The weight of a TEFL

TEFL: Teach English as a Foreign Language

The job description seems harmless enough.
The reality? Not so much.

Having gained power with the same speed and ferocity as the British, the English language is riddled with centuries of colonial history. Now, take that history, mix in all of the modern pressures of globalization and capitalism, and the TEFL system is the natural yet toxic conclusion.

Over the past century or so, non-English-speaking countries have been cornered into this predicament: children need to learn English to reach their full potential in educational and professional systems, and they need to learn it fast. I can only speak to the specifics of Taiwan, but here’s how supply tends to meet demand throughout East Asia:

After school, kids are ushered off to English cram schools ⁠— businesses which blends childcare services with elements of an English training camp.

I learned about this cram school phenomenon when I visited Korea during my study abroad program. As a starry-eyed college junior, this job prospect appeared shallow at best, and colonialist at worst. I considered myself above the whole mess.

After all, I had been granted an amazing opportunity to travel for 9 months straight, with only one thing expected of me: to learn. This trip was ideal. Utopian, even. It was also never going to happen to me again. It’s rare to come across these programs in universities, let along post-grad.

Flash forward one year. As I trudged my way through senior year back on campus, the cabin fever set in. I needed to travel again, so I weighed my options.

  1. Apply for fellowships which would allow me to keep learning and traveling, and also leave me broke/in debt.
  2. Aspire toward lofty goals of freelance travel writing, despite my then-limited professional writing experience.
  3. Suck it up and get a TEFL certificate.

Now, I live in the incredible city of Taipei, Taiwan. I love this country dearly, but I can’t shake the feeling that I don’t deserve this opportunity. It has taken centuries of imposed cultural hegemony to get me to the point where my native language is tantamount to a global career passport.

Here’s the crux of my inner TEFL conflict: It feels too good to be true because it’s built on a lie.

Forgive the melodrama; it’s just alarming to see so many career TEFL teachers view this job as some kind of birthright, and never stop to question the privilege that got them here.

So, here’s a form of symptom relief for the chronic disease that is Western cultural and linguistic hegemony:

In my search for an ethical TEFL experience, I’ve prioritized language exchange. Having taken Chinese lessons in college, I was primed and ready to start lessons with a Taiwanese Mandarin tutor. After a while, I began meeting up with language exchange partners. (Though, more often than not, their English would be miles ahead of my Chinese.)

Learning and re-learning Chinese has been more of a challenge than I could’ve ever expected, but an entirely necessary one at that. Through Chinese, I’ve been able to connect with Taipei locals on a deeper level, especially with my Taiwanese coworkers.

In the end, I know this temporary salve of language exchange and cultural sensitivity won’t fix the broken system. No matter how sincerely a teacher pursues a more ethical brand of TEFL-ing, they’re still going to be TEFL-ing.

At work, there is a limit on the degree to which I can connect with my students, let alone make a positive impact on their lives. Teachers at my school are prohibited from using Chinese in the classroom. Frustratingly, this rule applies even in situations where speaking Chinese would significantly ease the learning process for students.

With a massive language gap between me and the average ten-year-old Taiwanese child, our main forms of communication include physical comedy, TikTok dances, and the odd meme reference.

As a buxiban (cram school) teacher, I am a dispensable English-speaking body. While my alleged “knack” for the job certainly makes the job easier for me (and everyone around me), the bar for teacher performance is alarmingly low. I’ve heard horror stories from coworkers about all sorts of teachers they’ve had in the past; alcoholics, flakes, and just plain hot messes. As a freshly-graduated, somewhat naive member of the workforce, it feels a bit alarming to hear that I’m among their strongest employees.

I’m nearly six months into the job, and these feelings are hard to shake. I think of my Taiwanese coworkers who share my love for travel, but would be hard-pressed to find an opportunity like I have (getting paid over $20 per hour to play games with kids and speak my native language). I think of one of my high school students, whose test scores just narrowly missed the margin required to apply to American and British universities, squashing his dream of becoming an international filmmaker. I think of the utterly unchecked privilege among my White coworkers who don’t see any problem here.

The sad truth is that many children around the world need to learn English if they want to reach a higher economic status than their parents. Cram schools have become ubiquitous around East Asia to meet the demands of these aspirational families. Consequentially, tens of thousands of young, naïve Westerners get paid to travel the world.

Who gets hurt? Who is to blame?

It’s a quiet injustice which weaves through the conversations I have with strangers, students, and coworkers. It shows itself in the awkward silences at work when someone mentions pay day.

The starting pay for a native English speaking teacher at my school is four times that of my Taiwanese coworkers, regardless of their prior teaching experience. Oftentimes, Taiwanese English teachers are forced to pick up the slack left by their inexperienced and/or flaky foreign counterparts. The standard pay for Taiwanese teachers in buxibans needs to be adjusted to reflect their work.

When challenged about this overt favoritism, cram school administration sympathizers often build explanations around “cost of living.” They might mention the fact that many Taiwanese young adults live with their parents, whereas the foreign teachers have to pay rent. Another common excuse is that foreign teachers won’t accept a job that pays any less.

These explanations may be partially true, but they will never justify the horrifyingly low pay for teachers who bear the brunt of emotional labor labor and grunt work in the classroom. If that’s not discrimination, I don’t know what is.

Until this egregious income gap is corrected and buxibans raise the bar for what counts as education, the ethical TEFL will be sought in vain.

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