foreign -- couldn't do the job just as well.

There is another aspect to consider, however. The ability to teach a foreign language goes beyond the ability to speak it. Teaching is itself a skill, a professional one. There's a reason why public school teachers need to go through fairly rigorous training before they can work.

The best teachers tend to have a combination of experience and training. If the experience is extremely valuable, and they learned from well-trained colleagues, in some cases these can be one and the same. I'd hesitate to say that's typical, but it is possible. 

If the base assumption is that any old English speaker (L1 user or not) can and should be hired to do these jobs, then I don't agree. From a personal perspective, I came here with experience but without training, and realized pretty quickly that this wasn't good enough. It took a few years to save up the money to get that training, and I improved based on good advice from coworkers before that, but the fact is, I would not hire the version of myself that arrived in Taiwan to teach. I certainly wouldn't hire her to do the job I do now. 

I do think there can be a role and an entry point for untrained and even inexperienced teachers that doesn't involve expensive coursework at the outset, before you've even decided you like the job enough to stay in it. There was an entry point for me, and I wouldn't want to deny that to potentially talented future teachers. However, let's assume that when we say "Taiwan needs teachers", we do mean experienced, trained, qualified teachers.

By that metric, honestly speaking, Taiwan probably does not already have the teachers it needs.

I can't offer much data, but I am a teacher trainer and most of my trainees are local. Fairly frequently, they return to our old Line groups to ask if anyone can refer a qualified candidate to their workplaces. If that's happening often -- and in my experience, it is -- then Taiwan needs more trained teachers. I also deliver CPD (continuing professional development) courses to Taiwanese public school teachers and occasionally university professors.

The employment rate of both seems to be fairly high, though I have to admit the hourly (and even annual) contracts most universities offer are substandard compared to other countries, especially in terms of pay and research opportunities compared to the qualifications required. This is a topic all on its own, though, and usually when we talk about "teachers needed", we mean in schools and buxibans.

If you are a licensed local English teacher looking for a public school job, you are probably not going to be looking for long. And yet schools are still hiring. Therefore, there likely are not enough local teachers, and the better argument to make is that the government should be encouraging more locals to get the training to become teachers (a process which would take years but pay real dividends), rather than saying Taiwan already has them. 

The training locals get to become English teachers is pretty good. It's not perfect, but training never is. However, in my CPD courses I've found them to be enthusiastic, knowledgeable, thoughtful and creative. If you're asking yourself why so many Taiwanese students graduate unable to speak English despite having highly-proficient and well-trained teachers, the answer is simple: the test is the tumor

The curriculum and testing requirements are preposterously out of date and extraordinarily onerous, to the point that teachers can't implement modern or cutting-edge pedagogy the way they'd like. The tests don't even really test language proficiency! It's a classic case of negative washback. It's a credit to teachers in Taiwan that they are already aware of this, although they may not have the power to change it (in fact, this is a common complaint I hear from them).

Changing this, too, might inspire more people to become teachers and improve language learning outcomes.

That leaves foreigners. There are plenty of good English speakers already in Taiwan, but not many who are experienced and trained teachers. Again, by that metric, Taiwan does not "already have" the English teachers it needs.

I doubt many foreigners already in Taiwan, whatever their background, are licensed English teachers who are just not working in schools. There may be a few, but almost certainly not enough to meet demand. Most are not going to enter local public school licensing programs, which take years. That leaves the international certification programs such as CELTA, CertTESOL and TYLEC, as well as local programs. These programs take a few months to complete, and can produce teachers with basic classroom competency, though most will need further guidance in their new jobs (that's how they were designed; it's not a curriculum flaw -- almost nobody can learn to be an amazing teacher in a few months). 

The good news is that most of these courses are now available in Taiwan, which wasn't the case when I moved here. I work with the people who got these courses started and am able to deliver sessions on them, so I like to think I play a very small part in making them possible.

One of the reasons I went into that area was because I felt that making teacher training more accessible locally would improve the overall quality of EFL teaching in Taiwan, and provide a route for people often discriminated against in the field to change perceptions about what it means to hire a good language teacher. And no, it's not fair that a local or non-Western foreigner might need to take a course to be seen as competitive against untrained Johnny Beer Money, but not having the courses available won't address that. Bringing more diversity to the profession might be a start.

The bad news is that they're very expensive, and in a time when people already in Taiwan are seeing their hours cut due to the pandemic, they might not be inclined or able to lay out that much money. For non-Western foreigners as well as Taiwanese who might be interested in these courses, the expense is likely an even greater barrier. 

The result is unfortunate: Taiwan has all the potential English teachers it needs already. But no, it doesn't quite have the end product: experienced, trained teachers.

There is an easy local solution if Taiwan needs qualified English teachers now: offer incentives and scholarships to locals and foreigners for professional training, or apprenticeship positions that lead to full-time teaching jobs, which would provide an alternative route to the classroom. Ensure that both locals who would like to teach English and foreigners who don't fit the "native speaker" so-called ideal still have job opportunities by encouraging employers to, well, not be racist and not hide behind "native speakerism" to avoid accountability for their actions. Start this change in public schools, because it's unlikely that buxiban owners will lead the way in making these changes.

And, of course, educate parents about what it really means to have a qualified language teacher for their children: a person with experience and training, who might even offer benefits over a white face -- such as a better ability to clarify grammar and lexis that they themselves had to learn -- and that a white foreigner at the head of a classroom isn't a very good guarantee of learning actually taking place.

1 comment:

Edo said...

Most foreigners living in Taiwan know that unfortunately white teachers are more likely to find jobs easily than other people, they're given preference even over Asian Americans that often not only are English native speakers but they're also fluent in Chinese, which is always an advantage even if speaking Chinese isn't allowed in their classes, but another thing that doesn't make sense is how non-native English teachers aren't allowed to become English teachers in Taiwan. It should be easy to understand that someone who, for instance, majored in English, and have a TEFL certification could make a decent teacher, at least better than a random native speaker with no teaching training at all.
But not all degrees, masters or certificates are valued the same and one could ever understand that a degree obtained from a small university in a small country wasn't considered valid for becoming an English teacher in Taiwan, so what it makes even less sense is that foreigners who received training in Taiwan, often thanks to scholarships from the Taiwanese government, are still not allowed to be offered a teaching job cause their passport isn't in English... it seems that the same training that allows Taiwanese teachers to become English teachers isn't nothing compared to what a random American graduated in law knows about teaching...