I have approximately one month left teaching in the Mekong Delta. Since I’m on the homestretch with my time here in my little city in Vietnam, I thought I’d share some things I’ve learned since this past post. I’ve been teaching for 9 months, and I still feel like I learn something new almost everyday about the cultural and social nuances of teaching in a foreign country. Teaching styles, learning styles, academic standards, work relationships, and schedules all differ from what I am used to in the U.S. Coming from an American academic setting and then teaching in Vietnam has been an eye-opening experience.
It’s interesting to be on the other side as a teacher for one thing. My teacher self today would’ve disliked my teenager student self. For real, though. Granted, when I was a student in high school, I was that asshole that fell asleep in class everyday. So some of the hate I got from my teachers was warranted but I was also a straight A student so I thought teachers should cut me some slack. That aside, I never understood, as a student, why teachers would get annoyed of students yawning in class or even resting their head on their arm. I do now. When you’re standing in front of a classroom, it’s hard not to let your ego get in the way. When my students are not paying attention, when they look bored, or if they’re sleeping, it’s incredibly annoying and a bit offensive. How dare you not listen to my incredibly interesting lessons?! I’m more understanding in my high school classes since those students have little choice regarding the classes they take but when I teach my college English major students and they’re on their phones or if they’re not taking notes, I’m forced to be pretty stern with my students. As a student, I think it’s easy to forget that your teachers are humans with functioning emotions. Students in Vietnam though, generally have a higher regard towards teachers than students do in the U.S. So that’s always nice.
Still. Many differences exist when you compare a U.S. college setting to a Vietnamese one. One big difference I can think of right off the bat is that students tend to be more passive learners than students in the U.S. Another difference is how students in Vietnam sit in class for about 20 hours a week. At the university that i teach at, my classes occur once a week for 3 hours and 40 minutes with a 20 minute break in the middle for each respective class. Classes are typically around 2 or 3 hours long at least. Classes occur from 7 a.m.-10:40 a.m., 1 p.m.-3:40 p.m., or 6 p.m.-9:40 p.m. If I had to sit through class for that long, I would have a hard time focusing too. It’s been a constant struggle to keep my student’s attention for the entirety of my 3 1/2 hour classes. Also, teaching a foreign language is incredibly hard when you only see your students once a week.
When I was in undergrad, I attended class for about 12 hours a week and spent the majority of my time outside of class studying, reading, or writing papers. When I wasn’t doing work for my class I was either working or in dance or cheer practice. I had fun in college but the phrase “work hard to play hard” definitely rang true for me throughout college. While students at the university I teach at are hard-working, it’s a different kind of hard-working where most of their time is dedicated to attending class and listening to lectures. Most of the learning that occurs in the Vietnamese education system occurs inside the classroom and very little outside learning or preparation occurs. At least from what I’ve gleamed so far. I could be completely wrong, but this is what I’ve observed as a teacher during my months here. Students don’t spend a lot of time doing homework and the majority of their marks are assessed through midterm and final exams.
It’s been difficult for me to adjust to this sort of system, of course. A lot more hand holding has to occur in my classes before my students become comfortable enough to even participate in class or do work independently. Students here take the same classes with the same students for their entire college career and are used to helping one another out. I’ve had difficulty having students do assignments entirely on their own without the help of a fellow classmate.
All in all, despite the differences and the frustrations along the way, it’s been a great experience thus far. On a personal level, I’ve learned more about patience and flexibility. I would consider myself a laid-back person by nature but teaching has really forced me to be even more patient and flexible. Sometimes classes are scheduled or unscheduled last minute. Sometimes your students could be better. Sometimes your lesson plans fall flat. Sometimes things don’t make sense no matter how hard you try to understand the cultural differences. And so on. You really have to try hard not to lose your cool as a teacher when the frustrations pile up and you feel like your students aren’t learning but getting mad never helps anyone.
Sometimes I have to remind myself too that I’m not teaching in the U.S. Therefore, I have to adjust to the differences here. Tailoring expectations is key. I can’t have the same expectations as I would in the U.S. because frankly, learning styles, academic standards, and the context that I’m teaching in are very different than a U.S. college setting. That doesn’t mean I can’t teach my classes the way I want. It just means I have to spend a lot more time planning, explaining, and getting my students comfortable and used to how I run my classroom.
Other things learned? Well, it’s hard as a teacher to not have favorites. I definitely have my favorites. Despite this, I try to treat all my students fairly. If teachers say they don’t have their favorites though, they’re totally lying.
And like I mentioned before, teachers are humans too so as a human being who is a teacher, it’s hard to have students not like you. I just have to remember it’s not personal. I definitely acted like a brat with some of my teachers and oftentimes it never occurred to me that teachers have emotions too and that I might be hurting their feelings.
And lastly, be aware of the wind and fans. The classes I teach in Vietnam don’t have air conditioning. All the classes are pretty open and we rely on open windows, cross breezes, and fans to cool down the classrooms. It’s happened more than once that I’ve been wearing a skirt or dress in my class and a strong wind or draft blows my skirt in a way that I’ve had to hold my skirt down tightly for fear of mooning my students. It’s not something I would’ve ever thought I had to think about when choosing my daily wardrobe, but now, I’m careful of how flowy my skirts are depending on which classrooms I’ll be teaching in on any given day.