ESL Schools vs Foreign Teachers: A Fight for Survival

Research is important if you plan to teach abroad. I share my experiences working with English schools in Taiwan.

Think smart before you sign your school contract.


Direct people watch out. Poster boys for honesty beware. You might encounter communication problems if you’re living in a foreign country.

In Taiwan, the societal norm is everyone watching out for each other. On the MRT (subway), it’s considerate to let an elder or a woman with children to be seated first. This, you can say, is also the same in Western countries–with a slight difference. The West has embraced a me-first mentality. The East, particularly Taiwan, hangs on to the others first ideal. However, there is a point when a line is crossed.

Some foreigners will experience at one time or another people who will not be straight with them. Trust between foreign teachers and buxibans (language institutes) is very hard to come by. This has led to many buxibans keeping their backs to the wall when it comes to foreigners. And, of course, teachers likewise.

Many foreign teachers live abroad with the intention to work and travel. Travel is their purpose, which means they will most likely move to a different area within a couple of years. Some teachers like myself, however, have a hard time trusting their employers. Furthermore, many buxibans don’s trust me–and other foreign teachers–either. And, seriously, you can’t blame some schools for not fully trusting their teachers. Some foreigners will move to another country without giving the buxiban any notice. Thus, the school has to find another teacher on the fly. Regularly, foreign teachers don’t live in Taiwan for the long term.

Let it be known that buxibans are no saints. Some foreigners leave suddenly because buxibans threaten to cancel their work visas. Any expat knows that when working abroad, the visa is issued by the employer, which gives the employer an unbelievable amount of power over the employee. With that power, the employer can take the employee’s right to be in that country away in a heartbeat. This means that foreigners cannot take threats from their employers lightly. At that point, it becomes a fight for survival.

Any new teacher must be aware that many buxiban employers do not honor the contracts that many teachers sign, especially financially. Contracts are usually bound for one year, however, on some occasions, buxibans will not always pay the full amount. ESL (English as a Second Language) teachers are suggested to always keep track of their worked hours, count received funds, and always file receipts for moneys earned or debts paid.

Idealism is usually a major defense in Taiwan. In many cases, if you do not blindly trust the employer, then you are considered a bad person even if you’ve been unfairly taken advantage of. To survive, it is best to prepare to compromise and to keep a level head even when there are cultural misunderstandings. Despite what may happen, you are still a visitor in their country.

Get everything you want in your contract completed before you travel abroad or you might be left without money or, more importantly, a visa. This means your travel journey could end abruptly because of an unfair employer.

Not to say that all buxiban employers are unfair. It wouldn’t be right for me to say that. However, it’s a common practice, whether people get offended by it or not.

Honesty is not always considered the best policy in Taiwan. Some schools, with marketing in mind, will ask foreign teachers to give students a higher grade than they really deserve. This doesn’t help the students’ English at all, but it keeps the parents paying enrolment fees.

Even when dealing with inter-office situations, speaking in a soft, polite and round-about way usually gets the problem solved faster than a simple sentence about what the problem is or what the solution could be. So for those who relish in the art of straightforwardness and get-to-the-point dialogue, take a deep breath cause it’s gonna be a long stay. iT!

Phill Feltham taught English in Taiwan for almost two years. He is is also the Publisher of The Weekly Wanderer.

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