For Young Americans, a Chance to Teach and Learn in Taiwan

ETA Ida Sobotik engages elementary students in a geography lesson in Taichung. (Photo: Foundation For Scholarly Exchange)

A total of 80 English Teaching Assistants will serve in schools in six locations around Taiwan this year.

This month 80 young college graduates from American universities arrive in Taiwan to take up positions for the coming academic year as English Teaching Assistants (ETAs) in public schools. The initiative, sponsored by the Fulbright Program, began in 2000 with the assignment of just six teaching assistants, all in one location, Yilan County. The program has steadily expanded since then, and the current 80 ETAs will serve in schools in six counties and cities: Yilan, Kinmen, Kaohsiung, Taichung, Taitung, and Taipei.

“The ETA program enables young Americans to come, interact, learn, and experience the culture by teaching,” says Kelly Chang, the program’s lead coordinator.

Taiwan has become one of the most popular destinations for participants in the 72 ETA programs worldwide. According to the U.S.-based Institute of International Education (IIE), which manages the Fulbright programs, Taiwan accounted for roughly 38% of all applications received this year for the 16 locations in the East-Asia Pacific region. “Taiwan is a great place and the word gets around,” explains William C. Vocke, Jr., executive director of the Foundation for Scholarly Exchange (Fulbright Taiwan).

The Taiwan ETA program accepts applicants who hold a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree and gives them an opportunity to work with English teachers in local elementary and junior high schools. Participants in the program invariably rave about the experience in terms of their personal development and the chance to learn about a different culture.

“It’s an unforgettable and unique experience,” says Jedrek Dineros, a graduate of the University of California Irvine, who enjoyed his time as an ETA in Taiwan so much that he returned for a second year last year. He praised the program for providing an opportunity to build strong relationships with people from another culture and to gain different perspectives on the world.

Another of last year’s Taiwan ETAs, Jordan Keehn, a Kansas City native who graduated from Dartmouth College, says “my biggest take-away has been an appreciation of the importance of exposure to people that are different from you.”

Ross Busch, a New Yorker who is an alumnus of Eckerd College in Florida, cites his experience on the offshore island of Kinmen, celebrating Christmas without his family for the first time. He and one of the program staff dressed up as Santa Claus and passed out candies to a throng of children and adults in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven. “I was able to experience the pure joy that comes from giving,” says Busch. “I’m thankful for the opportunity to have celebrated Christmas in Kinmen and I’ll always remember when I became Santa for a day.”

Busch also stresses how much he enjoyed spending time with the kids inside the classroom, noting such highlights of his year in Kinmen as “building a haunted house for students on Halloween, organizing Christmas-themed activities, watching English-language movies with the kids during lunch time, and helping translate English pop songs.” He says he would strongly recommend the program “for anyone looking to expand their understanding of the world, improve their cross-cultural communication skills, hone their teaching abilities, and develop a more refined sense of global politics.”

The selection process for ETAs has become more competitive over the years as the number of applications has grown. It begins with committees at each university reviewing candidates and sending a list of nominees to the IIE in New York. Of the total 300 or so students interested in coming to Taiwan, the IIE annually forwards about 110 applications to the Taiwan ETA Program, where a selection panel makes the final choice.

After arriving in Taiwan, the prospective ETAs go through a month-long training program on both teaching techniques and aspects of Taiwanese society and culture to help them adjust. The training continues even after the school term begins. For example, workshops are held every other Wednesday to provide guidance from certified TEFL (Teach English as a Foreign Language) advisors and other outside professionals to help the ETAs come up with solutions to problems or challenges they have encountered in the classroom. In addition, the Taiwan ETA program employs three full-time TEFL advisors to visit the cooperating schools, conducting classroom observations and providing feedback to the teaching assistants.

Assessing the benefits

“This is a remarkably valuable program on a whole series of levels,” says Vocke. “At the simplest level, it’s uniformly an incredibly great growth experience for the ETAs. These young people have the advantage of a year immersed in Taiwan and they grow dramatically – in their personal development, in their knowledge of Taiwan, and in their language capacity.”

“It’s also a great opportunity and experience for the children of Taiwan,” Vocke adds, noting that “typically in one semester we’ll have close to 700,000 contact hours with Taiwanese children.” Many of those youngsters have never previously had the chance to interact with a foreigner, but by the end of the semester it’s a normal part of their lives. The benefit goes beyond their improved ability in English conversation, says Vocke: “They develop new perspectives that change the way they think about the world and it opens up all kinds of future prospects for them.”

At yet another level, the program is structured to help local schools and teachers elevate their English-teaching capabilities. The close collaboration that develops between the ETAs and local teachers provides a channel for introducing new approaches to language instruction. In addition, each January the program runs a two-day conference on English teaching to which it will invite 30-40 local teachers.

For politically isolated Taiwan, the program each year also brings the opportunity to win friends among bright young graduates from top-ranked American universities. “In 10 years these people are going to be in leadership positions, and as a result of their ETA experience they will have an understanding and appreciation of Taiwan,” says Vocke. “That’s a very effective example of how soft diplomacy can strengthen the U.S.-Taiwan relationship.” He notes that the Taiwan program’s “alumni” include staff members currently working in such important locations in Washington as the White House, Congressional offices, the Treasury Department, World Bank, and numerous think tanks.

In a number of ways, the Taiwan program has developed some special characteristics compared with its counterparts elsewhere in the world. One difference is its emphasis on partnering with elementary schools, as well as junior high schools in more remote areas, whereas many programs concentrate on the high school or university level. The Taiwan ETA program has concluded that more can be achieved by working with younger students and focusing on speaking and listening comprehension, rather than reading, writing, and complex grammar.

Another special feature of the Taiwan program is the amount of support provided to the ETAs, including the above-mentioned training. “We believe that for people to be effective in a classroom, their lives outside of the classroom have to be effective,” says Vocke. Therefore, in each county or city in which it operates, the program hires a local coordinator to help the ETAs with any problems they encounter. “For instance, if they don’t speak Chinese and have to go to the doctor, or if they have a motorcycle accident or if there’s a typhoon and their roof leaks, the coordinator is there to give assistance,” says Vocke. The coordinators sometimes are also called on to help mediate the relationship between ETAs and the Taiwanese teachers they are assigned to, in case there is any friction over differing ideas about teaching methods.

Further, the Taiwan program has built a community-service requirement into its format, with every ETA taking on a project. “They might work with a local church or start a sports club, or they might teach advanced English classes after school or do in-school workshops with English teachers,” explains Vocke. “We’ve had volunteers in almost any kind of nonprofit you can imagine, including animal shelters, orphanages, and hospitals. There’s a wonderful ripple effect that these activities bring throughout the communities.”

In Yilan, the ETAs have helped the county promote international tourism by ensuring that the English signage in tourist sites such as the Lanyang Museum is up to standard.

In the various localities, the educational authorities have been enthusiastic supporters of the program. Director General Fan Sun-Lu of the Kaohsiung City Education Bureau told Taiwan Business TOPICS that the bureau appreciates how the program has “widened the students’ and teachers’ global prospective, improved their English-language abilities, and promoted a globalized environment for the local schools.”

Funding for the program comes partly from Fulbright (which in turn is supported by funds from both the U.S. and Taiwan governments) and partly from the relevant city and county governments. Since resources are limited, however, the program has also begun seeking sponsors from the private sector. Currently the Formosa Plastics Group is supporting six ETAs in Taitung County, an initiative that has gone so well that expansion to Hualien County is under consideration.

Vocke expresses hope that the program can grow even further. “We have the infrastructure, and we’ve shown over the years that we can manage growth – but what is lacking is the funding,” he notes.