The founding of the all-female Changhua ETA program
Charlotte Parker, SOAN class of 2018, received a Fulbright ETA scholarship that carried her to Taiwan. The Fulbright award is an extraordinary honor, and we’re so very proud of her. I recently contacted Charlotte and asked her to tell us a little bit about how things have been going so far. In response, I received this extraordinary missive. Read on:
Greetings everyone! For the last 6 months I have been living and working in Taiwan as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant. While the Fulbright organization has a number of different opportunities in Taiwan, including research and scholarship, the particular program I am involved with is the English teaching initiative. The program’s motto is “A world with a little more knowledge, and a little less conflict.” The Fulbright ETA program tries to achieve this by bringing recent college graduates from the United States to live in Taiwan and teach in local elementary and junior high schools. However, we are not called “teachers,” but rather “teaching assistants.” We are trained to be “co-teachers,” so that in the classroom, students receive instruction from both their local English teacher and their Fulbright teaching assistant. The goal behind co-teaching is to provide students with a more well-rounded and intimate educational experience. Additionally, it provides an environment in which the two teachers can learn from each other, not just as teachers, but also – for the Fulbright ETAs – as guests in a new culture.
A glimpse of the hustle and bustle (or lack thereof) in Yuanin
Within Fulbright’s Taiwan ETA program there are eight possible locations to which teaching assistants are placed. Though the program started out with just one location, with time the number of ETA placements grew, and more locations began to receive ETAs. Upon receiving my Fulbright grant, I had some flexibility in with my placement request, but for the most part placement is random and is carried out by the Fulbright staff. I am currently placed in the program’s newest location: Changhua, an agricultural county on the west side of Taiwan. With a population of 1.289 million people, the county is a combination of rural agricultural towns and small cities with manufacturing and factory jobs. A significant quantity of Taiwan’s crops are grown in Changhua, and it also happens to contain one of the largest sock factories in the world! (Seriously, socks are a big deal in Changhua – there’s even a sock festival every year).
School placement reveal day!
Changhua is also a rapidly developing region in Taiwan. Unlike the hustle and bustle of Taiwan’s biggest city, Taipei, or the picturesque mountains and beaches found in eastern Taiwan, Changhua is definitely industrial, and the region’s population has been growing quickly to fill expanding job opportunities. Despite the rather pleasant weather in Changhua, I also face the recurring problems with the region’s air pollution. Because winter in Changhua is much drier than other parts of the island, air pollution builds up and often sticks around, as there isn’t much rain to clear things out. Most days I wear a face mask when walking outside, and the air quality is usually not suitable for running or biking. That’s been one of the most difficult aspects of my transition to Taiwan, because I do enjoy being outside.
I and a few other ETAs live in a small city called Yuanlin. This is the first year that Fulbright has introduced American English teachers to this location. And so, unlike other locations, which have had a few years-worth of ETAs working in the local schools, the 8 ETAs placed in Changhua were the first cohort to establish connections in the local community and in the schools. Being the first Fulbrighters in Changhua brings its own set of unique opportunities, as well as challenges. Though we do have the opportunity to set a good example on behalf of the U.S. State Department, we also have to find a balance with the expectations the local schools might have had for their prospective foreign English teachers. We also must deal with any and all hiccups that come with doing something for the first time.
Haze as seen from the Ershui train station
Because I am just one of over 100 English Teaching Assistants in Taiwan, my experience isn’t really indicative of the program as a whole. But with that being said, my daily routine goes a bit like this: each morning I take two different trains, and then I walk to get to the school where I teach. That journey alone takes about an hour and a half each way! And unlike other areas of Taiwan, ETAs in Changhua are not allowed to ride scooters to work. This, we’ve been told, is because of the high number of traffic accidents that take place in the area. Because Changhua does not attract a lot of young adults, the majority of the population is made up of the elderly and the young. We’ve been told that the elderly of Changhua often disregard traffic laws, and as a result, it’s unsafe for foreigners to ride scooters in the region. As a result, I find myself dreaming about being able to ride a scooter with my hair blowing in the wind … someday, I hope!
But to continue with my daily routine: once at school I finish up my lesson plans and discuss with my four co-teachers our plan for the day. My school is called Ershui Junior High School, and is located in a very rural farming town. Of the 200 students at the school, most are the children of local farmers. I was particularly excited about getting to work at this school because instead of speaking Mandarin Chinese, most students prefer to speak in Taiwanese, a dialect not commonly spoken in the larger cities. In the classroom, I am also a bit limited in what I am allowed to teach, as the students are on a strict exam schedule. In Taiwan, students take a series of exams between grades 7 and 9. Their final score on these exams determine which senior high schools will accept them. Not only do the students’ futures depend on those scores, but the teachers and administrators also face punishments or rewards based on student test scores. With so much pressure on the students to perform well, I stick closely to the material in the textbook.
Face mask fashion
Although much of my teaching involves using this textbook, I think there are a few things the U.S. education system could nonetheless learn from Taiwan. For example, students in Taiwan are required to take care of their school. Instead of janitors, Taiwanese students are the ones taking out trash, cleaning windows, and sweeping the halls. Because the students are involved in the maintenance of the school, they hopefully learn to respect their learning environment. My other favorite element about the Taiwanese education system is napping! All students are required to take naps after lunch, and most teachers at the school take a nap at some point throughout the day as well! It’s a common sight to see a teacher pull out their own personal pillow and put their head down for a twenty minute nap during their break. I’m still getting used to the idea of sleeping in public, at work, but being encouraging sleep seems like a pretty good idea for the U.S. to emulate.
Lots of love from my students on Teacher’s Day
Some of my favorite teaching moments so far have taken place when I’ve been able to engage my students in meaningful conversations about their culture and their heritage. In trying to seek a balance between incorporating my students’ cultural heritage and my own cultural background into my teaching efforts, the curriculum I try to present aims to both introduce new concepts while also affirming and recognizing their experiences.
Changed Rest Point in Taroko National Park, Hualien
And when I’m not in the classroom, I take advantage of the natural beauty of Taiwan! The east coast of Taiwan has piercing blue waters and some of the best hiking on the island. Southern Taiwan is known for its beaches and warm weather. The best trip I’ve made so far is to Taroko National Park in Hualien!
Yanzikou Train in Taroko National Park, Hualien
If anyone is considering a trip to Taiwan, here are a few tips. First, try to befriend as many locals as possible! The Taiwanese people are incredibly friendly and will show you tremendous hospitality. And as one of the safest places in the world, Taiwan is ideal for solo travelers. Second, take advantage of 7/11. In Taiwan, 7/11 is the place to go for almost anything you’d ever need. Not only can you get actually decent quality foods there (like tea eggs, noodles, and bubble tea), but you can also do things like buy train tickets, refill your phone data, and pick up your mail. Third, if you hear peppy music in the distance, don’t be fooled. It’s not the sound of an ice cream truck! Instead, that sound is actually the trash truck coming to collect garbage. In Taiwan, people
The bliss of trying a basil chicken scallion pancake in Fengjia night market in Taichung
dispose of trash by waiting to hear that music, and then come outside as the truck passes so they can hand it off. I’ve had too many experiences of just barely missing that truck, and then being stuck with trash for another week … no fun. My final tip is to go to Fengjia Night Market (逢甲夜市) in Taichung. There you will find a heavenly basil chicken scallion pancake (蔥油餅), and you will not regret it. Here is a picture of me enjoying this delectable treat with the face of what can only be described as pure bliss.
So that’s just a peek into my life in Taiwan so far! Cheers everyone!
It’s so great to hear from you, Charlotte, and thanks so much for providing such an insightful vantage point on your experience. Good luck with the remaining months of your time there!