Chen Chun-fang /photo bySmalleyes Photography, photos by Fu Yu-cheng /tr. byGeof Aberhart
(photo by Fu Yu-cheng, courtesy of Smalleyes Photography)
Issues like income inequality and the urban‡rural divide have created an almost omnipresent negative atmosphere in society. Rather than wallow in this negativity, though, a group of young people has chosen to take direct action, heading to the heart of the problem. Equipped with enviable academic credentials, they are choosing to get involved with rural communities and work with the children there, because they believe that Teach for Taiwan provides an opportunity to change society.
At a campus job fair, one particular booth is drawing a sizable crowd. Is it some big multinational with tempting job offers? No, in fact it is for work teaching children in rural communities! This is the scene each year around the booths of non-profit organization Teach for Taiwan.
Teach for Taiwan is calling on young people to come together and combat educational inequality.
A generational mission
Established in 2013, TFT is focused on addressing educational inequality. Given how frequently you may see news about “itinerant” teachers, you could be forgiven for thinking the number of teachers around far outstrips the demand for them. In fact, schools in more remote rural communities often find themselves unable to hire the teachers they need no matter what they do. In principle, everyone has an equal right to an education, but for some children, the circumstances of their birth can decide their educational opportunities. Such fates can be challenging to change, especially as rich‡poor and urban‡rural divides continue to deepen.
In 2012, Liu Anting was working in the United States. Hearing from her parents about the educational situation in rural Taiwan, she mentioned Teach for America, an organization that recruits outstanding college graduates and sends them into underprivileged communities to serve as teachers. Sensing a potential solution to the Taiwanese situation, over the intercontinental wires Liu and her parents began to draw up a plan that would ultimately become Teach for Taiwan.
Liu reached out through various channels to Teach for America, while in Taiwan her parents concentrated on organizations and individuals involved with rural education. With time, discussion, and research, TFT gradually began to take shape. Originally Liu had intended only to take on the role of consultant, drawing up plans, but the more involved she got, the more her emotional investment in rural Taiwan grew.
In her book Leaving for Home, Liu wrote, “In the end, why did I want to set up TFT? It wasn’t just to change those communities, but more to change my generation. We need to stop complaining, roll up our sleeves, and get to work being the change we want.”
Through various training courses, Teach for Taiwan not only equips its teachers with skills as educators, but also encourages them to think about their future roles in the field of education.
Out of her comfort zone
In 2008, Liu gained admission to Princeton University with a full scholarship. After going through a tough period of being knocked down and having to pick herself back up many times, she graduated, receiving the Woodrow Wilson Senior Thesis Prize and securing a job with a well-known consulting firm. As she puts it, ever since she was a child she was like Cookie Monster, but with an insatiable hunger for mainstream success rather than cookies. That is, until she had the experience of traveling to Ghana and Haiti to teach, where she realized that a truly rich life comes not from fame and fortune; and that both in education and in life, listening and being there for others are the most important values.
And so she chose to give up all she had worked for in the US to return to Taiwan and do her part to reform education in her homeland.
That missionary drive may be what has attracted so many outstanding like-minded young people to Liu’s project. Looking over the teachers and executive team for TFT, one sees many people who have graduated from top-notch schools and have no shortage of options for their futures, but who have chosen a different definition of success, identifying with TFT’s mission for education in Taiwan.
While the shortage of teachers in rural communities may seem enormous, TFT is nonetheless selective about who it takes on. Prospective teachers must go through a three-step process, from written application to online interview and ending with an in-person interview, with the third further divided into a group teaching demo and an actual interview.
Teaching in rural communities demands that teachers deal with challenges not only in the classroom, but also at the school, family, and community levels. In response, TFT looks not only for teaching ability, but also problem-solving skills, self-awareness, the ability to deal with frustration, communication skills, and leadership. Applying these standards, over the past five years TFT has sent out just 120 teachers out of 1,700 applicants, an acceptance rate of less than 10%.
After being selected, new teachers must go through an intensive six-week training course, the last week of which is a teaching practicum. Only after this will they finally be sent out into the field to begin a two-year teaching tenure. They have thus far been dispatched to 38 different townships.
With children playing the role of store clerks, tutors at Zheng-Min Elementary lead them through a series of real-world challenges to test their ability to make two-step calculations. (courtesy of Zheng-Min Elementary School)
The TFT spirit in action
With some 90% of its teachers having come through the TFT system, Yunlin’s Zheng-Min Elementary School is likely the school that most embodies the TFT spirit. There, a cohort of highly motivated teachers have come together with a mission to improve the learning and character of their young charges, with all classes designed around the children and focused on cultivating their ability to pursue self-guided learning. Thanks to their efforts, Zheng-Min has gone from practically moribund to a school the community competes to send their children to.
Rather than monthly exams, the students at Zheng-Min have an “evaluation week,” for which each teacher designs various tests, both practical and written, aimed at seeing how the children can apply what they have learned. The final result of the evaluation isn’t just a score, but also includes a qualitative description by the teacher of each student’s progress. Sung Wan Jung, formerly a teacher from TFT’s second batch and currently Zheng-Min Elementary’s director of general affairs, says, “Exams aren’t about defining a child by their score, but about understanding how much they have learned and where we need to work harder.” This approach, with its constant adjusting of the pace of learning in response to the children’s situations, demands a lot from teachers. If there weren’t a strong consensus among the faculty, it would be beyond challenging to realize.
And how should one teach character? At Zheng-Min, they work to create an environment that subtly influences their students. For example, at the end of each school day they hold a “sunset circle,” where the teacher shares which students have shown good character that day and encourages the students to share examples of their classmates exhibiting positive behaviors. There are also “micro-moments,” where the teacher will make a point of telling a student, no matter when or where, when they have done something that improves their character. By teaching through action, these teachers are turning developing good character into a matter of daily accumulation.
The “sunset circles” held before school lets out are a great chance for students and teachers at Zheng-Min Elementary to consolidate personal growth.
Chances for change
A teacher with TFT working in Xinpi Township, Pingtung, was struggling to get her students interested in learning English, trying all kinds of things to no avail. That is, until she took on an evening class teaching local elderly people. It is very common there for grandparents to be raising their grandchildren while their children are away working in the city, and with the grandchildren having no one else to take care of them, these older students would bring the kids along to class.
The motivations to learn English among these elders were surprising, leading to the teacher designing lessons to help them understand everything from the license plates of cars involved in hit-and-run accidents to clothing sizes. Slowly the kids realized their grandparents were getting better at English than them, and the grandparents had the confidence to talk with the kids in the language. The children went from goofing off at the back of the classroom to joining in on the lessons, even trying to challenge their grandparents to English competitions. Finally, after a year working there, this TFT teacher had begun to see the light of a new dawn.
By bringing love to rural communities, these young people are opening up worlds of possibility for the children there.
The spark that starts a fire
Teachers with TFT see for themselves the educational problems facing rural communities. Some choose to stay in those locales, perhaps as teachers or otherwise getting involved with the community, like Wu Jiahui, one of TFT’s first batch of teachers. Wu established the ThereforEd Association, working to create English teaching materials tailored to local circumstances, and thus providing valuable support to teachers in such communities.
TFT’s director of external relations, Chung Ailing, tells us about a school director who expressed a dislike for a TFT teacher, worried that she was there to try to change the school. Over time, though, he saw how the teacher was dedicated to the good of the children, even seemingly seeing something of his younger self in her. TFT hopes that through its teachers, it will be able to inject positive energy into Taiwanese education.
One person may be able to run fast, but a group can go further. Teach for Taiwan is not just the name of an organization, but a mission that can be shared across generations. As we finish talking with Chung, she remarks that among their applicants this year was a man of nearly 60 who said he’d spent enough time working, and now that his children were grown, it was time to realize his own dream. Hearing this, we can’t help but feel excited that the fires of change can be sparked in every generation.