On behalf of all ten of us doing international practicums, I would like to share with you our experiences. All of us doing international practicums were in Taiwan, but we were spread as follows: three in Taipei City (St. Francis High School), five in New Taipei City (Tsz Shiou High School), and two in Taichung City (Huiwen High School). (Note: Some of us were also getting a little bit of experience working with younger children in addition to middle school and high school students.)
We would have video call meetings with Ms. Deanne Barrett, our practicum advisor, every Thursday night where we shared our challenges, opportunities, and of course, successes. We have a million stories to tell, but the common theme is that we gained teaching experience and skills that are vital for helping ESL/ELL students. We not only learned new techniques to reach our students, we also put ourselves in their feet as we navigate through day-to-day activities (buying groceries, medicine, taking transit, etc.) in a country that is foreign to us.
Knowing that building effective relationships with our students is key to teaching, we had to accept that it will take longer for us to build these relationships. The challenge for us was to overcome language and cultural barriers to understand and connect with everyone at school. Teachers are highly-regarded members of society which has its consequences both ideal and not so ideal. For example, it is uncommon for parents to question teachers when they bring up issues about student behaviour. At the same time, teachers are expected to know the content they teach very well.
Taiwanese students are most frequently taught using direct instruction where there are not a lot of opportunities for conversation in class. Therefore, there are also limited opportunities for formative assessment. School administrations commonly rank its students, and it is very common for schools to prominently recognize their alumni (by name) and the universities they attend after high school. (These are displayed to the public on schools’ exterior walls.) In day to day activities, this results to some students who would rather not speak English with us than to make any mistake.
On our part, it was important to constantly remind ourselves that we were temporarily operating within this society. We had the opportunity to show them how we teach, but it was not our place to change their culture and their ways. The best that we could do was to understand the system well enough for us to come back to Canada and understand what kind of learning environment foreign-born students in Canada may have come from. Besides, there are also good things that we saw in their system.
It is particularly fascinating for us to have seen the extent to which students are held responsible for things around the school. Within a class, students rotate through various tasks such as bringing their common lunch upstairs to their classrooms, as well as cleaning the hallways, chalkboards, washrooms, etc. Students are truly instilled with a sense of responsibility in school.
The ten of us can all agree that as time went by, they began to understand us and how we operate. Likewise, we found ways to connect with our students, for example, by finding our common interests. As I wrote this piece, I could hear lots of laughter and active participation from Ricky’s class next door; that’s a good sign.
I reflect back on the experience thus far, and realize that we have all truly become part of their school communities. I am proud of the work that we did in Taiwan, and I believe that all ten of us can say that our students, our school, and Taiwan will forever have a special place in our hearts.
Aaron L. Sumague
(Year 2, Cohort 1)