Teaching in Vietnam: Lessons Learned from a New Teacher

In some ways, I’m a planner. I like knowing what’s going on in my day to day. I like making plans with friends and I like having loose plans for the weekend. I don’t usually over plan though. I usually know who I’ll be hanging out with but I don’t ever focus on the details. Just as long as I know around when and where, I don’t really care much about the specifics. When it comes to work, I’ve never been the best planner or the most organized person. I’m that person that always has the cluttered desk with piles of papers everywhere. When I did design work for my last organization, I would have piles of old drafts, specs, and notes everywhere. When I wrote papers in college, I actually never outlined my papers beforehand. I kind of just put all the quotes and sources I was going to use in a document in loose categories and started writing my paper while adding sources as I went. You think this method wouldn’t work for 30+ page papers, but somehow my brain made sense of the mess.

I mentioned in my last post how teaching is really hard. Believe me. It is. One of my biggest challenges of teaching is lesson planning. I didn’t realize before starting this job how much work teachers have to put into one class before the class ever takes place. I should mention that whenever I had to give presentations in college or at my last job, that besides jotting some notes down beforehand, I would mostly end up winging the whole thing. I guess I thought teaching would work out the same way. Wrong (unsurprisingly so).

Here at Tra Vinh University, my college classes are 3 hours and 40 minutes long. Sorry to break it to you but ya can’t really just wing it in those classes. I’ve tried. It doesn’t work. Your students will hate you. Okay they won’t hate you, but they won’t get much out of your classes when you don’t plan them properly. I don’t think I’ll ever like lesson planning. I wish I could just run around in front of a class and the students would just learn. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Teaching is trial by fire. Every class is different. Some lessons that work wonderfully in some classes will fall flat in others. I’ve only been teaching a few months but man oh man have I learned a lot. Learning to teach much less learning to teach in a foreign country with a very different school culture than in the U.S. has dumped a lot of knowledge into my noggin.

Here are some lessons I’ve learned so far as a teacher:

  • It never hurts to over plan. I’ve had lessons where I’ve spent a lot of time on lessons only to have them blow up in my face which can be incredibly frustrating, but it has taught me over planning is never a bad idea. I always make sure I have alternative activities planned just in case. I’ve learned that lessons never take up as much time as I think they will. Either students take forever or they finish in half the time you anticipated. Or they simply don’t understand the task you’re asking them to do.
  • The mood you set in the first day of class is important. Think of this like the first impressions you have of someone. While you can change first impressions, it’s pretty difficult to do so. The same goes for how you teach a class. Some of the first classes that I started teaching, I came off as most of the teachers that I was taught by in the U.S.: a bit formal. This was really intimidating for a lot of my students which scared them off from raising their hands or actively participating in class. While I’ve changed the moods in those classes since then, it took a lot of work to do so. You really have to set the right balance of fun but serious starting from day one.
  • Be human. Acting like a fool in class works. Or at least it does in my classes. The times that I act silly, make jokes, or tell funny stories from my own life has lightened the mood in my class and has helped my shy Vietnamese students to feel more comfortable in class and participate more.
  • Be as clear as possible. As an English teacher, things that I think are obvious are not. I’ve learned to repeat things several times, to say the same thing in as many ways as possible, and to be as detailed as possible. Students in Vietnam are used to getting a lot of support from their teachers in a different way than teachers in the U.S. While some of my students are very creative and are great critical thinkers, these skills are not as integrated in the curriculum so I can’t always just let my students loose on an activity. I have to give very clear instructions and give really detailed examples. Totally understandable when you’re learning a different language, of course.
  • Getting students to participate is hard. I finally understand what it was like for my former teachers when they would ask a questions and everyone would just stare blank-faced back at them. While the participation in my classes is great now, it was really tough at the beginning and I’m still struggling to get those shy students to participate more. One trick that always works is to have students call on each other. Somehow, my students feel more accountable to one another then they do to me. Probably because cohorts take all their classes with the same people.
  • When all else fails, someone will want to sing a song. I don’t know what it is, but my students all love singing. And when I say love I really mean they LOOOOOOOVE singing. On more than one occasion, have I walked into one of my high school classes and my students already had a song prepared to sing to me. While this hasn’t happened in my college classes, they’re always up for singing. Once in one of my college classes, my class finished all their activities early. I gave them an option to go home or to do something else. They chose to stay in class to sing songs. I’m not kidding. They actually didn’t want to leave class early because they would rather sing songs. It was amazing.

Besides teaching, here are some random things that I’ve learned or experienced from teaching in Vietnam:

  • I am covered in chalk 24/7. Most of the classrooms that I teach in only have chalkboards. The last time I used a chalkboard was probably in elementary or middle school. Now, I use a chalkboard daily. I constantly have chalk in my hair, on my clothes, on my hands, on my face, and I’m probably breathing in a good amount of that dusty stuff everyday. I have to remind myself to not touch my face or hair when I have chalk all over me, but I always seem to forget, so I probably look like a crazy teacher all the time.
  • My handwriting is worse when writing with chalk. I have terrible handwriting. And by terrible, I mean that sometimes I can’t even read my own handwriting. My handwriting has only gotten worse since I graduated college too because I am always using a computer instead of a pen and paper. Since people have to read my writing for class, I’ve had to learn how to write somewhat legibly.
  • Writing on a chalkboard is making my arm muscles really strong. Actually, I don’t know if that’s true, but writing on a chalkboard takes more effort than writing on a whiteboard. In one of my classrooms, I have an ancient chalkboard that’s super scratched up so I have to press REALLY hard in order for my writing to show up. And since I teach a foreign language class, I end up having to write a ton of stuff on the board to make my lessons clear. After a 3 hour and 40 minute class, my arm is super sore.
  • The rain is deafening. It’s rainy season right now in Vietnam which means that it often rains really hard. When that happens, the rain is so loud on the roof of the buildings, that you have to yell over the torrential downpour. Sometimes it will rain really hard for hours, so you can’t really wait for the rain to let up to continue with class. Once I ended up yelling in class for 30 minutes because of the rain.
  • Sometimes I feel like the coolest person in the world. I once whistled in class to get some students’ attention and I felt like a superstar. Not many people can whistle in Vietnam so when I whistled everyone in the class was wowed. I felt like I had a talent unlike anyone else. Also, whenever I say oops in my high school classes, my students freak out. They really get a kick out of me saying oops. Once, I explained to my class that you should only say oops if you make a mistake or drop something. That started an epidemic in my class. Everyone in class started dropping their pencils and saying oops over and over again. It was hilarious. All in all, teaching is fulfilling, fun, and has made me even more comfortable in my own skin. It takes a lot to get in front of a group of students everyday.

4 thoughts on “Teaching in Vietnam: Lessons Learned from a New Teacher

  1. Ummm…Selina, the chalk problem sounds serious. It sounds like you may have a mild case of Earlitis! Love reading your posts by the way 🙂


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