A Twenty-Five Year Experiment 5
A Roller Coaster Ride
By Bih-Hua Chen
I never thought that helping my own boys to become bilingual could be like riding on a roller coaster. The bitter decision of making the announcement to close up Cornel was just one of the dives on the roller coaster.
Since the program I designed was to create an English environment for the students, I insisted on hiring native English speakers to teach. When the school was small, I had friends who were very kind to help out, but as the school grew I couldn’t simply count on friends. Recruiting teachers had become one of the most important jobs every year. In the first few years, I learned many valuable lessons about finding teachers locally. No matter how careful I was, I had to admit that I made many mistakes. It was heartbreaking to see someone who acted like an angel at an interview became a complete jerk at work. I knew the only solution was to go to the States to find qualified teachers, but I couldn’t travel because Kang and Chia were too young and Shyi-Dong was too busy with his research. Fortunately, Yve saw the problem and volunteered to help out. Thus, we built up a channel to hire certified teachers directly from the States in the early 90s. We were very proud that we were the only private school in Taiwan which had the equivalent teaching quality as international schools, but the students didn’t need foreign passports to study at Cornel. We helped numerous parents to fulfill their dreams without sending their kids abroad.
Hiring the qualified teachers definitely solved the problems and kept Cornel on the cutting edge. However, there were still times when the teachers ran into troubles or got severely sick, and we had to send them home immediately. When the teacher left, there was no way to fill up the vacancy right away and it was always a disaster. I was glad that I was tough enough to go through all the crises but it was like constantly walking on egg shells.
Despite the troubles with the teachers, the parents were also another challenge. There were times that some parents felt that they could manipulate the school but they didn’t know that they could never challenge a mother. How could they challenge me if the school was established for my own boys? However, some parents just felt that they would rather destroy the school instead of taking a refund and leaving. One incident I remember vividly is when I traveled to England with Shy-Dong one summer in the early 90s, right after we stepped into the hotel, the clerk told me that there was a fax for me. I read the message and it said: “Come back quickly, the parent, XXX, is turning the school up side down!” I can’t remember how many nerve-wrecking incidents like this there were since I established the School. Some parents were so nasty and they made me wonder whether there were good people in the world.
Since our immersion program didn’t follow the conventional way and we took in students when they were only three or four years old. Cornel was considered very radical in terms of education. However, the good news spread out like wild fire, and parents were very anxious to sign their children up at Cornel. Many parents believed that Cornel was the only hope for them to help their children become bilingual without going abroad. There was always a long waiting list and parents had to draw the numbers like a lottery to secure a place. Many mothers signed their child up once they found they were pregnant and a lot of families moved their homes to be closer to Cornel. All of a sudden, Cornel became the most demanded school and I was the most valuable woman. Many investors tried to persuade me to run schools for them if they took care of all the investment. Needless to say the offers were very tempting because Cornel could immediately become an enterprise. However, I turned down all the generous offers. The reason was simple. It was an experiment for Kang and Chia, and I definitely didn’t want to ruin it.
The investors were disappointed with my decisions; however, they had all the money they needed to build schools. The easiest way was to just copy what Cornel was doing. Suddenly, many splendid bilingual schools were everywhere. It became trendy to send children to bilingual kindergartens. On the contrary, most traditional kindergartens could barely survive because of the loss of the students to the new bilingual schools. They pushed the government to forbid any kindergartens from hiring foreign teachers to teach English. It happened to meet the government’s new policy which was to focus on a Taiwanese dialect in education. Therefore, all the bilingual kindergartens became illegal overnight!