What I learned from my Fulbright Teaching Fellowship
What can I even say about my Fulbright experience? My year in Taiwan had a huge impact on me professionally as well as personally. It was an extremely full and very fulfilling year. I was placed in Yilan County, Taiwan, along with seven other Americans. Yilan is a fairly small, fairly rural county on the northeastern side the island and is exceptionally humid most of the year. When it wasn’t raining (a rare occurrence), it still felt like you were swimming rather than walking or scootering to your destination.
The Fulbright Taiwan coordinators did an amazing job of orienting us to life in Taiwan. Every two weeks, we would have a teaching workshop put on by one of Fulbright Taiwan’s three ESOL teacher trainers. Workshop content ranged from how to create English-centered board games and tips for employing differentiated learning in our lessons to how to use storytelling in the classroom. Every four weeks, ETAs and our co-teachers had the opportunity to visit different places around Yilan and participate in events designed to expose us to Taiwanese culture. We visited temples, wrote calligraphy on fans with local college students, and rowed a dragon boat.
Prior to Fulbright, I had never lived in an apartment, so even everyday things like paying rent felt very foreign to me—let alone doing it in a foreign language. Thankfully, majoring in Chinese, I had an advantage in that I could communicate pretty well. Even if I didn’t understand something, I could ask for further clarification. Still, though Hamilton prepared me for many things, they didn’t prepare me for how to say “I would like another canister of gas to heat our shower, please, (so I don’t freeze to death from this frigid water).” The whole year, it somehow worked out that I was always the one the hot water ran out on. Very suspicious… Anyway, my original point was to be flexible and open to new experiences. This is a key characteristic of successful Fulbright ETAs, no matter the country. Fulbright ETAs serve as ambassadors of American culture. Expect to participate in your community outside of the classroom.
If you choose to do Fulbright, you will get used to hearing that no two ETA experiences are the same. This is true even for ETAs placed in the same county. My teaching situation was vastly different from that of my roommates. My larger school had two classes per grade, but my smaller school had only one. One of my roommates taught at a school so large that all twenty of her weekly classes were taken up by the fifth grade alone. My other roommate taught grades one through six and commuted two hours a day to her two tiny aboriginal schools nestled in the mountains.
While teaching circumstance may differ, kids in Taiwan are pretty much the same as they are everywhere else. Many are earnest and eager to please, some are mischievous and playful, and some act out in the classroom due to problems at home. As a foreign teacher, you have the unique opportunity to get to know your students in a way different from your co-teacher. Students tend to see you less as an authority figure and more as a big brother or sister. Many ETAs use this to their advantage and become very close with their students. I am still in contact with my co-teacher and sent a video congratulating my former fifth grade class on their sixth grade graduation last June.
While I do not plan to pursue a master’s degree in teaching, I did learn many valuable skills that can be applied to whatever career I end up in the future. One of the most important yet hardest-to-learn skills is the ability to project confidence in the classroom. I swear, kids can smell fear. For me, it was the classic “fake it ‘til you make it” scenario. I had gone into Fulbright with a good deal of tutoring experience, but I lacked formal experience in a classroom. Thankfully, Fulbright prepares for this possibility and ETAs devote their first month to participating in teaching workshops from the teacher trainers.
I think the biggest gain ETAs experience is the lasting relationships you make with locals and other ETAs. The ETAs in my county truly became a family over the course of the year. The same goes for us and our co-teachers. The more of Taiwan that I saw, the more I fell in love. To this day, I am convinced that the Taiwanese are the nicest people in the world. Every person I met was so welcoming and kind. Through teaching, I also learned to become kinder to myself. Teaching is pretty stressful. All teachers want to do the best they can for their students, but I came to realize that things wouldn’t explode if I didn’t nail each and every lesson. Agonizing over a lesson gone wrong wouldn’t solve anything, but I could always review what had gone wrong and improve for the next class.
If any of this sounds interesting to you, I implore you to go talk to the Career Center! Ginny Dosch was an enormous help as I prepared my application. My experiences in the Fulbright Program both challenged and changed me, and I am so happy I did it!
Laura Becker '16 graduated with a major in Chinese. She is a New Hartford, NY native.