by Amanda McAlpine
Teaching at the private, English-Chinese elementary school in the big city of Taichung, Taiwan was a profound experience, both professionally and culturally. I taught grade one where my bright, adorable students wore their hearts on their sleeves. Our long classroom days were regimented but never dull—together we were happy, frustrated, excited, sad, motivated and inspired. We helped each other through our shared ups and downs.
I taught two classes, one in the morning with 18 students and the other in the afternoon with 17. Half their day was in English (remarkably fluent kids at age 7!), and half their day was in Chinese. The biggest rule of all? NEVER speak Chinese in the English building!
It is just me and a small boy in the classroom. He’s staying behind from swimming class to catch up on work. We hear another teacher walking in the hallway talking on a cell phone in Chinese. He looks at me in horror.
“Did you hear him speaking Chinese in the English Building?” I ask.
“Yes!” he says.
“Uh-oh,” I say. “He’s going to be in big trouble.”
“But how? He is a big man.”
My morning class arrived bright and enthusiastic, ready to learn. As the top academic class in grade one, they were a breeze to teach. We got through material quickly and were able to discuss and expand every lesson. Afternoons were different—sometimes the kids came to me frustrated about something that had happened in Chinese class in the morning, or still sleepy from their lunch time nap. They were the third level academic class, so our lessons took much longer to complete. However their personalities were diverse, and fun was never in short supply.
We often see other cultures as homogenous but I quickly saw the uniqueness in each child and I loved them all. Some latched on to me more than others. While some boys loved running outside at our precious breaks, despite the bad air pollution, others wanted to sit and talk to me or help hand out books. Some girls loved playing with the hula hoops outside at break while the quieter ones wanted to play cards or read books with me.
“Would a Venus Fly Trap eat your finger if you put it in the flower?” one boy asks.
“I don’t know…” I answer.
“Oh I know! I know! I know!” shouts another boy, waving his hand wildly in the air. “Well, let me tell you—your hand would just melt off!”
Taiwanese teachers and parents all want their kids to pursue higher education in America one day, preferably at Harvard. A mark of 100% isn’t awarded or earned on merit, but rather expected. Parents put enormous pressure on their kids, and in turn, the kids put a lot of pressure on themselves. Failure to achieve 100%—even a mark of 99%—was continually the basis of tears for the children, difficult conversations with parents and “coaching” from my supervisor.
The school was among Taiwan’s top tier, top priced private schools. Big things are expected from little kids. Grade one students have a 40 page review booklet and a 20 page exam to write in Grammar, English, Science, Chinese and Math every two months. We had to go through the whole review booklet together in class and I had to prep my students very thoroughly and exclusively for their exams, for a whole two weeks prior to the exam dates. There could be no mistakes on the exams so the kids were drilled with facts and trivia. They had every answer memorized well before the big day.
During my first midterms, I was told I was marking too hard—I assigned a mark as low as 93%. A note from the office appeared on my desk one morning comparing my scores to the previous year’s grade one scores. Yikes!—my class average was 96% whereas the year before it had been 99%! My supervisor was clear: my students weren’t trying hard enough and I had to push them harder.
One student starts crying when I returned his Reading Exam.
“What’s wrong?” I ask as he leans in for a hug.
“My mom said she’d be angry if I didn’t get 100%.”
“What did you get?”
A big indoor “ball park” was located in the basement of the school. We were allowed to play in it for 20 minutes a week. We lived for those 20 minutes of fun. During review and exam weeks, we were not allowed to play in the ball park because the administration believed the children would lose focus and not study hard enough for their exams. The research that supports the connection between physical and creative activities and academic performance is understood in Canada and hopefully soon in all countries.
I quietly take my kids to the music room one day as a special surprise to play piano and sing with them. One boy came up to me after and said, “Thank you Teacher Amanda, you made today a very happy day.”
I will always take with me what I learned in Taiwan. Seeing a completely different education system in a different country has made me a stronger educator in Canada. There are pros and cons to all systems; I enjoy working in Canada’s education system as well as Taiwan’s, for contrasting reasons. I loved seeing how hard the students in Taiwan worked and how dedicated they were to their school work. They show high respect for their teachers and took school seriously. I love the fun, play and passion in Canadian schools and how the children’s personalities and creative sides shine. My Taiwanese students showed me what great levels of academic success, work ethic and motivation young children can have.
“Teacher Amanda, I have a secret,” one student whispers to me at my desk.
“Don’t listen,” he says to another boy standing next to him. He covers his mouth and leans close to my ear…
“Teacher Amanda, I know that there are four stars in space that make a square.”
The kids and I stuck together like a family. We loved laughing together, telling jokes and playing games. We made fun whenever we could and loved going outside for Science class. We sat on the floor in circles to read stories—a totally new thing for kids used to sitting in desks all day. When all the mandatory work was done (rarely could you finish all of it) we had dance parties and watched funny videos on YouTube.
Living and teaching in Taiwan was both exhilarating and frustrating. Being so used to the Canadian education system, I had to let go of my ideas about “how education should be” and open my mind to new approaches. I believe I had a meaningful impact on the kids, even the ones who did not get 100% from me. Every one of them had an impact on me, as did all my teaching colleagues who turned into my friends from all over the world. Months later I can still remember the names and beautiful faces of each child.
“Can you borrow me your pencil?” asks a little girl one day.
“Pardon?” I reply, pretending I don’t understand the students when they make a mistake in English.
“Can you lend me your pencil?” she corrects herself.
Later, when she’s working on her writing assignment, she asks, “Can we don’t write the date?”
“Can we not write the date?”
If only my Taiwanese kids could see the school I work at now. We don’t group kids by age into grades. We have multi-aged learning pods, no desks and no tests. We produce organic learning. It’s very different from my school in Taiwan and much more aligned with my values.
The experience of a different country, foreign culture, mysterious language and strange but delicious food may fade after time, but the impact on your skills as an educator and your affection for some special kids will last a lifetime.