Teaching English is something I’ve discovered, out of nowhere really, that I’ve got a knack for. Once I don that shirt and tie, lace up my polished brogues and proudly slot black, blue and red marker pens into my shirt pocket, I feel ready to start some learning. Like a grand, bespectacled owl I hoot away all of my inherent English language wisdom to my students. They sit there, with their expensive textbooks splayed open, expecting a combination of academic challenge and fun to guide them through the lesson.
It’s a balancing act that the teacher must perform in order to gain his or her students’ attention, affection and respect. This might seem like a big expectation, but any individual with an open attitude, sense of humour and professionalism will adapt and do well. After all, some schools require students to fork out almost an entire year’s salary in order to attend – so making sure they get their money’s worth justifies why you should take it more seriously than the ‘teaching-Englilsh-is-a-joke-job’ pundits would have you believe.
The English Language is an enabler. For citizens of the third and second world, being able to communicate in the language wealthier nations employ may be the defining ticket to a place in University abroad, gaining strong business connections or even landing a decent job in their own country. In countries like Vietnam, attending an English Language Center has become as commonplace as school-leavers in the UK going to University – it’s a rite of passage, undertaken by little kids who see it as playtime, reluctant teens being pushed by anxious parents, and ambitious adults alike.
As such, English Language Centers dominate the national market. Around 500 are estimated to be in Ho Chi Minh City alone – which isn’t too surprising given the number of centers, large and small, I drive past on most commutes. They’re a big part of 21st Century Saigon society, dotted around the city like grand beacons of education and enterprise. Granted, schools differ in size, scale and ethos – salaries vary, facilities are either great or grotty, and well, a lot of the time it’s more about profits than academics.
So despite the sheer density of language centers within the city, the haphazard nature of their quality can be exhausting. Finding the right job is a tussle. Going here there and everywhere for interviews, demos and coming to ‘agreements’ is usually a long, tiring process. Most schools require a TESOL Certificate, a University Degree, a Criminal Background Check (from your home country). Even if you have all these you will need to make sure they’re all properly notarised, stamped and authenticated. After this, you’ll need to get a health check to make sure you’re not going to infect the nation. And then you need photos that are a slightly different size from the ones you brought over from home, but nonetheless warrant spending more money on getting someone to take new ones (I’m confident that Vietnam is a nation of paper-work fanatics). You’ll have an interview, go through the trouble of completing a demo. Then be offered a lower salary than you hoped. So you turn it down. And go through the demoralising ritual again…
Given all of this, teaching in Vietnam is a good deal. Decent salaries, cultural experiences and respect are mostly a given. If you’re sensible and gain work with a respectable employer you can live very comfortably as a teacher here. Should you take that brave step onto the plane and venture out to the South East Asian unknowns, prosperity, friendship and personal development await you.
Now, one thing I’ve learned whilst teaching is that I’ve seriously taken for granted the complexity of the English language. When’s the last time you’ve ever referenced the present perfect tense? Or superlative adjective forms? Unless you’re a serious Anglophile, probably not too recently. As a teacher you’ll be called upon to address these grammatical points and explain them to your open-eared students. And by gosh, unless you spend some time doing some research, you’ll stumble.
But stumbling once in a blue moon can be forgiven if you have a good rapport with your students. Adults like teachers who can make a lesson fun enough to endure after a full day’s study at University, or clocking off after the cumbersome 9-to-5. Using the center-endorsed textbook as ‘scaffolding’ to your lesson (to drill in the important components of vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, listening, speaking, reading and writing – the ‘holy seven’ of any language course), it’s up to you to incorporate games and activities within your lesson to drill in linguistic points and, of course, to spice things up.
My own games have included the following: group games of snap, with students frantically scrambling to grab cards with words written across their surfaces; ‘buzzer’ races, where students race to slap their table before an opponent to answer a question; and the old family favourites of pictionary and charades, which are a hit in any language or culture. So as a foreign language teacher you are equal parts educator, entertainer and enabler. And as long as you’re incorporating language skills into your games, you can be sure that you’re on the right track.
Teaching teenagers is a different bag. These guys’ attention spans are shorter, their relationships with their classmates more juvenile and their interests much more modern than yours (making you feel like a dorky twat). The key is establishing discipline early on. No phones, no talking in Vietnamese, and the golden rule – “treat others how you want to be treated”. If you can’t control your class, teaching teenagers is like trying to herd cats. You may never be able to stop the rowdy, but you can cultivate respect.
Teaching children is a whole lot of fun. ANYTHING can be made into a game. Slap the board, back to the board, charades, duck duck goose, singing songs, pass the parcel… the list goes on. Mix these activities with the core language points of the lesson and you’re onto a winner. It’s important to take teaching the young’uns seriosuly though, and make sure they earn their figurative playtime. It’s a fun mix of work and play and I love it. And, dare I say it, the little tykes are adorable. I’ve had a kid tell me his life story in Vietnamese while I just sit there nodding and smiling. I’ve had a kid give me a card addressed to ‘my favourite teacher’. I’ve had kids try to wrestle me to the ground while I pretend to be Godzilla. Those early morning starts, despite the initial tiredness, really are worth it at the end of the day.
South East Asia holds a profound respect for it’s teachers. We are seen as providing a valuable service to the community, held with high regard. And to be honest the West could learn a thing or two about this ethos. A University professor once told my class: “Always remember your teachers. Never again in your life will you have people who care as much about your development as them”. Being in the other shoes, the point has become really clear. Despite any cynicism, us foreign language teachers are doing some good work out here. And I’m proud of that.