I Think I Must Be Getting Old… Teaching at a Vietnamese High School

This past fall the Clayton High School class of 2009 held a 5-year reunion. I did not attend, what with living in Vietnam and all, but I was still pretty surprised that enough time had passed for there to be a reunion. Was I really that far out of high school? Well, after a weekend spent teaching high school students in Sóc Trăng, let me tell you, the answer is yes. 110% yes.


When I returned from my winter travels I got an email with my schedule, and a little note that basically said, “by the way, you will be going to Sóc Trăng at the end of the month to teach at a local high school.” With no idea why this was happening, or what I’d really be doing, I was a little nervous but also excited. I’d never been to Sóc Trăng, a province in the delta, and I had never taught at an actual high school, since all of my classes in Can Tho tend to be at the center or CTU. So I was tentatively excited, but basically didn’t really think about it for about a week.

As I’ve mentioned before, my normal class schedule is pretty light. I teach in the evenings and sometimes on weekends (although I try to avoid that, since those are the kids’ classes, and I’m not exactly a kid person). So life went on as usual, and I heard snippets about the trip. Eventually I found out that I was being asked to teach two full days of high school English classes, and then help with some sort of party/assembly. It sounded like a big jump, going from a 12-hour work week to three 8-hour days, but I guess that just stresses why I really couldn’t complain, haha. Somewhere in the mix Peter was asked to go as well, and by the time we were to leave we had a general idea of topics to teach, but no idea what level the students were at. This was exciting, but also not ideal. I’ve learned over the past year that I really do work best within some sort of framework, and this whole, “do whatever you want!” thing isn’t really for me. But when life gives you lemons, you do what you gotta do.

Selfies with the students!
Selfies with the students!

On the day we were meant to leave, a group of four students came all the way to Can Tho to pick us up, then made the 1.5 hour drive back with us. We chatted a bit, and when we arrived in Sóc Trăng they took us out for what they called, “stinky soup,” or bún nước lèo. It’s a Sóc Trăng specialty, and it’s extremely similar to bún mắmwhich is sold in a stand outside my house. I was a bit surprised to discover that I couldn’t smell anything when they brought out the soup, and neither could Peter. We must have gotten desensitzed after living with the bún mắm smell (which is a bit surprising, considering when I first moved in I couldn’t stand the smell, and refused to eat at the stand). In any event, the soup was very good. The alleged smell comes from the fermented fish paste used in the soup, which is pretty strong, but tasty.

After eating the students dropped us off at our hotel and asked if they could come back later and take us out to the “Freshwater Lake.” We were tired, but decided to go out and see the town. We walked around the lake and drank sugar cane juice, and the students were really sweet. Their English was waaaaay better than we were expecting, but hanging out with high school students was really testing my conversational abilities and pop-culture knowledge. We managed, but I went to bed that night feeling old and out of touch.

Hanging out with students for bubble tea and more selfies
Hanging out with students for bubble tea and more selfies

The next day the students came by to take us out for breakfast at 6:30am. I was not particularly enthused about waking up this early, but the students were really sweet, and the food was tasty. We then got to the school and found out that, since we were teaching 2nd period, we had about an hour to sit and wait until we did anything, then an additional 30 minutes to wait while the students had a breakfast break. We were a bit perplexed as to why we got breakfast so early when we didn’t really need to be at the school until 9am, but later found out that the school was taking care of all our meals, and the students volunteered to go out with us. Since class started for students at around 7am, they had to take us out early. While our hotel was only a 5 minute walk to the school, they students and staff felt that we would either get lost or seriously inconvenienced if we had to walk on our own, so I think starting early also gave the students enough time to pick us up on their bikes and motorbikes.

Peter took the first class of the day, and I sat in the back with the Vietnamese teachers and observed. Talking with them I realized that the schedule they were using and the one we had been given were different, which meant a bit of maneuvering of materials and improvising introductions. In the end everything worked out, and I sat back and observed for the morning. We had lunch with the students and a quick rest before I returned in the afternoon to teach two classes on the environment. It was a bit odd, since I was given no materials and had no clue what the students already knew, but their English skills were better than I had been led to believe, and they were generally enthusiastic and fun.

Peter and I were the first foreign teachers to ever visit their school, and everyone was really excited about it. After every class (and often during the class as well) students would ask to take selfies or have photos taken of us, or they would ask for our facebook info. By the end of the weekend my face hurt from smiling, and I had over 200 new friend requests. The students would post pictures on Facebook taken in the middle of class, and write statuses about Peter and me, that they knew we could see because they friended us. One student posted something like, “here is Peter’s Facebook, and Jessica’s. Add them!” All of it was a bit overwhelming, but clearly well-meant.

That night we went out with students again for dinner, and again to the lake! It’s pretty much the only thing to do in town… This time they went for the carnival rides, which I declined to do. They were so insistent that I ride a ride that eventually they wore me down and I rode the baby roller coaster. My aversion to rides still stands, I did not find even the baby coaster fun. Thrill-seeking coaster-lovers, I will never understand what you get out of this. That sinking stomach feeling? Not so fun. But hey, to each his own, I suppose.

The next day was early breakfast again, and then Peter taught two morning classes. I asked if I had to be there, and they said yes, so I sat through the first class. I was clearly falling asleep, which is not good teacher etiquette, so I snuck off back to the hotel to nap before lunch. I was a bit nervous about my afternoon classes, since the topic was “women in society,” and I had no idea where to even start. Also, the first class was a combo of two classes, meaning it was over 50 students in one large room. I had to use a microphone to be heard. The classes went alright, but I really wish I had done things a bit differently. Oh well, live and learn.

That night we went out for dinner with students again, but afterwards declined going to the lake (which was full of mosquitoes – my legs were almost entirely covered in bites by this point) and instead met up with two friends who live in the town and work as foreign teachers at the local community college. We grabbed a beer and had a great time talking to people our own age. The high schoolers were really sweet, but the conversation was a bit forced, and there was a lot of, “so…. what do you want to study in university?”

Photo op with the students at the assembly
Photo op with the students at the assembly

Our final day in Sóc Trăng was a Saturday, which is still a school day in Vietnam. Since nobody had mentioned breakfast to us the day before, we decided to sleep in til 7. Such a luxury! After finding our own food we went to the school to teach two project-oriented classes. These were pretty fun, since the students just made posters talking about their favorite bands or discussing the differences between Vietnam and other countries, then presented to the other students. In the afternoon we met up with other staff from our center in Can Tho for the assembly, and generally sat back and observed the games and activities. At one point they were doing English trivia, and the students who were eliminated could be brought back into the game if they got teachers to sing for them. Peter and I were asked to sing, and we agreed, but thankfully another teacher got to the mic before us and we were spared that particular embarrassment.

Handing out boards for the trivia competition
Handing out boards for the trivia competition

By the end, however, I still had a pretty silly role to play. I got up and tried to teach the students the “Cha Cha Slide,” which I can’t even remember how that was agreed on, but I did a horrible job of teaching it. Pro tip – if you’re going to teach a dance, take the time to really learn it ahead of time. I assumed that I knew it, and only practiced once, which was a huge mistake. The students were quick though, and picked it up just fine. In the end it was pretty fun. You can see it for yourself, in all of its embarrassing glory below.

At the end of the event the students presented us with lots of gifts, including tons of banh pia (durian cakes), which are a specialty of the region. I think we ended up with a lifetime supply… Anyway, it was then time to make our way home. We were exhausted, but that day our friends were hosting a “beer olympics” party, which we thought was for another friend’s birthday. So we dutifully showed up, only to find it was not, in fact, his birthday party, just American style beer games. So that day I went from high school to college, and by the end of the night I was exceedingly glad to no longer be a student.

So. Many. Students.
So. Many. Students.

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