Many people have asked me to write a little bit about what teaching is like abroad, and how I like working with students here in Vietnam. To be perfectly honest, I waver from day to day on how much I enjoy it and how confident I feel in my ability to effectively teach, but I have always felt that my students are by far the best part of my job.
A little background – I am a teacher at private English center here in Can Tho. This means that I only teach speaking and listening, and that I am not asked to grade my students on their work. They are here purely in an extra curricular or supplemental capacity. And while not having to grade papers is pretty awesome, I think my favorite part of this is that I can interact with my students in a much less formal way, and I don’t feel guilty for going out for coffee with students, or agreeing to spend time with them outside of class.
My students also tend to be close to me in age, and many of them are relatively good at speaking and understanding English – none of my students are absolute beginners. So, put simply, I can relate to these people, and I can be understood more often than not. Sometimes this makes me uncomfortable, when I my students are significantly older than me, or if they are majoring in English education, I wonder what qualifications I could possibly have to lead their class. But even those who might otherwise criticize my methods or experience seem to feel satisfied that they are able to speak with a native speaker, and after all, that’s why I’m here. This feeling of inadequacy, while uncomfortable, does push me to improve my teaching techniques and work to earn the respect of both the class and my peers.
But what exactly are my classes like? Well, for the most part my center asks that I teach to their prepared materials. This means I lead a lot of discussions, listening exercises, and role-plays. When time allows, or when I’m feeling particularly unimpressed by the materials, I will substitute or pad my classes with games and original activities. As I grow more and more comfortable in the classroom, I find myself planning more original lessons and stepping away from the books, which are often amazingly dull. Honestly, no student wants to do six role-play exercises in a row where they practice how to invite someone to a party….
Now, some days my lesson plans are more successful than others. Last month I had two classes that were a perfect example of this. Halloween was that week, so naturally I thought this would be a great chance to have some fun and introduce a bit of American culture to the class. For my first class of the week I made a rough plan to talk about Halloween history, go over related vocabulary, and have students write their own 2-sentence horror stories to read aloud. Have you heard of those? They go something like: “The last man on earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock at the door.” The concept it fairly simple, and it sounded fun on paper, but the whole thing was a bit lackluster in practice. I was kind of bummed, but was able to bring the class back around at the end with a few tongue twisters, which they LOVE. I introduced them a few weeks back and offered a candy reward for saying them correctly, and now they request a new one every week.
So yes, Monday’s Halloween lesson was a bit of a bust. But on Wednesday I had my highest level class, and I thought I’d tweak my lesson and give it another shot – the text for this course has only 10 lessons for 12 weeks, so it seemed like as good a time as any to introduce new material and strike out on my own. It started out a bit slow. We discussed the history of Halloween, and I had them describe a costume they would want to wear (this concept was pretty weird to them, and they ended up just describing the character or monster rather than the actual costume, but oh well). I had planned on trying 2-sentence scary stories again, but decided during the class that it wasn’t enough. Instead, I asked the students to write and read aloud their own horror movie scripts. And holy cow, did they go for it! They spent the better part of an hour writing and rehearsing, asking for the necessary vocab and practicing their scary voices. One group improvised their own props, and decided on their own to make it a skit, rather than popcorn reading as I had originally intended.
When it was time for them to perform, they insisted we dim the lights to create the proper setting, and then went all out. They did voices, props, seriously cheesy acting, and one group even found a sound bite on his phone of a beating heart to play when the scene was getting tense. And all this from a class who, just weeks ago, I could barely get to answer any questions. Their stories were creative and their English was pretty solid, and it was amazing to see them so excited to do anything class-related.
At the end of class I gave out candy and turned to leave, but everyone insisted that we take photos to celebrate. Now, this is not particularly unusual – students ask to take photos with me waaaaaay more often than is warranted, and I usually feel weird about it. But that day I gave in, and we took our share of silly photos. I even asked them to get a few on my camera, and you can see them below. It was an awesome class, and a great motivator for me to step up my lesson planning.
Since then I’ve had a few good classes, a few not so great ones, and I continue to learn from my experiences. I’m lucky to have a group of friends here who are also teachers, and we spend a lot of time comparing lesson plans and helping each other improve. Overall, teaching is more fun than I would have thought, and I’m glad to be in an environment where I can experiment and learn, and hopefully help others do the same.