In my previous post, I discussed the celebrity status of star teachers in Taiwan. Although their good looks and personality do play a key role in a star teacher’s popularity, this is only part of the story. These star teachers also possess the knowledge, skills and abilities to teach students in a way that helps them reach their goals. Interestingly, they usually do not employ the much-lauded Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) approach when they teach nor do they follow the monolingual English-Only Immersion Method. These teachers prefer to use more traditional and local approaches, such as grammar-translation and/or teacher-centered methods. This is due to the fact that the purpose of language teaching in cram schools is different.
In the case of star teachers, they are teaching in buxiban that are focused on assisting students with standardized exam preparation. The star teachers know that more traditional approaches to teaching are the best methods for helping students to pass standardized tests. Clearly, good teaching is context-dependent. It is impossible to separate English teaching methodology from the contexts in which it operates.
I will use the example of a highly successful star teacher, Carrie Chen, to demonstrate how a star teacher teaches their students. Let’s take for example Carrie’s approach to teaching English vocabulary. Armed with only a blackboard and chalk, Carrie relies on her confidence, enthusiasm and teaching skills to motivate her students.
She begins her class (in the video 05:20) by saying the supposedly longest word in the dictionary, ‘pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis.’ She then writes it down quickly on the board to demonstrate her vocabulary expertise. This way she contends that English becomes fun and easy if students study with her saying and they won’t forget the content she teaches them.
Carrie employs a highly traditional and nowadays unconventional method of English teaching, i.e. no teaching aids and teacher centered. She uses Mandarin Chinese as the medium of instruction and the main focus of teaching is employing techniques (association, cognates, comparison …) to help students memorize English vocabulary. Using a combination of her witty humor, off-color jokes and personal anecdotes to make English vocabulary memorable rather than just being a bunch of syllables and sounds strung together.
For example, she makes fun of foreigners who do not know how to pronounce ‘謝謝 – xie xie (thank you)’ and ‘不謝 – bu xie (you are welcome)” in Mandarin Chinese correctly, instead they might say ‘shit shit (xie xie)’ and ‘bullshit (bu xie)’ to Taiwanese people. An off-color joke she used in the video described above is her strategy to memorize the word ‘phenomenon:’ she explains that ‘phe’ means a female elephant or a fat girl. If a girl is fat, ‘no’ ‘men’ are interested in being ‘on’ her. Hence an easy way to memorize the spelling of ‘phenomeon’ as ‘phe no men on.’
During a speech at a National Taiwan University, Carrie listed some keys to being a successful buxiban English teacher including: a smart and neat appearance, good command of English, and devotion and enthusiasm. She continues by emphasizing the need for encouraging students and remaining positive at all the times and incorporating humor and active learning techniques to motivate and sustain students interest.
The test-oriented method used in buxiban is not exotic or fancy. The secret lies in the way the star teachers conducts the class. The celebrity status of star teachers and their popularity does seem to be skin deep. Without their looks these teachers would not be able to pull in the students into the buxiban. Still, it is interesting to note, that although a lot of their popularity is premised on their good looks and charisma, many of these teachers do in fact know how to teach English very well. If they don’t teach well, their looks will not be enough to keep them their job and star status.
The quality of their teaching methods is reflected in the high scores their students achieve on the standardized tests given for admission into high schools or universities.