New Teacher Tales – Ciaran
In our New Teacher Tales series, we interview people teaching English abroad, about how, why and where they started out, about their experiences teaching abroad, and what advice they have for new teachers.
In this post, Ciaran, from Ireland, tells us about starting out teaching in Japan, losing the roof of his house in Vietnam, his love for Taiwan and the joys of owning a dog.
Where do you work now?
I work in Tainan, in the south of Taiwan. I’ve been here for over four years now. I teach English to elementary and middle school kids in a cram school or bushiban.
What’s the best thing about living in Taiwan?
Taiwan is great because, for me, it has the Goldilocks feel to it, where it’s got all these elements of places that I’ve lived in the past that I like without not being too extreme in any of them. The weather is not too hot and not too cold. The people are friendly and hospitable. The food is good, it’s got beautiful nature(mountains, beaches etc.), it’s safe and convenient, and you can make a decent income.
Some other countries I’ve lived in in the past were maybe expensive but had a high living standard, or had harsh weather, was dodgy but exciting, or had a sterile feel. Taiwan combines all of the positive elements to make for a really comfortable place to live.
Why did you become an English teacher?
I didn’t really intend to become an English teacher. I graduated in computer systems in 2005 and wasn’t in love with computers at that point, it’s fair to say. I was looking to do something different. That’s when I met my housemate’s new boyfriend. He had also graduated in computers a year previously and had felt the same way. He had decided to go teach English in Japan for a year. His tales of his experience in Japan pretty much sold it to me at that point, and a few months later, I was on my way to Japan.
Was this the right way to start?
For me at that period of my life, it was a great way to start. I was 23 with no experience and was pretty wet behind the ears. That job provided a ticket to Japan, a shared apartment and a week of basic training, so I didn’t have to worry about any of that. Because it was such a big company, many of the teachers lived in the same buildings. This meant I had a ready-made network of friends when I first got there, which again made life very easy. If I had moved to a new country with the intention of teaching without an apartment, job, or friends, it would have initially been quite a struggle. However, I had all of those things already. My biggest struggle was trying to use chopsticks for the first time. Also, that job was a good taster for what ESL teaching was like, without having to invest too much in qualifications beforehand.
What was your first teaching job?
I knew nothing about English teaching when I started, so I went on my friend’s recommendation and applied for a job with the company he worked with in Japan. It was a huge corporation with hundreds of centres throughout Japan specializing in conversation classes with adults. I went for an interview in Dublin and got accepted soon after without any prior experience.
As I said, classes were conversation based, with small classes of a maximum of four students. These were mainly adults, though there were some kids classes, too. The fact that it was conversation based meant that it was good for someone with no experience. I was living in a small enough city in Japan, and the students were super nice. I would see most of them on a weekly basis, so I got to know some of them quite well. A lot of the time, students didn’t want to do the lesson and just wanted to chat. It was great in that regard. On the flip side, though the topics were different, the lesson structure was the same for every lesson, so things could get really monotonous. Lessons were forty minutes, so you might go through the same procedure 6 or 7 times a day.
Where have you taught?
I was in Japan for a year and a half, living in Toyohashi and then Kyoto. Then I moved on to Busan, Korea for one year. Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam was next for four years, and I’ve been in Taiwan for the past four years.
What was your favourite place to work?
I can’t answer that. I’ve loved pretty much everywhere I’ve worked. Being an English teacher gives you that freedom to choose where you want to live. I loved working in Kyoto, as it was like living in a city sized museum of Japanese history. Looking back, I was really lucky to get the opportunity to live in such a beautiful place at a young age. I’d love to live there again for a while. Busan was epic for it’s hiking trails, beaches, barbecues and bathhouses. I would leave my apartment in the city and be in the hills in ten minutes. Living in Saigon was like nothing I’d experienced before. The frenetic energy of the place was completely overwhelming, but once you got used to it, it became this charming, wild, adventure park of a city. It had some rough edges for sure though. Now, I love Taiwan, and specifically Tainan, because of what I mention before about Goldilocks.
In terms of teaching, my favourite place was Vietnam. I worked in a really good language centre (ACET), mostly teaching university students who were prepping for the IELTS exam (a test people take to prove their English level for study or work abroad). The students were amazing: for the most part focused, outgoing, funny and very positive. The working environment was professional and you were really encouraged to learn and improve you teaching by the management. The centre required a TEFL or CELTA certificate from the teachers, so the standard of teaching was really good. There were teachers from everywhere, not just anglophone countries.
Sadly, in Japan, Korea, and Taiwan, for the most part, the only requirement is that you come from an anglophone country. No teaching requirements are necessary. Also, I’ve heard of cases where employers discriminate because of race, appearance, age or gender. They want a young “western” looking “teacher” with no actual teaching qualifications. It’s so ridiculous. It’s pandering to peoples’ ignorance and is short-sighted. I didn’t think this to be the case in Vietnam, though I’d be curious to see how that trend is going now as market competition increases.
What is the best thing that has happened to you since you became an English teacher?
Probably the best thing that has happened to me since becoming and English teacher is getting my dog. I found him over two years ago. Getting a dog changed my life dramatically. I didn’t realise how much responsibility it would be. You have to pick up shite. Every. Day.
But seriously, the life of an English teacher can be pretty transient and floaty with very few responsibilities. Taking care of Doudou is the first time that I’ve had a dependent. It provides healthy structure and routine to my day that wasn’t there before and I have a loving friend who nearly shits himself with excitement every time I come home. The permanence of it and the fact that I can’t just take off for the weekend on a whim, or decide to move to a new city or country are things that are prominently different from my life pre-dog, but I wouldn’t change that. It has allowed me to put down some roots here in Taiwan. I have a fantastic girlfriend here as well, who also has two dogs, and together, we have this sickeningly cute dog family.
In terms of teaching, I can’t single out any one thing. Getting to know students and meeting great people from all over the world is my favourite aspect of teaching. My close friends here are Croatian, Italian and English. It makes you realize that we are all just one big family maaaaan.
What is the worst thing that has happened to you since you became an English teacher?
Ha, there has been a few horrendous incidents. The roof of my house blew off in a Typhoon in Vietnam. That wasn’t so bad. I got scammed out of a lot of money by my “landlady” , also in Vietnam. She also scammed this family from the countryside out of all their savings when she “sold” them her house, which she didn’t own. That was pretty bad.
The worst thing was going through a nightmarish breakup with a Vietnamese girl. Starting off it was good, but a few months in things were going south badly. It turned out she was borderline. It was a terribly unhealthy relationship, and when I finally finished things, her relatives were coming to my place of work, random strangers were knocking on my door for an hour at night time trying to get me to talk to her on a cellphone. She was studying in Europe at the time we broke up, and two days later I returned to my apartment on a Sunday afternoon, I discovered her in my apartment having wrangled a key off my dodgy landlady. She had flown back from Holland. Now, some people may think that that’s romantic, but I was never so freaked out. I almost had a heart attack and shat myself at the same time. She was hysterical.
I’ll save you the details but after what ensued, I was happy to be alive, healthy and didn’t so much as look at a female for six months after. Traumatizing isn’t the word. But yeah, that was for sure a crazy learning experience. Around that time, I lost the money to my landlady and the roof blew off my house. I think it was Vietnam’s way of telling me that I should probably move. (Kris, is that story a bit much?)
With regards teaching, that Japanese company went belly up. Thousands of teachers were out of the job at the same time, and were owed two months wages. I had to go back to Ireland with my tail between my legs. I did get reimbursed by the Japanese government a year later though.
Tell us a bizarre story about something that has happened to you since you became a teacher?
I don’t know, I either tend to not notice bizarre things, or I don’t think they are bizarre, or they just don’t happen to me. Maybe I’ve been in Asia so long, that the ‘bizarre’ is now the norm. I mean, I kind of see the point of playing really really really bad electric guitar music for a week at a Vietnamese funeral, culminating at a massive sudden ear-splitting blasts at 5 am on the final morning which wakes up every man woman and child with a square mile. It seems completely logical to me. I also see the point of having scantily clad lasses on stripper poles affixed atop massive 4x4s on a Sunday afternoon as an essential part of any Taoist temple ceremony in Taiwan. It really encapsulates the sacredness of it all. But seriously, nothing comes to mind.
Is there anything you would change about your time as an English teacher?
I’ve been teaching for ten years and my only certification is a CELTA. I’m planning on doing a TESOL or linguistics masters degree next year. I think I would have liked to have done this earlier in my career and put more focus on getting better qualifications and certifications. It’s very easy sometimes to get too comfortable in a job that isn’t really going anywhere professionally or that doesn’t offer opportunity to improve. The odds of English teachers moving on after a couple of years are quite high, so you want something to show for it whenever you leave a school, whether that be decent work experience or some sort of qualification. I think always looking to self improve professionally is important. That said, you don’t want that to be the main focus, as the great thing about English teaching is experiencing a new culture and meeting fantastic and interesting people along the way, not how much money you make or how successful you are professionally. If you can have a balance of both aspects, I think you will have a successful and rewarding career and life.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to become an English teacher?
If you like adventure, novelty, and exploring, I would definitely try it out for six months or a year. It will give you new perspectives on your life back home both positive and negative. You will learn a lot by immersing yourself in a strange place without the safety net of friends, family or the culture you grew up with. That said, you have to sacrifice a lot. Job stability and security in a lot of cases is not the best. You will get homesick from time to time. Dealing with the local language and cultural norms can be a struggle and testing. But overall, it’s an a great adventure and the people you will meet, places you see and experiences you have will make it all worthwhile.
All photos are Ciaran’s own.