Wednesday 18 November 2015

Teaching in Saigon: April and everything after...

I've put this post off for a while, although I suppose it was somewhat inevitable that I would get to it eventually. It’s the biggie, the main thing I’ve been doing for the past six months while living in Vietnam, namely, teaching English as a foreign language. The reason why I haven’t done so before now is mainly because I’ve been busy focusing on what I’m doing,  trying not to suck at it, trying to improve quickly over a short period and that has left me with very little opportunity to actually reflect on my experiences. Even though I’m actually busier at the moment than I have been for the whole time I’ve been teaching here, my brain has finally done enough filing and contextualising in the quiet moments to allow me to form some opinions on what I have observed and encountered during my time teaching in Saigon, and these are what I’m going to share with you today.

People say it’s easy, but like any job, it’s what you make of it.
There’s a saying out here, ‘those that can’t, teach, and those that can’t teach, teach in South East Asia.’ This statement is amusing but not entirely fair in a lot of cases and I’ll explain why. Yes, basically all you need to teach English out here is to be a native speaker, but, having done a teaching course and being a degree holder does open a few more doors for you, certainly in terms of getting in with more reputable organisations. It is also a good idea to get a police check certificate, something I did not sort out until after I left the UK so it was a hassle to arrange and I would advise anyone else who wants to do this, especially if you are wanting to work with kids, to get this sorted before heading out. I used this website…
... but there are a few out there and you don’t need a full CRB check like you would in the UK, just a basic disclosure certificate. Also, here’s the bit that the phrase overlooks entirely, if you want to make money doing this, you do actually need to, y’know, teach n’ shit. Employment is volatile here for numerous reasons, many outside of your control, so doing all you can to mitigate any problems that may arise by doing the best job you can do, is really, really important. This requires effort, continually reviewing and changing your methods, and generally just caring about what you’re doing. I’m not comparing this kind of teaching to the work of teachers I know back in the UK, who have had years of training and experience under their belts as opposed to a few months in a situation so different as to be barely even comparable. But I am a conscientious person who does try their best at whatever it is they are asked to do. Yes, I started teaching as purely a way to make money while travelling and no, I don’t think for a second that I have found my vocation, but I have found that my different jobs here teaching both adults and children have been an incredible personal challenge and they have caused me to grow in confidence and grow as a person. It’s been interesting and amusing and heart breaking and just plain exhausting at points but I actually would not change a day of it and that is something I never would have expected when I started the TEFL course.

You learn and you learn fast
I guess one of the main things I have learned while teaching here is that you can only plan so much, and only listen to so much advice (although it is still valuable to do both) at the end of the day, something you didn't expect will always happen and there is no point getting stressed about it. It's important to think on your feet, change your tactics if something is not working but still remember that whatever you are trying to do, you need to invest in what you are doing to get something out of it, calling it in is just not an option. Or at least, not if you actually give a crap. You have to care about every single student in that room, you have to want them to do well, which is the easy bit actually, because why wouldn't you? I'm nervous every time I go into a class. On a busy day, I can have up to nine classes, spanning various age ranges and situations. To counteract any anxiety this may cause, I make sure I have the right materials, I draft a brief plan, and then I forget about it until I'm in front of the relevant class, where I then focus on it 100%. For however many minutes there are in that lesson, I behave with a confidence I'm not sure is there normally, or at least I turn off my self loathing for that time. But I don't turn off my empathy or my sense of humour. I think it's important not to take yourself or the situation too seriously while still giving it the respect it deserves. It is important to have a connection with your students and I think this is best achieved through humour. The other aspect is empathy, I need to try as much as possible to understand their perspectives and points of view, and actually try to teach them something relevant and useful without boring the living daylight out of them. Of course this is particularly difficult when you're talking about a class of 50 odd students and I am sure many do get fed up and bored but I do my best and I don't stop trying to do my best until I leave the room. That's about all I can ever do I reckon. That and not rail at myself too much about any mistakes or fails that I do make, just try to remember them and learn from them for next time.

Teaching here does make you realise, for all our issues, how lucky we are in the UK
We moan about a lot in the UK, the councils, the NHS, the government, the education system, and we're fucking right to. These are important institutions that are essential to our wellbeing and we need to continually review them and strive to do better. But I guess when you see how things are done in other countries, especially in developing countries, it does give you a more balanced perspective on it. In the UK, we are lucky to live in a country that allows for such criticism, that holds these things up for scrutiny, and one that values healthcare and education and sees them as not only important but as goddamn basic human right. Two things that I have found hard to deal with while teaching in Vietnam are the treatment of children with disabilities, mental and physical, and the utter lack of respect and support Vietnamese teachers are given.

Unlike in the UK, disabilities and mental health issues are not diagnosed or treated effectively and for the most part, they are ignored and the children affected are just sent to state schools where the teachers are not equipped to help them. I have found this massively upsetting. Not only are these kids generally ostracised by the other children, but you are told as a teacher just to ignore them, even though you can see in cases they are responding to certain things and if they were given the right support, they could learn, rather than just being trussed up in a school uniform and given a bunch of new school books that they will never open. I know between the language barrier and not having any training that would help me to recognise what their issues are, there is not much I can do about it, but that has not stopped me feeling guilty about it every night when I get home.

As for the teachers, these people are dedicated and from what I have seen, love working with kids and really strive to get them to learn. You can see it is a vocation for them. From what I have heard, it takes a lot of education and money to train as a teacher over here, but once you are one, you earn a relative pittance. There was not a single teacher I spoke to who didn't have to work evenings and weekends on top of their day job just to make ends meet. It is also worth noting that most of them were women of my age and older, who were also unmarried, which is unusual for Vietnamese women of that age. But of course, if you work such long hours, how are you going to find time to meet someone, and even if you did, how are you going to find time to run a home, do all the cooking and cleaning, raise children, and be a devoted wife (which is the expectation on them)? Especially when you're working in a job where you cannot afford childcare or home help? So what you end up with is these women sacrificing their personal lives for their jobs, and how many people in the UK really have to do that? At times when I've felt run down or fed up or like I just can't keep going, I've looked to these women, and resolved to suck it the hell up, because not only is what I'm doing finite, I'm choosing to be here, and that's not the reality of life for them, which made me get over it pretty quickly!

Children are basically awesome
So yeah, I've never considered myself to be a particularly maternal person, I've never been one of those people who is desperate to be a mother. I've always been somewhat afraid of kids, and assumed that they would hate me and see straight through me to all of my flaws. But I've actually found it easier than I ever would have expected to get along with kids and I think that largely comes down to the fact that they are innocents. Even when they are being naughty or selfish or whatever, they don't give you any false agendas or try to be anything they're not. What you see is completely when you get with them. They are also hilarious. Unintentionally so a lot of the time, that must be said. As a kid, I remember wondering why adults got along with the students that I thought were horrible or smelly or just generally dicks, but that was my perspective as another kid, living in that social world and having to deal with different personalities. As an adult, you don't perceive kids that way. I don't think I've encountered a kid, here at least, that I would say is an actual arsehole, because you can't apply all of that adult bullshit to them when they're still learning, they're not old enough to know better like we are. You pull them up when they do something out of order and hope that it is a learning experience for them, but this is also partly because you know they've only done it because they've not thought about the other person or they're repeating something some adult dickhead said. Ultimately, it’s better they say it to you where you can make sure they know that it's wrong than to do it to someone and actually offend them or they incur some serious repercussions from it. But I never hold things like that against them as I would do an adult because kids don't need judgement, they need guidance, I guess, but mostly they just need love and encouragement. They need to be told, you are a person with value and don't you forget it. They also need to be taught to remember that everyone else has value and deserves respect too. If I've managed to impart any of that over the last few months I would consider it a massive achievement, more so than any English they may or may not have learned. It's doubtful, but I can hope!

Being one face in a million
Ho Chi Minh City has 8 million people officially living here as of last year but the actual total is thought to be more like 14 million. Can you imagine a city that densely populated? Every class I teach in state schools has up to 50 students in it, sometimes more, and every grade has numerous classes in it. To stand out as an individual in such situations is hard to do. I see it with the Universities too, each one has hundreds of thousands of students in it. I can only imagine that at points you would feel completely anonymous. In the UK, we are endlessly told that we matter as a individual, that we have potential and value. The flip side of that is that we are really bad as a nation at encouraging and supporting people to live up to that potential, rather than conform, but at least the thought is there in the first place, at least the philosophy that we are unique and have value exists. Here, it is the opposite, you are just a number, another mouth to feed, and you have to prove your value again and again, you have to fight and put yourself first, even if it is at the expense of others. I think this can be quite damaging for young people, as it can make them hard and self serving as adults and this loss of innocence is quite saddening. Even as a adult, coming from a westernised country to a developing one, to live, I've gone through a similar process. I will never be so naïve and open as I was when I first arrived here. This city has made me harder, and that will never leave me, because I'll never forget some of the things I've seen and experienced here. I think of this process happening to the little students I teach and it makes my heart heavy, because I get to choose to leave an environment that I'm not happy with overall. I just hope that they get to make the same choice, or that, preferably, the environment will change so that they don't have to grow up in the same way, and only time will decide that, one way or the other.

The long and short of all of this is, I ain’t no teacher. But I think I'll be a better and more rounded person for having been one for a bit. I have no desire to follow this career path any further, but if I had to do it again for a bit, I know I would and I could. I was speaking to another dude who was teaching for the same agency as me recently, and he said that he was finding it massively stressful because he expected teaching to be easy. I said that I expected the opposite, that I expected it to be the hardest thing I'd ever do. So you found it easy then? He asked me. Not in the slightest, I told him, I’ve it found it to be exactly as hard as I expected it to be, but it didn't take me by surprise at least. I guess that is what I've learned ultimately, this is the main thing that has changed, I now have the confidence to face things I didn't think I could. Life is hard, and will continue to be hard, but I now understand that I can deal with hard, and not only deal with it, I can do well in situations and environments that other people would find untenable. And I don't really mean the teaching; living here has been hard, extremely hard at points. I now feel that I would give any country in the world a go, because if I can deal with this, I don't see what situations I could not deal with. Teaching, if anything, has actually been the one thing that has kept my heart open at times when it could otherwise have shut down, because no matter what you're dealing with outside that building or at home, when you're faced with hundreds of genuine faces every day, you don't have time for self pity or introspection, you have to be a real and genuine person for them, and that has kept my heart beating at points. So maybe this post is not about how awesome I reckon I am now, but how awesome they have ultimately been.

This post is for all the kids I have taught at Guru Language Centre, Võ Trường Toản middle school, Nguyễn Huệ middle school and Nguyễn Thái Học primary school, with my love and thanks for making me a better person than I was before.


  1. Moved me to tears Chrissy - well done for everything you've achieved and everything you've given to the students you've taught - they're lucky to have had you as their teacher for sure. Makes me remember what was so awesome about teaching and why I miss it so much. I'm so happy for you that you've had such a positive, challenging but ultimately empowering experience. You are ace lady! Be proud - you deserve to be. Love from Carolyn xxx

    1. Thank you so much Carolyn. I really appreciate you taking the time to read it and for your feedback. It has been emotional but also quite empowering like you say and I do now understand why people teach. Do you think you would ever go back to it? Thanks again for your support and kind words. Hope all is well back home. Still miss you all a great deal. Love Chrissy xxx