Extracurricular Activities


source // wikipedia

Wednesday, 10 June, 2015

Taipei, Taiwan

Teaching English abroad can be very fulfilling – the majority of my former Korean students are now telecommunications directors and chief information officers. You know, the kind of jobs that are boring as hell, but make you rich. Their eternal gratitude was evident, in fact, I needed to change my e-mail address in the end because the praise just didn’t stop and replying was becoming hugely time-consuming. It’s a pattern that I’m sure will return the year my wisdom creates Taiwanese millionaires too, but, I guess that’s just a part of the job.

However, this blog is not about how I once took a kid from being unable to say ‘hello’ to working as Barack Obama’s Korean translator (100% true that, as well). Instead, I’m going to discuss the side of the job that doesn’t require magic markers or a tiptop knowledge of how the yanks spell our words; this piece is simply about the extras.

Let’s start with enrolment day at school, or, to any foreigner teaching in Taiwan, absurd flyer day. This is the day when the not-long-out-of-the-womb kids enrol at school for the first time and a bunch of private school representatives gather at the gates like hyenas; ready to pounce on any parent daring enough to register their child into an early education.

The scene is insane, for ten minutes these parents get harassed as if they are rockstars. As you can imagine, most parents get incredibly irritated, however, occasionally you’ll find an oddball that really embraces their moment. I saw one dad wearing sunglasses and walking to the gate like he was on the catwalk. Yes, you are the man. Now, if you could just give me your autograph on this piece of paper that states that your child is legally ours for the next ten years of their life, then I promise I will download your ‘album’.

The skills required don’t stop at being a top flyer-handler either, oh no, you must also be a performer. Thankfully, my company didn’t endorse the ‘show’ element in quite the same way as other schools, so giving out small toy fans to passing children is all that was required of me.

Some poor git from another school was made to dress like a giant inflatable penguin. Imagine getting tagged in those pictures on Facebook – a month ago the lad was excitedly discussing his new teaching adventure with anyone that would listen, and now he is being displayed as nothing more than one of Mr. Popper’s Popping Penguins. I’m joking, guy, I’m sure you’re a fine teacher, you know, on the days you’re not sliding on your belly at the zoo.

The penguin school (their logo is legitimately a penguin) really went all out that morning. They had also hired a bunch of young girls and put them in leotards – I’m guessing they were looking for the ‘dad vote’ with that one. I’m not sure who the inflatable penguin was targeting though, as I imagine most five-year-old penguins start school in the Southern Hemisphere.

Another school’s tactic was to blast out Korean music, very loudly, over speakers. Who was their advisor there? Come to our English cram school, we love Korean songs! As a message it makes even less sense than a giant inflatable penguin. Surely, you would choose a Chinese song linked to education, or wait, what about this, an English song? Sounds crazy, I know, but just an idea to consider for next year. Although to be fair, it was pretty cool K-Pop music, I reckon that school probably throws fairly good work doos. Hang on, no students and great parties – perhaps I should see if they’re hiring.

A successful flyer day leads to a ‘demo class’. This is a lesson created as an opportunity for parents to take a front row seat as they witness their kid discover English right in front of their very eyes – it’s all very magical. In other words, I’m required to teach an hour long class to children I’ve never met, in front of parents I don’t know, with the responsibility of ensuring the bulk of them sign. It is not as much pressure as it sounds though, I usually just project an hour long slideshow of all those Korean kids I have previously made stars, take a bow and then wait for the applause. I’m joking of course, I am actually very humble about my achievements.

The demo classes don’t really go as a regular class would. They require you to act more like an insecure weekend dad, i.e., you’re taking these kids to Disneyland and making sure that they get as much coke as they could desire throughout the day. The goal is simple, keep the children smiling. In short, play games and reward them for everything they do.

It usually goes something along the lines of this:

“If I say ‘hello’, what could you say back to me?”
“Well, that’s a great try in my mind. Here, have these three reward cards, which guarantee both you and your parents a cookie at the end of class.”

That is another thing about these demos, on average 80% of the kids are completely new to the subject – meaning the teacher needs to stretch the words ‘hi, hello, red, yellow and blue’ into an hour’s worth of material which impresses customers.

Current lesson plan for the next one reads as follows:
‘Roses are red, violets are blue, yellow, yellow, yellow. Hi, how are you?’ Repeat X35.

You are obviously unfamiliar with the personalities of the kids too, and are therefore, unaware of the tricks required to get them to perform – being uncertain about which form of attention a child will react to can be a bit of an Achilles’ heel. One thing that is guaranteed though is that some crying kid will always turn up to a demo class and completely screw with the vibe.

I would love to say, ‘Pal, grow a pair. You can still see your mum; she’s just at the window, look. What, are you going to live at home when you’re 35? Time to leave the nest for a few hours! Stop being selfish and let this pressure party run smoothly for me!’

Sadly though, this is not an option and instead I have to give him three extra reward cards plus plenty of cookies in order to cheer him up. Life as a teacher!


Luckily, these anomaly activities don’t always result in heavy pressure being thrown on the teacher, oh no, sometimes they ruin the day of the poor souls at McDonald’s instead. I’ve taken a few trips to fast food restaurants since being in Taiwan – outings setup for the students to practice ordering in English.

Sounds simple, right? Well, let me put it like this; I’ve had my fair share of burgers since being here and the staff are rarely bilingual. We point and we smile.

The till girls looked absolutely traumatised as they tried to take fifteen different orders in an alien language – one student really went for it too, giving it all that ‘no mayo’ and ‘no gherkins’ kind of talk. I must admit, it was great fun to watch though.

Full credit goes to the staff, imagine working in a restaurant in England when fifteen Chinese students walk in and ask if they can order everything in Mandarin; while your boss is standing beside you gesturing that it is ok. Ronny Mac’s burger gang put up a pretty good effort when you think about it. Fair play!

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