Teacher – Teacher!

February 7, 2009 19 Comments »

End of class celebration
End of class celebration

I’ve been teaching ESL now for 5 months and it’s had its ups 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 learned by exposure.

I think I have successfully adopted the teacher image; I grade with a red pen, I often have ‘whiteboard 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 schoolmarm look. However, I have definitely adopted the ‘elder’ attitude. Just the other day we had learned about how to say the time of day. In 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 proceeded 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 who know me would find this surprising. I started off rather nice, and now I find myself confiscating phones every day 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 call me Mam, in Nepal they call me 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 accidentally make 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 measures 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 into 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 too 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 its 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!

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