Interview with Heather Richards, An American Teacher in Taiwan

Heather RichardsToday we’ve featuring an interview with Heather Richards, also known in the travel blogosphere as the Traveling Vanilla Bean. Heather is currently teaching at a local buxiban in Taipei City. We’re excited to have her as a guest interview today, not only because she’s a great teacher, but also because she’s a great travel writer with a lot of good tips and practical advice for new teachers that are considering teaching abroad. So read on to find out how Heather got started on her path in Asia.

1. Hi Heather. Thank you so much for joining us today. Let’s start with you telling us a little about yourself. 

I’m a 23 year old American from suburban Connecticut. I have lived in Taiwan for about eight months now and I’m really happy here.

I went to a small liberal arts university in Massachusetts that had a bit of an international student population where I studied Psychology and Education. When I graduated I started teaching 6th grade at an urban magnet school for my Masters in Teaching. I studied abroad in Australia for five months in my junior year of college and that’s when I fell in love with travel. While there I was able to spend a week camping and hiking in “the bush”, road tripping the east coast in a cheap van that broke down, enjoying the Aussie friendliness and sunshine on the daily. I even made it to Bali on one of our week-long holidays. I’ve always been interested in other places and cultures but it was this experience that poured gasoline on the flame in terms of my passion for travel!

When I got back to the States I had some trouble readjusting, “reverse culture shock” as they say, and was more than eager to go abroad again. Thus, when the time was coming that I’d finally be done with school, I started looking at jobs abroad: South America, Asia, Europe…Anything outside the US was fair game, as long as I could make enough money to get by. After a lot of contemplation, worrying, doubting, and hoping, I chose Taiwan! Committing a year of my life to a place I’d never been and where didn’t know any of the language was the biggest risk I’ve ever taken. I am happy to say it was a good choice!

2. How have you enjoyed teaching in Taiwan to date? Heather at at Taiwanese Temple

This is an interesting question for me to answer because I can say I’ve enjoyed it and I’ve also hated it. And I’m not talking about having good days and bad. This is also different for me than for most teachers coming to Taiwan because my career is teaching! I love it and I am a certified teacher back in the States.

The short version:

I was unhappy and felt stifled by my first job because I need opportunities for freedom and creativity, so I moved and changed jobs, and now love where I teach and would be hard pressed to find anything better!

The long version:

At first I really hated it. I was working in ShaLu Township, which is in Taichung County in central Taiwan. My manager was amazingly sweet and helpful, I became great friends with the only other teacher at my school and loved and enjoyed most of my students. It was the fact that there was no opportunity to adjust to students’ needs or change the pace that rubbed me the wrong way. My experience is different than many because I’ve already been trained to teach. I have my philosophy, methods and creative ideas that I like to implement in my own classroom and there was no room for any of that at my first school. I was being stifled. All the codes for the books and classes were confusing me and it seemed I was always forgetting something in that first month or so. On top of this, I really didn’t like living in ShaLu. There’s nothing to do! And I don’t mean there’s a quiet nightlife scene- I mean there’s no mountains, rivers, hikes, bars, restaurants with English menus, English-speakers, and definitely no clubs. Thus, I decided to pick up and move to Taipei.

To make a long story short, I wound up at an awesome bǔxíbān with a blend of Eastern and Western ideology that’s more interested in what’s best for every child rather than just making the parents happy so they’ll continue paying. I have total freedom in my lessons and creativity is encouraged! Over the summer it was ‘summer session’, a different more informal type of English class than the rest of the year. It revolved around a theme, which this year was the 2012 Olympics. Let’s just say I’ve had my fair share of Olympic-related everything after talking Olympics every day for two months! But I’m halfway through with the regular school year and I love it. My boss is very understanding, the students are amazing and I can feel myself growing and can see my teaching really improving. I can see myself and my students progressing faster than they were at my old school, and also I have the satisfaction of knowing that their love for the English language and much of what they know is due to my teaching rather than purely the curriculum being used.

Heather at the Hot Springs in Taiwan3. What advice can you give to new teachers interested in teaching in Taiwan?

Really think about what you want from the year before choosing what city to live in. Do your research! Do you want Taipei (big city life) or a quiet, small town lifestyle? Make sure you know exactly where your school is before coming. I thought living in a small town would be ‘authentic’ and that it would be more beautiful, but in my case that wasn’t true. Since I knew only five or six Chinese phrases when I came, it was hard to communicate with people, making me resort to McDonalds too often. You can’t exactly have real Taiwanese friends when neither of you speak the same language. Some suburbs are in beautiful locations, but Shalu wasn’t. There weren’t mountains nearby, no waterfalls or secret thrills to be found. Shalu was a 40min scooter ride or a 1 hour bus ride away, making it just far enough to not be convenient. My point is, know exactly where your school is and consider what you’re looking for from the experience before committing. Though if you have a problem you can just do what I did and find another job!

I highly suggest you learn some Chinese before coming. Even knowing just rudimentary phrases and how to count to ten will help you tremendously

I wrote several posts on my blog, Traveling Vanilla Bean, for the purpose of helping people moving to Taiwan. If you’d like to learn more, you can check out these posts!

  • Where Should You Live in Taiwan?: Big City vs. Small-town Life
  • How to: Find an Apartment
  • Should You Get a Scooter?
  • Chinese – Where Do I Even Begin?
  • My Ever-growing Taiwan Bucket List

4. Can you tell us about a particularly powerful moment in your classroom?Heather Jumping

I had recently started a new routine for the beginning of class, ‘Story Time’, where I read one lively picture book that they wouldn’t be able to read on their own. I was excited about this because I hoped it would get them excited about reading English books by falling in love with the stories and colorful characters in front of them. One day a few weeks after starting this routine it was the end of class. I told my students that we could play a game when I finished helping one student finish his work. I asked them to choose a book and to sit and read with a friend until we were ready. Once we were done, I looked up to find every student engrossed in the books, asking each other questions about what was going on in the story, helping each other sound out words, giggling about the animated illustrations before them. I just sat there watching them all interact, collaborate and read! When I got these students we were working on the alphabet and sounding out words letter by letter, like “cc-aa-tt, cat.” I felt so proud and I just hope that my students will love learning English and that they’ll continue to love English stories. Language can be fun and it’s not grammar lessons and drilling of sentence patterns that makes someone love a language- just something for language teachers to keep in mind!

5. What are the positive and negative aspects of living in Taiwan?

I have a travel blog where I write about my experiences living abroad and I recently wrote a list of things I’ll miss and things I won’t miss about Taiwan. I think sharing that list will better answer this question than me rambling about it. My article on things I’ll miss and won’t miss in Taiwan sums up all the positive and negative aspects of my life here.
Cing Tiang Gang6. Have you had the opportunity to travel much in Taiwan or in Asia?

Taipei is an amazing home base for adventure! I have seen so much of northern Taiwan and have discovered so many beautiful and interesting places. I haven’t wasted any time. Here’s what I’ve hit in northern Taiwan so far: I’ve made pottery and walked the old streets of Yingge, also known as Taiwan’s pottery town. I’ve photographed the ornate temples and wandered the old streets of Sanxia. A visit to Baishawan beach is a summer activity you shouldn’t ignore. I’ve explored the non-touristy area of Pinglin. I’ve learned about aboriginal culture and Taiwan’s hot spring culture while relaxing with Taiwanese grandmas and grandpas in Wulai. I’ve photographed the famous streets of Jiufen’s night market. I’ve enjoyed Yangmingshan’s secret hot springs, waterfalls and fumaroles on my own and with friends. I’ve rented a paddleboat with friends to explore the river in Xindian. I’ve climbed too many stairs to see 101 and hiked to see the city view from Elephant Mountain. I’ve walked on alien terrain with strange-looking rock formations at Yehliu Geopark. I’ve ridden the Maokong Gondola and sipped tea in the mountains. I’ve walked the market streets and boardwalk of Danshui. I’ve hiked through Taiwan’s jewel, Taroko Gorge. I’ve gotten sunburned on Fulong Beach. I’ve hiked the historic Caoling Trail from Dali to Fulong with my mom when she visited me early last year. I’ve also enjoyed the many every day adventures that Taipei City has to offer, including museums, history, restaurants, and parks, and I’m still learning more each day.

Also, since I started this year in central Taiwan and my boyfriend lives there, I’ve made it to Taichung City, the gorgeous though overly-touristy Sun Moon Lake in Nantou, Xitou Bamboo Forest, the old street and market in Lugang, Tainan’s Anping historic tree house , Kaohsiung’s Lotus Lake, Confucius temple and gorgeous seaside sunset, as well as Yuanlin, Shalu and Donghai.

While I haven’t left Taiwan yet, I’m using my Chinese New Year break (longer than most teachers’) to go to the Philippines with my dad for 10 days, and then to Vietnam with my best friend for six days! I’m beyond excited! Taiwan is the perfect location to fly to other parts of Asia! (Just be sure to book in advance if it’s a holiday everyone gets off…I’m so serious!) Hong Kong and Japan are also in my sights! When my year is up I’m going to backpack through Southeast Asia for a few weeks with one of my best friends from home! It’ll be the cherry on top of this amazing year.

7. Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about? 

Does the idea of getting a scooter sound good to you? This is another factor to consider if you’re thinking about living in a small town, or really anywhere except for Taipei or Kaohsiung. I thought I wouldn’t get one when I came, intimidated by the ‘chaos’ I observed as a pedestrian. Since living in Shalu it’s either scoot or take the bus, I learned. Now I scoot around Taipei and love it! While it takes a little time to get good and used to it, you should realize that living in most places in Taiwan it will be much more convenient if you take this option.

Also, if you’re considering both Taiwan and South Korea, don’t. I have friends here who lived in Korea previously, friends who have visited Korea and etc. and they all like Taiwan better. The money is better in South Korea, but it’s work, work, work and Taiwan has friendly people and is actually more relaxed.. Anyway, that’s the word on the street about teaching in Korea!
8. Do you have any favorite blogs or websites about Taiwan that you’d like to share with our readers?

It was hard for me to find information online before coming, but if you look at Taiwan blogs and use google.com/tw, I guarantee you’ll find something that will help you make a decision. Carrie Kellenberger and everyone at RTT is very helpful and answered my millions of questions without complaint!

Carrie Kellenberger’s blog My Several Worlds is a great resource as she and her husband have lived in Taiwan for years and have seen a whole lot of Asia! This is an awesome resource that I frequently use. (Thanks for the mention, Heather.)

Tealit.com – You can buy a scooter, find an apartment, start a language exchange, find tutoring, etc. This is an awesome resource that you need to have in your life.

A Hungry Girl’s Guide to Taipei – If you’re planning on moving to Taipei and want to get your restaurant bucket list started, this is the place to look.

Wow! Thanks, Heather. I knew you’d be a great person to interview. You’ve certainly made the most of your last eight months in Taiwan. We’re raising a virtual martini to you in anticipation of learning more about your upcoming adventures in Asia.

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3 Comments
  1. Hi Carrie, great, informative article. Gives me hope in finding a good job and continue living in Taiwan. Keep up the good work!

    ps – I just applied to Reach to Teach:)

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