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Confidential Interview:

A Precariously Employed Teacher


A Precariously Employed Teacher


The more effort she puts into quality teaching, the less time she has to cram for her own exams, and the slimmer her chances of ever getting a full-time position. An inside look at the travails of Taiwan's temp teacher work force.



A Precariously Employed Teacher

By Rebecca Lin
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 527 )

It's the last week before the summer break. There is a lot of commotion inside the classroom. Outside the window red flowering flame trees stand in full bloom.

The students' small faces look up to the teacher's desk with anticipation, waiting for her to announce their final grades. Dressed in a pink T-shirt and a short black skirt, Sandy Chou (a pseudonym) asks her charges: "Do you know who has the highest overall grade in social studies?"

"Wang Hsin-ting?" "Liu Yung-jie?" 19 voices call out from the class.

Chou, who graduated from a university of education, has been teaching at the same elementary school for two years now – not as an official teacher, but as a part-time temp, paid by the hour. At her school, which is located in an urban area and has just 12 classes, eight out of 25 teaching staff are unofficial teachers.

"Teacher, will you return next term?" a student asks. But Chou turns her head away without a reply.

Having taught this class for nearly one year, she can't bring herself to tell them that she won't come back. Teachers come and go at this school, a scenario that repeats itself year after year.

Chou has decided that she will study hard in the coming year to prepare for the post-graduation certification exam to be an official teacher. Otherwise, "year by year I'll never even know where I will be teaching," she says. Without a stable job, Chou feels she does not have a future.

Following is the true story of her precarious job situation, which she shared in an interview with CommonWealth Magazine:

I have worked as an hourly paid teacher for two years now. In the beginning, I worked as an intern at the elementary school that I attended as a kid. After the internship I stayed on.

Picking up the Leftover Courses

At university I studied at the language education department. My specialty was languages. But we all say the hourly paid teachers are like shoppers at the farmers' market. We pick up the leftovers, the courses that the official teachers don't want. Since classes are spread out over the day, our schedule is spread out, and preparing lessons takes a lot of time.

This term I have to teach 20 hours per week, including social studies and health in sixth and third grade, and health and PE in second grade. I also teach an arts-and-crafts class.

Twenty hours don't seem like a lot. But in some classes, if we study straight from the textbooks, the students aren't very receptive, and they're unmotivated to learn, so I need to design the lessons myself. I prepare a lot of PowerPoint presentations, put together videos and teaching materials. I also need to pay close attention to their practice book work. If they make mistakes I need to remind them to make corrections. You always need to track their work, or else the parents will think that you are irresponsible. Even during the lunch break, you need to hang out with the kids.

Also, since the students don't know that I am a part-time teacher, they will accuse me of being late as soon as I arrive at school after 8 a.m. I feel I wouldn't set a good example [if I were late], so I keep going to school at 8 a.m. and stay until the last period is over, even if I don't have any classes.

I once calculated my earnings: I get paid NT$260 per hour, which adds up to a monthly income of NT$20,800 at most, and that's before deducting labor and health insurance premiums. If you factor in time for preparing lessons, correcting homework, correcting test papers and recording grades – and sometimes the official teachers ask me to help coach students taking part in extracurricular foreign-language contests – I end up with an average hourly pay of just NT$130.

Pedagogic Skills Useless

Since my family is not wealthy, the salary that I make at school is not enough, so after school I work at a private cram school teaching composition. Legally I am not allowed to take a second job at a cram school, but how am I supposed to make a living otherwise?

At the cram school I earn NT$500 an hour. If I teach eight hours per week, I already earn more than at the public school. I work from 8 a.m. when I arrive at my regular school until 8 p.m. when I finish work at the cram school. The two salaries combined amount to just NT$42,000. That's about the salary an official teacher makes.

Due to this heavy workload, I only have a little extra time in the evenings to study for the teacher certification exam. I always get rejected in the written exam section. It doesn't help at all that I have won many awards. I once won first prize in a city-wide language contest in the general public competition. I've won a number of course design competitions and been awarded many awards for outstanding and very good performance. I am very diligent, but I always fail in the first round, the written exam. (Editor's note: the certification exam focuses on rote learning of multiple choice questions and is unrelated to actual teaching skills.)

Even my mother questions me, arguing what are these awards worth if you can't even pass the first round of the exam?

Many of my fellow graduates have already changed careers. A few have become police officers; others are either working at cram schools or teaching in after-school care centers.

There are even people who drop out midway to prep for the certification exam. They teach halfway through the spring semester, and then quit. I think this kind of behavior is very unethical, because children who grow up in an unstable teaching environment might develop a hostile attitude toward teachers.

But on the other hand, if we try to take good care of the children's future, we won't be able to take care of our own future.

That's why I'm asking myself if should I change careers. This race is too tight. If I look at my fellow graduates around me, they're able to concentrate on their studies at home because they're well off. Although they don't have the wealth of practical experience I do, they are definitely far more likely to pass the written exam than me.

I am prepared to sacrifice another year, if I don't pass the exam by then, I won't try anymore.

Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz