The global English language learning boom has resulted not only in a huge number of English learners but also created a tremendous demand for English teachers. Here on Language on the Move the preference for white native speakers as English teachers in Asia has often been featured (e.g., in Japan or Thailand). This is true in Taiwan, too, as I showed here and here, but it is only one part of the story of the global spread of English. The other side of the coin are Taiwan’s hot star teachers.
Star teachers are native Chinese-speaking teachers of English working in Taiwan’s buxiban. Buxiban are cram schools catering to the market for teaching grammar, reading and other exam-oriented English subjects. Buxiban invest heavily in promoting their teachers and, in the process, have created media super stars.
Star teachers are, of course, able to teach English well. Additionally, they are young, attractive, charming and vivacious, and both male and female star teachers are good looking. Star teachers are well-known and extremely popular and, this may be surprising to some readers, are paid considerably more than their native-speaker English teaching counterparts.
Both print and electronic media are used by buxiban to advertise their star teachers. For example, buxiban leverage their star teachers in marketing collateral such as fliers, posters, banners, websites, bus adverts and/or promote them in front of the buxiban. Star teachers even appear in TV talk shows and they gain additional fame (and income) through their endorsement of products.
In some cases, star teachers have achieved superstar status in Taiwan and they are treated like pop stars. The most famous star teacher is Ruby Hsu; she has been able to capitalize on her prominence as a superstar teacher to become a popular TV host of a weekday program called 上班這檔事 “Work.”
Star teachers like Ruby are actually perceived as a part of the entertainment industry and as a result the news media covers them like they would any other celebrity, always searching for gossip and stories of intrigue centered around these star teachers. One of the most prominent examples of this sort of coverage was back in August 2010 when two English star teachers, Kao Kuo-hua and Carrie Chen had an extramarital affair, which created a media frenzy. The saucy affair was considered important enough that the television and print media closely followed this ongoing real-life soap opera every day from the moment the story first broke for several months. Interestingly, not only did the scandal not damage their English teaching careers; on the contrary, it further enhanced their star teacher status and resulted in higher student enrollments for their classes. In Carrie Chen’s first day back to class after the scandal story hit the news headlines, she was bombarded with students asking her English questions, such as how to say 劈腿 (having an affair) or 喇舌 (French kiss), as this video shows.
Buxiban are an inevitable part of life for Taiwanese students. The main purpose of the buxiban is to sell their commodity, English, to their customers. Just like big brands use famous celebrities to endorse and promote their products, buxiban are leveraging the power of star teachers and have them play a lead role in selling English. Just like an actor can determine the success or failure of a film, these star teachers can often determine the prosperity or demise of a buxiban.
The box office power of star teachers in Taiwan’s English language teaching industry cannot be overestimated.