If you came here looking for the blog post entitled “Negotiation,” I apologize. You’re not crazy; I posted a new entry a few minutes ago and then deleted it. The entry was the eight hundred word, present tense account of my negotiation session with a woman atop a Great Wall watchtower. It’s the same account I submitted for publication to the New York Times. The Times told me to wait three weeks before I should assume they’re not publishing the piece. Thanks to a little calendar dyslexia, I thought three weeks passed while in fact I’m still five days short. Slim chance they’ll contact me with good news between now and Wednesday, but it’s worth a shot.
It seems wrong to bring you here on false pretenses and not share a bit of my good ole’ story-tellin’. Otherwise you will have squandered a good ten seconds of your life, which is an eon in broadband internet time. So, dear reader, allow me to tell you about my recent trip to Little Taiwan.
Like my torturous sophomore year Latin class always did, let’s begin with a quiz.
(Q) What is Little Taiwan?
1. A section of Disney’s Epcot Amusement Park dedicated to Taiwan
2. A little African-American boy
3. My bathroom
4. An ethnic enclave of Taiwanese expats in Queens, New York
If you guessed number two, you’re wrong but you at least guessed the same answer as a friend of mine who once responded to “Oh, I’m spending time in Taiwan” with—I fool you not—“Oh, is that your son?”
If you guessed number four, you’re right. Smushed (Microsoft Word just shattered my world by revealing that “smushed” is not a word. My mother has been misleading me all this time!) between Little China and Little Korea, Little Taiwan is a grimy paradise of all things Taiwanese. Shaved ice, bubble tea (or, for the Taiwanese amongst us, pearl milk tea), dumplings, beef noodles, Super Junior, Wonder Girls. The only drawback is the grime. It’s dirtier than Kaohsiung.
2008-2009 Kaohsiung ETA Maya Bery invited me to Little Taiwan for a visit. Maya and I kept in touch throughout my tenure in Kaohsiung. She’s living temporarily in Little Taiwan before beginning a master’s program in library science at Simmons University. Not content with merely patrolling the corridors of knowledge, Maya also wishes to stick needles in you. Her dream is to also be a practicing acupuncturist.
We sat down for plates of dumplings and some story swapping about Taiwan and life after. Listening to Maya relay her and her 2008-2009 coworkers’ experiences confirmed for me my belief that so much of the ETA-LET relationship depends on personalities. Some LETs work excellently one year and struggle the next. A lot of that probably has to do with personality conflict (or the lack thereof).
It was also interesting to hear from Maya how diverse her co-2009’ers are in terms of their graduate school and professional interests. The same is true of my year. Here’s the list of just my group of eleven Kaohsiung coworkers’ aspired careers: a pediatrician, a Christian missionary, three Foreign Service Officers, an English teacher, a women’s rights lawyer, an engineer, an education policy aide (not me), a college professor of literature and a family law attorney. Fulbright Taiwan succeeds in its goal of selecting participants with a broad range of interests.
Is the goal a good one? One may argue that a teaching fellowship shouldn’t seek to create a roster of folks with very different professional aspirations. Instead, the fellows should all, or at least mostly, be aspiring teachers. Even a few of my fellow Fulbrighters wondered aloud thus.
I imagine the Fulbright Foundation would reply that the primary purpose of the Fulbright program in all of its incarnations (teaching English, teaching at a college, research) is to connect smart Americans with foreign peoples in an effort to build trust and understanding. The quality of the actual English teaching is of secondary importance. Top shelf U.S. college graduates, no matter their career goals, make better salesmen for America than mediocre college graduates who are interested in teaching.
Some folks I spoke with in Taiwan have a response to this assumed Fulbright position. Even if there’s little to be gained by seeking out aspiring teachers, there’s a lot that could be gained from seeking out ETA candidates with some education training and experience. Experienced teachers perform better. Taiwanese students learn more from relatively battle-tested American Fulbright ETAs. If Joe Smith is an aspiring clown with a ton of teaching experience, no problem.
This opinion is sensible to a certain extent. I noticed during my year that the ETAs with some experience in education, whether through coursework, tutoring or, in one case, two years experience with Teach for America had an easier time succeeding in the classroom. Numerous studies support that experience matters in teaching.
Yet I wouldn’t go so far as to prioritize education majors over all others. The best teacher in our group was a college journalism major. Coming into her Fulbright term, she had some experience with extracurricular tutoring with young children. It was more than enough of a foundation on which she could build a superb instructional environment for her students.
What I agree with wholeheartedly is that international teaching fellowships shouldn’t go to applicants with zero instructional experience directed towards the student group or level of the fellowship. The least successful ETAs I’ve heard about all came to their classrooms with no experience teaching elementary schoolers. Not only does their ignorance of teaching practices hold them back, their dearth of teaching experience may suggest that they don’t really enjoy teaching little kids. No knowledge and no enthusiasm? Bad combination.
Teaching fellowships like the Fulbright ETA program need to be especially careful. Lots of folks will apply for an ETA position in order to win the award, regardless of whether they want to do a good job in the classroom. The US and foreign governments don’t fund the Fulbright program to revolutionize English language education abroad, but they’re certainly entitled to some hard work in return for their money.
I say we banish all the lay-a-bouts to Little Taiwan. It’s not nearly as nice as the real thing.