ESL, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Teacher – Teacher!

20 Comments 07 February 2009

End of class celebration

End of class celebration

I’ve been teaching ESL now for 5 months and it’s had it’s up and downs. It’s honestly a lot of work, but it does get a bit easier once you’ve been there for a while. The prep time is reduced, and you learn that you simply need to stay a step ahead of the students. However I’m still rapidly trying to learn grammar rules that I question whether I ever learned in the first place or did I simply just learn by exposure?

I think I have successfully adopted the teacher image; I grade with a red pen, I often have ‘white board dust’ all over my clothes, and I lecture the students when they are late. I have stopped short of wearing my hair in a bun; I’m not really into the school marm look. However I have definitely adopted the ‘elder’ attitude. Just the other day we had learned about how to say the time of day. The next class one of my students came 30 minutes late. I let him come in and sit down (interrupting my class) and then I asked him “Tuan, What time is it?” He says “half past five.” I proceed to ask him “What time does class start?” “He sheepishly says five.” I continue teaching feeling proud of myself that I have made my point and then I get this sudden wave of panic – I feel like my father all of a sudden; I’m reprimanding people! These are the reasons why I’m not a parent…my lord – what have I gotten myself into?

My first few months were spent learning how to assert myself. I’m sure those that know me would find this surprising. I started off rather nice, and now I find myself confiscating phones everyday and scolding people for not showing up on time.
I wasn’t expecting this ‘mean teacher’ role that I would have to play because I think that I was lulled into thinking that I was going to be teaching adults. Sure, my students range in age from 18 to 40, but the majority of them are about 18 to 20 and I quickly learned that 18 is the new 14 in Vietnam. The maturity level of students here is about 4 years behind what my expectations are. So this means that I find myself thinking of silly games and competitions to keep their interest, and I’m constantly trying to manage the classroom and get people to listen to me. It’s a good thing I inherited my mother’s voice.

In India they called me Mam, in Nepal they called my Miss, but I have a different ‘title’ in Vietnam. Luckily my students don’t call me Ms. Ott – else I may puke, instead I simply answer the name of Teacher – Teacher. It’s normally always said twice for some reason. Vietnamese students don’t raise their hands, instead they just say Teacher – Teacher, and I go to their desk and help them or at least attempt to help them. I often accidentially making my job even harder. The other day we were learning food vocabulary and I made the mistake of saying that my favorite ice cream flavor was cinnamon. As soon as it came out of my mouth I regretted it. How the hell was I going to explain cinnamon. They don’t use cinnamon here! About 75% of the time I spend miming vocabulary, drawing stick figures, acting out feelings and singing songs; I should be nominated for an Oscar. I don’t really know who has taken over my body and mind when I do these things as it’s certainly not within my normal personality to behave this way; however you go to great measure to teach sometimes.

I love learning about the culture of where I’m living or traveling – and the classroom is no exception. I get a lot of time to observe students and Vietnamese culture in general. One of the things that always amuses me is that as soon as a Vietnamese student sits down, they take off their shoes (normally some kind of flip-flop or easy to remove sandal). I have no idea why, but when the Vietnamese are sitting down, they prefer to be barefoot. I look around my classroom, and most of my students are completely relaxed, shoes off, and watching me mime out the word shower.

Strangely, the fact that my students have a very limited vocabulary is one of my greatest sources of happiness. If I walk in the classroom wearing a dress and nice shoes, the girls all give a shriek that startles me as I walk in and it’s followed by “Teacher, you look beautiful today.”    I love these moments – who doesn’t want to be called beautiful.  Especially in a country where western women are completely invisible to any male attention (sorry – forgive that dig but I just couldn’t help myself). They don’t simply say “Teacher, you look very sophisticated today” or “Teacher, that dress looks very good on you”; these are way to complicated of phrases for my elementary students! No, instead they tell me that I’m “beautiful”. There are not many moments where I get called beautiful in my life, but here I get it about once a week. However, with the good comes the bad. The times where I get the other variation, “You are so beautiful – why you aren’t married?” I know there’s a compliment in there somewhere…but sometimes it’s really hard to find/see.

Teaching has it’s rewarding times and it’s tough times. The reward is when you actually bond with the students and you catch them actually using something that you taught them. I have some students that have been with me for 5 months. They invite me to parties and out for Karaoke (which I kindly refuse).  They know more about me than many of my ex-boyfriends. Most importantly, they know that I love cinnamon ice cream and that I hate green peppers. They know that I’m not married because I like my independence (yet I don’t think they’ve fully grasped the word ‘independence’ yet). They know about my entire family, where they live and what their names and ages are. They know about my dear friends and what they do for a living. They know that I don’t want children. They know I love to travel and write. I am their window into western culture and they are my window into Vietnamese culture; a mutually beneficial relationship!

Your Comments

20 Comments so far

  1. Anthony says:

    Thank you. I enjoyed reading your blog. You have an engaging writing style.

    Having lived in the Far East for several years I appreciate the culture. You bring some happy memories flooding back.

  2. Linda says:

    Hey Sherry,

    Sounds like teaching in Vietnam is an interesting experience! Don’t worry about the grammar – you probably never learned it. I’m constantly coming across grammar rules that I didn’t know and going “ah, so that’s why I say that!”

    I get the same compliment as you – usually from my male students though (I think I’d prefer it from girls!). I agree though, it’s a really nice compliment, pity that as their language gets better the compliments aren’t as extravagant!

  3. david says:

    I seem to remember that mean teacher at 6 a.m. in central park – not sure why this role seems new for you!! :) happy birthday week my love. hope you and i will be able to connect this week – leaving for CO, Vegas, and LA for work on Friday afternoon without my computer so hopefully before then.

  4. Carlye says:

    Go for the karaoke! :)

  5. Lynn says:

    Sherry,

    I know what you mean about the pluses (and minuses) of a sketchy vocabulary. I said goodbye to my Chinese maid yesterday and told her we were leaving Hong Kong. She was sad…she could tell me that she would miss me, but that wasn’t quite enough for her, so she told me that she loved me too! It was so cute…of course I said “I love you too Katie!”

    –Lynn

  6. Kim Lees says:

    Hi Sherry! This is Cyndi’s friend Kimberly from Minnesota (with the triplets) I’m sorry I haven’t written. Your photos are amazing!! I didn’t vote, but you definitely should NOT get another corporate job. Keep taking beautiful pictures!!!

    Kimberly and The Boys

    PS… Did Cyndi share our Christmas card with you? It was one of your pics!

  7. admin says:

    Kim – of course I remember you! So glad you found me here and follow online – thanks! I’ve decided to continue on with my quest to be a photographer/writer/teacher/consultant….no wonder why I”m busy all the time! So glad you used one of my photos – I will have to ask Cyndi about it! I don’t think I will be back at the cabin this summer – but if I am I would love to see you all again, and have a few margaritas! I’ve been busy taking photos – so keep checking back to see the latest!

  8. admin says:

    Anthony – glad I could rekindle some fond memories!

  9. Sarah says:

    Hi Sherry,
    As a soon to be teacher in Thailand, this is very inspiring. Its nice to see you discovered a new vulnerability in the class room, you must be proud of yourself. And you are beautiful!!!

    Best
    Sarah

  10. Lindsey says:

    I loved this post! Especially the bit about cinnamon. LOL! There are so many tiny words that you never think you’ll need to explain. So, let me ask you…have you ever had any trouble finding a job teaching ESL in a country? Blake and I are wondering how the economy has affected teaching positions.

  11. admin says:

    @Lindsey – I’ve only taught in Vietnam – so I can’t really speak to how hard it is to find work in other countries. But based on my friends finding work – it seems pretty easy. I know the school that I worked for in Vietnam is ALWAYS hiring! I was there for 2008-2009 during the economic downturn and didn’t really see any changes regarding teaching opportunities! It was a great place to hang out and wait out the recession!

  12. Hi Sherry

    Stumbled across your blog through my local twitter feed, and glad I did. I subscribed immediately as I love comparing notes with other teachers.
    I’ve been teaching in Saigon for the same period of time as you, and this particular entry sounds like it could have been written by me, with nothing more than a gender switch needed to make it work.

    I would second your reply that finding teaching jobs here (for well-presented, intelligent individuals) is very easy.

  13. Ludwig says:

    Hi, Sherry.

    You are the lucky one!
    Not married/without children.
    A free spirit able to do
    just about everything.

    May I please bother you
    with a (silly) question?

    But first… I am a businessman
    and for 4 straight years have lost
    our entire rainy-season harvests
    (my agricultural interests are
    in 3 Philippines volcanoes).

    Out of the blue, ESL came up and
    with the ability to teach children,
    I am thinking of doing just that.
    The question: can I teach ESL
    without a Bachelor’s degree?

    The fact is, I did not even
    finish High School, which
    is why I dabbled in business
    (where I lost entire wardrobes
    and not just my shirt, ha-ha).

    Thank you in advance.
    Oh, I am 58 years old.

    • Sherry says:

      Ludwig – Thanks for reading my blog! I loved the Philippines when I was there a few years ago! As far as teaching ESL without a degree – it all depends on where you are trying to find a job. If you are looking to find a job in your local community – it’s probably ok. If you want to go overseas and teach in parts of Asia – I think it will be a bit more challenging to get through the application process. However – you may want to consider trying to do more personal one on one tutoring – that way you can set your own price and don’t have to worry about applying anywhere. If you are in an area that is really looking for English language speakers and tutors – I’m sure you can find work by putting up flyers, etc.
      However my best recommendation is to simply contact a few English language schools and ask them the simple question and see what they say! It never hurts to ask!

      • Ludwig says:

        Thank you for replying, Sherry.
        (Ah, you are fine wine
        to your students!)

        And thank you for your advice.
        I am thinking of hieing off to Vietnam. Development here (and pollution) is rapid for my comfort. For several years, I hid
        in the mountains (but must come down
        to the city to sell my wild produce).

        I am not sure how attractive it would be
        to teach ESL here considering English
        is acquired (from all sorts of media).
        Like mine to begin with, ha-ha.

        I enrolled in TESOL yesterday.
        My assessment grade was 89, which
        to my standards is just inexcusable.
        However, I am a High School drop-out.
        Also, I had not taken school seriously
        (and am paying for it now, boo-hoo-hoo).

        Reading you is like piggy-backing
        (in your backpack). Thank you for
        sharing your adventures with us!

  14. Ludwig says:

    Thank you for replying, Sherry.
    (Ah, you are fine wine
    to your students!)

    And thank you for your advice.
    I am thinking of hieing off to Vietnam.
    Development here (and pollution) is rapid
    for my comfort. For several years, I hid
    in the mountains (but must come down
    to the city to sell my wild produce).

    I am not sure how attractive it would be
    to teach ESL here considering English
    is acquired (from all sorts of media).
    Like mine to begin with, ha-ha.

    I enrolled in TESOL yesterday.
    My assessment grade was 89, which
    to my standards is just inexcusable.
    However, I am a High School drop-out.
    Also, I had not taken school seriously
    (and am paying for it now, boo-hoo-hoo).

    Reading you is like piggy-backing
    (in your backpack). Thank you for
    sharing your adventures with us!

  15. Claire says:

    Hey there,
    Came across your blog tonight while googling about teaching in Vietnam. I’m contemplating chucking in my job (which I dislike intensely) for a year teaching in Hanoi. At this point I think I’m trying to convince myself that: a) I’m not too chicken livered to do it b) I’m not too old (37) c) I can have some fun and save some cash. I’m at the changing careers point anyway (from Chemistry to Finance), and I think a year off would do me the world of good.

    I also love photography, and the chance to kick it up a gear overseas is very appealing!

    The CELTA course sounds like awesome preparation – that was the one I liked the look of best, but it costs $3000 here in Melbourne. Was there any particular reason you chose to do that course over a TESOL course?

    Also cool that you have met the Talbots – since I’ve heard of them in the blogosphere :)

    Thanks for putting together such a great blog,

    Cheers
    Claire

  16. jenny says:

    hi Sherry,
    i like you blog.very interesing!
    im also an english teacher.
    looking for students whom i can teach.


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Sherry traveling the world

I'm Sherry, a corporate cube dweller turned nomadic traveler. I travel to off-the-beaten-path destinations to bring you unique travel experiences and photography. But it's not just about travel, it's also about life experiences of a middle age wanderer.
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