Interview With Eliza Pennell: An American Teacher In Taipei

This week we have decided to interview Eliza Pennell, a teacher fresh into ESL. She is a young and fun teacher who finished college in the states and decided to begin her teaching adventure in Taipei, Taiwan. Read on to discover what her experience has been like to date.

1. Please tell us a little about yourself.Eliza Pennell in Taiwan

I’m a 23-year-old American. I really like dessert, I like telling funny stories onstage or at least in very public places, and coming to Taiwan was a bit of an accident for me – after a job in China fell through. (It was a very happy accident.) I dance a lot. I write a lot. I plan on buying a scooter soon.

2. How have you enjoyed teaching in Taiwan to date?

For the most part, I love it. I love the other foreign teachers I work with, I love my students, I love that I have this amazing job – a job I care about, a job that I strive to be good at – right out of college. I’m living in an amazing place and earning enough to start paying off my debt from school. I teach Monday-Friday from 9 AM to 4 PM (with a two-hour lunch break in the middle, and some paid time for lesson planning) and twice a week on Wednesday and Friday from 4:40-6:10 at the same school.

I love teaching my younger students, but I’m not as fond of my older classes. The biggest struggles in teaching younger students are 1) a lack of communication between foreign teachers and school managers, and 2) conflicting teaching styles between my Taiwanese co-teachers and myself.

When we take field trips or do anything out of the ordinary, the other foreign teachers and I are definitely improvising as we go – and looking very clueless. There seems to be an expectation that we’ll already know exactly what the plans are, what the itinerary is – and maybe the plans have been very clearly explained to the Taiwanese teachers in meetings we haven’t been asked to attend, or maybe it all seems clear to everyone else when it’s explained in Chinese – but we frequently feel we’ve been left in the dark.

The only other frustrating thing is that there’s sometimes a weird power dynamic in the classroom. If I’m playing a game with a class and one kid acts out a bit – but in a totally harmless, goofy, “Whoops-sorry-but-I’m-four-years-old” kind of way, I’ll usually want to let it slide, or just explain to the kid why it’s a problem. Most of my Taiwanese co-teachers run a much tighter ship than that, so if they’ve been paying attention, they’ll bark out punishments from their desk.

The Taiwanese teachers are ultimately the students’ full-time classroom teachers, so what they say goes – even if it conflicts with how I’d like to run my class. The biggest problem in teaching buxiban is general apathy from both parties – students and teachers. That’s much, much harder for me than any small frustrations I ever have teaching my younger classes.

3. What advice can you give to new teachers interested in teaching in Taiwan?

a. Do it.

b. Use a recruiting agency if you don’t know what you’re doing/have never taught abroad before.

c. Bring more start-up money than you think you need. You may start off clueless, and being clueless is usually expensive.

d. Know what hours you’d like to work.

e. Ignore the people who tell you they have a way better job than you. There are so many TEFL jobs in Taiwan. I make a slightly lower hourly wage than a lot of other teachers. I also have a guaranteed number of hours per month, so I know exactly how much I’ll always be paid (unlike some of the people with a higher hourly rate). I sometimes have to attend events at school that are completely unpaid – but I also don’t work Saturdays. Just find what works for you. If something simply isn’t working for you and you know it won’t – again, there are so many TEFL jobs here. Find a different one if need be.

f. You’re here to have an adventure, but you’re also here to learn at least some Chinese. Have a little respect for the Taiwan culture in which you’ve chosen to immerse yourself. Learning Chinese is awesome, and Taiwanese people will love you for trying – even if you don’t improve as quickly as you’d like. Plus, your tutor might become one of your favorite people here. I have never particularly WANTED to learn Chinese. I’m a romance languages girl, through and through. But the fact that I’m learning Chinese – in the place where they still use traditional mandarin characters, no less?! It’s something I never would’ve sought out but something for which I become increasingly grateful every day.

g. Related: respect the people here, whether you’re trying to befriend them, date them, teach them, learn from them, beat them to that last available seat on the MRT… Your “normal” might not be their “normal,” and it might be because you grew up in different cultures or it might be because you simply have different temperaments. “Normal” is meaningless anyway, so just listen and respect.

h. If you’re near Taipei, visit me in Banqiao! We can meet at Nanya Night Market (near Fuzhong MRT station exit 1) and I can show you my favorite dumpling stand!

i. Related: if you’re in Taipei, check out Hungry Girl In Taipei’s blog, but also don’t get married to it. She has some great recommendations, but she is fully an LA girl who visits Taipei and talks about how cheap her $15 USD meals are. In Taiwan, you eat out for every meal! You wanna become a Taipei girl who grumbles about the meals that cost more than $5 USD. Your wallet will thank you and your taste buds will not suffer.

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

This question overwhelms me. The exciting thing about teaching is that it can be truly terrible, and you can feel like YOU’RE truly terrible, during one lesson, and your next lesson can go swimmingly and make you feel as if all is right in the world. Talking to kids one-on-one *outside* the classroom is reliably fantastic. I share a lot of positive teaching moments on my blog.

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

Eliza Pennell in TaiwanI’m bad with change, so it was hard at first. I could have thought of lots of negatives during my first month. I can’t think of many now. I don’t love that people back home act like I’m on a vacation or a cute study abroad program. (“How was your orientation?” “My…orientation? What, do you think TAIPEI gave me an orientation?”)

I love teaching and am here because of that as well as my thirst for adventure. I moved to a new city and got a cool new job, like most of my recently-graduated peers; I’m not on a trip. It also frustrates me that I can’t communicate more readily in Chinese. But that takes time, obviously – and that’s not Taiwan’s fault. Everything else is great: the food, the people, the convenience of it all, the temples and scenery and film festivals and markets. I love it.

6. Have you had the opportunity to travel much in Taiwan or in Asia?

I visited South Korea for a few weeks before coming to Taiwan and had a very interesting time. I’m very glad I saw it, and I’m very glad I’m living in Taiwan instead. I have a four-day weekend in January and plan on visiting southern Taiwan for the first time – and I have three weeks off for Chinese New Year, which is when I plan on finally making it to China.

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

I think I sufficiently rambled already! But anyone reading this should feel free to get in touch with me on my blog Less Broke in Taiwan, look me up on Facebook, or get my email address from Reach to Teach. I’m down to answer more specific questions or just talk more about Taiwan with people!

8. Do you have any favorite blogs or websites about Taiwan that you’d like to share with our readers?

I’m not as loyal as I should be – I mostly just Google things and go from there. I do really appreciate the Reach to Teach newsletters, and newsletters from my TEFL course provider, International TEFL Academy. Now that I’m blogging, I’m realizing that there’s a cool network of Taiwan TEFL bloggers, so I’d also search for relevant tags there.

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