Rookie substitute military serviceman William Yang recounts his experiences serving as an English teacher in the mountains of Hsinchu. Previously:


Like going on any first date, my first week with the students deep in the mountains of Hsinchu, where I am teaching English for my substitute military service (SMS), was about endless self-introductions and attempts to test each other’s comfort zones and limits.

Unlike kids growing up in the city (myself included), these mountainous kids maintained a more primitive lifestyle, and their basic manners in daily life and respect for teachers were nowhere to be found. Every teacher I’ve talked to kindly “suggested” lowering my expectation for their learning performance and motive, because nearly all of them come from dysfunctional families. So I began my first few lessons with caution and extra attentiveness.

I decided to start off with learning through games to spark the students’ interests in English, since I assumed traditional ways of teaching had proven ineffective to this special group of kids. To my surprise, my naïve learning-through-games’ method would only be another failed attempt to try to engage them in class. These kids were not simply unmotivated, but they considered sitting in the classroom a waste of time. While their actual English teacher was trying hard to engage each of them through very interactive teaching methods, the kids simply put their heads on the table, and started snoring in the middle of the class. When the teacher finally woke one of them up, the others would start throwing paper balls or erasers back and forth in the air. The whole class looked like a circus, and they were clowns joking around nonsensically. When the teacher stopped and yelled at them, they either stared blankly back at him, or ignored whatever the teacher was saying. The situation often ended up with the teacher giving in to their bossiness and went back to teaching without insisting on receiving any response from them. Witnessing the teacher being bullied by these ignorant kids made me realize that, perhaps, the negativity they had experienced throughout their young lives had caused them to develop an ignorant attitude toward life in general. To most of them, things seldom worked out in their favor in life, no matter how hard they tried. They became dispirited with life and chose to idle through their days, with nothing accomplished at the end of each day.

While I was deeply troubled by what I had witnessed through the first few classes, I was again reminded of the limited roles that a substitute military service soldier like me could play. At the same time, I felt my conscience was urging me to do something. As someone who could never sit by the side and watch a situation deteriorate, I decided to pick up the role of duty officer. To me, when the most basic manner and discipline no longer exists among these kids, the most effective way is to reinforce it on them in their daily lives. I started by paying close attention to every bit of their behavior, from dining manners to classroom discipline. Punishment was directly given to those who acted ignorantly or intentionally trying to challenge my authority. I patiently explain to them why they were being punished, and what I was looking for that was different from what they displayed. The kids first tried to confront me in any way they could, but as I showed them my persistence time after time, they seemed to realize that all their efforts would be useless. I tried not to soften my stance on them while being patient with their repeated mistakes. Gradually, I witnessed their tiny improvements, as they knew how far they could go and not overstepping the bottom line. Although I couldn’t expect them to comply to the rules right away, watching them become more aware day by day was still satisfying.

As I sort of became the symbol of authority at school, I also became more familiar with each kid’s personality. I was able to work much better with them in class. I gradually turned my attention from pure disciplining to more practical English teaching. However, I was immediately faced with another set of problems as I tried to start teaching. Due to the lack of access to learning resources and after school supervision, these kids’ English proficiency were at least one school year behind. This not only had limited the range of materials that I could give them in class, I also had to force them to start with basic letter writing. For the younger kids, it was easy to ask them do repetitive practice on English letter writing, since most of them actually found it amusing to write in a different language. But for the older kids who regarded letter writing exercises a waste of time and childish, I often had to come up with extra incentives to make them cooperate in class. I tried not to ask for too much in the beginning and rewarded them for every little achievement they had made. But gradually, I found that the kids seemed to have grown used to getting praised that they started complaining when there wasn’t enough incentive for them to accomplish a task. They would either sit there, refusing to pick up their pens, or some of them would keep saying “this is so boring and time wasting.”

One day, my patience was finally exhausted. I asked them to put away everything and gave them a long lecture about learning attitude and their future success. I couldn’t hold back my frustration, so I told them their laziness and unwillingness to learn really disgusted me. I told them that if I were in their situation, I would realize how important it was to do well academically because that was the only way to turn their lives around. In a society that values academic success more than anything, kids from disadvantaged families like them could be easily left out if they failed to fight hard for themselves. Seeing them being absolutely passive, I had to give them a wake up call. As I finished my talk, I saw them all sitting down there, looking stunned but a bit confused simultaneously. From then on, they seldom complained about being in class material and agreed to cooperate more with me.

One more thing: soon after arriving at the school, I learned that our school was actually being closed at the end of this semester. While the real intention and reasons behind the closing were never confirmed, many people had suggested it to be the result of political maneuvering. Knowing that I only had less than two months with these kids, I tried extra harder to make my brief experience worthwhile. Although I may never see myself being a teacher, I still believed that education could be improved through individuals that aimed to make things work. These kids are certainly not the brightest, but their resilience certainly had convinced me to put in as much effort as I can.

But as things were finally moving in the right direction, I was faced with the harsh reality of running out of time.

(Feature photo of Smangus, a mountainous village in Hsinchu, Taiwan, by Peellden, on Wikicommons, CC BY-SA 3.0)


William Yang

William is a freelance writer and photographer based in Taiwan, with a passion for human rights and storytelling. He holds a Master of Journalism degree from Temple University, and has extensive experiences interning at global NGOs such as Human Rights Watch and Mercy Corps.