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Teaching English in Taiwan

A Lucrative Endeavor in a Culturally Rich Environment

By Newley Purnell
9/2004

"Made in Taiwan." You've seen that phrase, no doubt, affixed to consumer products of all stripes-plastic toys, sleek electronics, sporting goods. But an image of Taiwan itself, the country that manufactures some 60% of the world's notebook computers, can be difficult to conjure. Perhaps you imagine a drab, gray landscape of warehouses and factories-facilities for creating all that stuff.

In fact, Taiwan’s a dynamic nation of considerable natural beauty, a place where traditional Chinese culture has collided with and adopted all the trappings of a prosperous first-world economy. It’s an environment where you might see an ornate temple, a pineapple farm, a McDonald’s, and a bicycle manufacturing plant coexisting along the same stretch of road.

I’ve been living and teaching English here for the last six months. The demand for English education is high, and teaching opportunities abound. And besides getting a chance to observe Taiwanese culture first-hand, teaching English here can be quite lucrative.

Here’s what you need to know about securing a job in this small island-nation:

1) You don’t need a TEFL certificate in all cases—though it can be very helpful—just a university degree.

English schools here insist that their teachers be native English speakers, and that they possess an undergraduate degree—a BA or BS in any subject. A TEFL certificate or prior teaching experience is increasingly very helpful, but not absolutely necessary in every type of school. I advise anyone interested in teaching English to pursue a TEFL certificate because doing so will improve your skills and make you more marketable.

(Side note: be sure to bring your actual college or university diploma—not a copy—with you. Your school, which should secure your work visa on your behalf, will need it to apply for your Alien Residence Certificate, or ARC.)

2) Jobs are high-paying relative to the cost of living.

Most foreign teachers work at chain English schools; expect to make between 500 and 700 New Taiwan Dollars (NT) per hour in the classroom—that’s roughly a US$15-$23 hourly wage. You can make even more for private tutoring, university teaching, or kindergarten work (although you’ll get fewer hours that way).

At a chain English school, you’ll probably work about 30 classroom hours a week (not including perhaps an hour of prep time per day, which isn’t paid). If you make, say, 600 NT per hour (US$17) and you work a normal load, that comes to about to about US$2,000 per month after taxes. And for that sort of wage, Taiwan’s cost of living is low.

Consider the cost of rent: in Taipei and Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s biggest cities, you can pay as little as $185 per month if you have a roommate. Feel like a bigger apartment? You might pay between $500 and $600 for your own 2 or 3-bedroom place. Food is also cheap (and delicious): a typical dish is between $1.50-$3.00. Drinking and eating at western-style bars and restaurants, as you might expect, is more expensive. A 12-ounce Taiwan Beer, the local brew, is about $2 in a bar; an imported beer is about $3.50. Entrees at mid-range western restaurants typically cost between $3 and $5.

Such are the economics of teaching here that many foreigners are able to pay off college loans and save money on top of that. That, however, usually requires taking on additional private tutoring hours on top of a normal teaching load. You can certainly save money here, though it might take a little time: don’t forget that if you sign a year-long contract, you’ll have some startup costs, like purchasing a scooter or motorcycle and furnishing your apartment. It’s highly variable, but most teachers here are able to save at least $1000 per month after they’ve been here for about six months and completely settled in. Many save much more than that.

3) Jobs are plentiful

You can find work at the following:

  • kindergartens, which usually need teachers for a few hours in the morning;
  • chain English schools (otherwise known as “cram schools”), which have numerous branches throughout Taiwan’s main cities and mostly want teachers for the afternoon and evening hours;
  • universities (where you can teach if you have an MA or a Ph.D.), where hours vary;
  • international schools (if you’re certified to teach at home), which generally need teachers during the traditional 9-5 timeframe.

Although kindergartens and language schools operate year-round and hire teachers on a rolling basis, two times of the year are slightly better than the others for arriving: July or August, when many schools have a few weeks’ summer break, and January, when schools close for a week in observance of Chinese New Year.

In order to streamline the visa application process, and just to make the transition to living in Taiwan smoother, you may wish to secure a job before you arrive. Look for job ads online; if you’re a good candidate, you shouldn’t have trouble finding work. If you have money saved up and want more flexibility, you might want to arrive and then look for a job. That’s a good option if you’re unsure where you want to work or are simply more comfortable feeling things out in person. To do so, just arrive and check western bars and restaurants for job ads, inquire in person at schools, and look at the English-language newspapers’ classified sections.

4) Other Ideas to Consider

There are numerous cultural benefits to teaching in Taiwan; here are two that stand out: first, you’ll have the opportunity to try your hand at learning Mandarin Chinese. Chinese—comprised of Mandarin and the related dialect Cantonese—is the world’s most widely-spoken language. Second, you’ll also have a chance to observe a fascinating political situation up close: China considers Taiwan a renegade province that must be brought back into the fold (by force, if necessary), while most Taiwanese citizens think of Taiwan as an independent country. It’s intriguing to see how people here identify themselves: they’re ethnically Chinese, but most of them have a well-developed sense of national pride.

Be prepared for cultural differences in educational philosophy. Compared to Taiwan, teachers in the West enjoy a large degree of autonomy in the classroom—they’re largely free to employ the activities and teaching methods they feel are best suited to the material. Here, though, most chain English schools’ curricula are highly regimented, and in the classroom, a high value is placed on repetition and memorization. Expect to prepare and have approved daily lesson plans, and understand that you’ll be required, for example, to cover specific page numbers during each class.

Read your contract carefully before you sign it; English schools typically want a year’s commitment, and you should be sure you’re comfortable with the terms to which you’re agreeing.

Do your homework before you come. The Web is teeming with good information on teaching in Taiwan, so take the time to research your options. Amazingly, I’ve encountered a few people who signed up to teach here, arrived, and then left in bitterness—they seemed shocked that Taiwan was not like Thailand. There’re no full-moon beach parties here, and even a cursory amount of online investigation will make that fact abundantly clear. See the links below for more online information.

Universal health coverage is provided for legal alien residents, so as a teacher, high quality medical services are widely-available and quite inexpensive. (Dental care is especially good: you can get your teeth cleaned for about $3.)

Finally, a word on cities, if you’re unsure where to go. Most foreigners in Taiwan live in either Taipei, which is the capital, or in Kaohsiung, the southern port city. Taipei’s truly an international urban center with plenty of cultural offerings; the cost of living there, though, is slightly higher than other cities. Kaohsiung, where I live, is smaller than Taipei, though the air pollution’s worse. It’s cheaper, however, and it’s close to the popular Kenting national park, with has some beautiful beaches. Another popular city for foreigners is Taichung, Taiwan’s third-largest metropolitan area.

Links for More Information

General Resources

TEALIT, which stands for Teaching English And Living In Taiwan, is an excellent Web site that features job listings and other helpful hints on moving to and living in Taiwan.

Job Listings

Dave’s ESL Cafe has a detailed compendium of Web sites that advertise teaching jobs in Taiwan. TEFL.com posts job openings. Editor's note: TransitionsAbroad.com also offers a section on ESL jobs in Taiwan.

Have fun!

Newley Purnell is a writer, an English teacher, and an Internet strategist. His website is newley.com.

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