A lot of our recent posts have been about teaching English in Taiwan because many people who are considering to move here make a living by teaching. If you are one of the 99% that fall into this category then you will also most likely end up being one of the majority that spend at least a year working in a buxiban.

I have discussed before what it’s like to work in a buxiban, but today we are going to take a more in depth look at what buxibans are, and what their role in Taiwanese society is.

Are they schools?

Buxiban is actually the English romanization using Pinyin for 補習班. In Korea, this type of school is called a hagwon. Another common word used is cram school. Two common beliefs as to why the term “cram” is used are:

  1. These schools try to cram as many students into them as possible.
  2. These schools try to cram as much information into kids’ heads as fast as possible.

While neither, or both of these could be true, not all buxibans are the same.

It’s very important to understand that the word school is used loosely for these establishments. They are after school programs. They are supposed to be supplemental education. But in reality, they are a mix of a couple of things.

Buxibans are Businesses

First and foremost, these establishments exist to make money. They are not institutes of learning struggling to survive on donations and depressed tuitions in order to educate the nation’s youth. They are here to make the owner or owners money.

They do so by offering supplemental education, but the difference is the goal. Cram schools educate to make money, not for the sake of education.

You can decide for yourself on the pros and cons, and what moral implications this may have, but if you choose to work in one, knowing the boss or owner’s primary concern directly affects your experience. Students and their parents are customers. Happy customers mean happy bosses. If you have a happy boss, your life will be much more enjoyable.

As I stated before, every cram school is different, but what your particular place of employment’s customers want is what you should focus on. After all, it’s a job, and it’s what the management expects. It’s what they pay you to do.

Buxibans in Society

The never ending desire to get a leg up on competition birthed the cram school scene. Testing is very important in Asia, and Taiwan is no different. A student’s test scores often determine their future starting from a rather young age.

Highly desirable university programs are often aimed for started as early as elementary school. Over time it has become a type of educational arms race, and in the major cities it’s unusual if a student doesn’t go to some form of cram school.

What Does This All Mean?

Quite frankly, it means that you can make a decent living in Taiwan while teaching at a cram school. Since they are business aimed at making a profit, and because a well run school can be very lucrative for the owner, it has become an extremely competitive industry.

In order for schools to outperform their competition, they need to offer some actual quality and substance to their customers. A native English speaker is a selling point that schools leverage. They sell the experience in a variety of ways, like promoting the fact that their customer’s child can practice listening to natural English language accents and learn more about international culture. That makes you a valuable resource, and that is why you can make a decent salary compared to the cost of living in Taiwan.

 You may be thinking that there is a lot of talk about money and business in a discussion about cram schools. You are correct. They are businesses after all. But, the good news is that there is a bit of a silver lining.

Before I compared the macro view of buxibans as going through an arms race. The schools that innovate and look for ways to differentiate themselves, like the schools that first started using native English speakers to teach, prosper, so others end up copying them.

Then, to further differentiate themselves, schools start to actually focus on the material and quality of their programs. What has happened is that in order to survive, buxibans must actually offer something of substance, and the students must show that they are learning. So, at the end of the day, in order for these businesses to survive they have to deliver a decent supplemental education.

There are some buxibans out there that still survive on selling fun or have low quality programs, but they usually don’t last very long. Most of the newer or bigger schools you will discover in your job hunt will have an up-to-date program of some sort.

They aren’t perfect, but if you are open-minded and flexible, you can make them work. The kids will improve their English ability, and you can experience what it’s like to live in Taiwan and make some good money in the process.