Friday, April 14, 2017

Teaching English in Vietnam

*Disclaimer: I'm not an English teacher. I mean. Technically I am. I get paid to do it. But I do not have my TEFL and I have no previous experience teaching English. I have a degree in art education and experience teaching art. So all I can do is share my experience and what I've figured out this past year. If you want real knowledge or information about teaching English, go somewhere else.*

The question I get asked the most is, "How do you teach English if you don't speak Vietnamese?"

The answer is mostly, pretty easily. I've touched a little bit here and there on how my job works but I have to write more in depth to really explain. Bare with me, this is the most I've ever written on here.

Getting hired: The company I work for will hire anyone. I didn't need any background in teaching or in English. They just want natural speakers. (None of my roommates have a background in teaching and they all have the same job as me). I moved here, then after a couple weeks I went to the company and I filled out an application. They throw you into a demo class and have you teach 45 minutes with no preparation (This was scary. If I had never taught before I would have bombed, I don't know how my roommates did it. They're amazing.). That Thursday I had an interview and signed a contract. Friday I got a couple hours of mediocre training and Saturday I started my job.

So I went in knowing nothing about teaching English and had to figure it out. Thankfully I have a lot of roommates with a lot of experience in the same company who gave me all kinds of games and ideas to get me started.

Level 2
How our company schedules us: I've mentioned this before, but our school has many different campuses and they can send you to any school. I generally get placed at the same 2-4 schools every week. Luckily this gives me some consistency, and I know most of the students at the school where I am most often.

Obviously this is a challenge because you are working with different students every day. When you are at a school regularly it goes much more smoothly. They know you and respect you a little more and understand how you expect them to behave. Also you can actually learn some names.

When we arrive at our school we are given a sheet of paper with the classes we will teach, the times, the classroom, and the lesson number. We grab the lesson books we will need that day and plan our lessons. Most people just wing it. I am an extreme overly organized planner, but I really don't need to be at all.

Planning lessons. A level 7 book.
How our company teaches students: All of our students are split into levels 1-9 A, B, and C (so they start with level 1A, then 1B, then 1C then 2A.....). There are some other classes we teach, like speaking classes or tutoring, but generally we teach lessons from the books.

Level 1 lessons are generally 4 new words and a couple phrases (i.e. "how are you?" "thank you" "i'm sorry" etc). By level 9 they are learning intense grammar things that I had no idea about. Ages range from preschoolers to young teenagers.

Level 9C, the highest level
The schools have Vietnamese teachers and foreign teachers (hi that's me). The kids sit through each lesson 2 times. Once with a Vietnamese teacher and once with a foreign teacher. The Vietnamese teacher's job is to teach grammar, core concepts, and really explain things. They are at the same schools every day with the same students so they basically do the actual teaching. My job is to teach pronunciation, have conversations, and make things fun. Sometimes the Vietnamese teacher teaches first and then I teach, and sometimes I teach first. Some of my Vietnamese teachers are wonderful and will tell me what they've already done and I can skip or what the kids should be reviewing or focusing on. I have a couple teachers at my favorite school who will actually co-teach the lesson with me, translate what I'm saying, and play games with us. But more likely you will walk in and the Vietnamese teacher will say "they're your problem now, peace out" and leave. Or sit in the corner on their phone. Which actually is fine, since I can handle most classes on my own.

How I teach students: First off, organization and planning. For me, planning comes naturally. I keep a note book of all of my regular classes at different schools where I keep track of their names, what activities they've done, and other little notes (i.e. "likes drawing games", "talks a lot" "love colored markers" "trouble with he/she" etc). On my actual schedule I write down whatever activity they did the week before and plan what I want them to do this week. Because I teach the same lessons over and over and over, this takes me maybe 5 minutes a day and at least for me, makes a world of difference. Again, I don't have to do this at all.

Everything in my bag, including my planner of student information, my coveted marker collection, and some verb flash cards.
Secondly, time management. My classes are generally 45 minutes. Sometimes 30. I try to split my lessons into 15 minute increments. I only spend 15 minutes teaching the lesson (remember, the Vietnamese teacher does the real teaching), 15 minutes playing a game or doing an activity that I choose that directly relates to the lesson, and 15 minutes of another game. If they are level 1 or 2 I will choose another game (they barely understand me and know very few games), if they are higher generally I will let them choose any game they want.

My schedule at the end of a weekend
Third, variety. I try to switch things up as much as possible. I do every page differently. If we do one page together as a class, I might do the next one-on-one, then I might have kids raise their hands, then I might have them write on the board, etc. And with my games and activities, I have tons. I never repeat games more than once in two weeks.

Lastly, classroom management and the language barrier. There's no consistency so you can't have a regular cue to begin or settle down. And the kids don't understand what you're saying so you can't explain anything. Without getting too wordy (cause I haven't done that here yet, right?) in America we have tons of tips and tricks for classroom management and teaching good behavior. Vietnam...does not. Their management is based on demanded respect and consists of yelling and discipline (for example, making students stand for an entire lesson). In public schools, teachers can hit students. I cannot hit students (literally this is the only thing they tell you in interviews/training. "Just don't hit the kids.") not like I would anyway. Some of the students know that because we won't hurt them, they can act up in class (especially if no Vietnamese teacher is present). Hitting kids aside, I can understand that the discipline is just a cultural difference.

Level  8 or 9?
We can discipline them like this and many foreign teachers do, but I'm not comfortable doing it. Generally I'll tap the board loudly and glare at students who are misbehaving, usually this is all it takes. Rarely, I will have a class that will not stop talking/moving around/playing with toys when I am teaching and I will yell "quiet" in Vietnamese (or whatever I know they will understand) and look angry. I hate doing it, but that is part of their culture. Yelling and looking angry is what they are used to, if that's what it takes to show that it's time to get serious I can yell once in a while. Also because they know I am not a teacher who regularly yells, most kids know it's serious when I do raise my voice.

I will only yell one time. If it doesn't work, I will write rules on the board that I know they understand. Generally, "1. go to your desk. 2. sit down 3. be quiet 4. play game". I will stand quietly by the board looking angry and tap on step 1 until all students are at their desks, then tap on step 2 until they are all sitting down, etc. This works because a handful of students will understand, "oh if we are good we will get to the game". They will start yelling at each other and I can just stand and look angry. Eventually they all catch on. I will stand and tap on the board until every single student is sitting quietly in their seat. At the most, I've waited 15 minutes. Then I will have a Vietnamese teacher explain to them, "I want to play games and have fun and help you guys. But if you are misbehaving you lose game time." This is basically my "I give up" plan when a class is completely out of control and it works. It works a little bit faster and better each time I use it and they catch on.

Level 1 or 2
That's only when students are misbehaving. Generally they are good and I can control kids with body language and no talking. I can tap on a desk or say a student's name to readjust their attention. If I can playfully redirect them, I will do that first. I can pick up a kid and put him in his chair if he keeps running around the room. Sometimes I pretend to staple a kid to their chair and every time they move I "restaple" them. They love it. I have a few tricks like that, and as long as I am playful and constantly switching things up they generally keep busy enough not to have time for misbehaving.

Other language barrier tips: act out everything while you say it simply in English. If I want them to "sit" "be quiet" and "raise your hand",  I will do that. If I want them to "make a line" I will say it over and over and move them into a line. If I want them to "turn the page" I will say that and turn the page dramatically and loudly slap the next page (the little kids love to turn the page because they get to slap their desk). Then I write the next page number on the board. They catch on fast. With higher levels I act out verbs and things like that. It helps a lot to be animated and goofy.

I also draw everything. I always have lots of pictures on the board to point to. And I color code everything. I always use 3 different markers (and generally have more in my bag. If a class is good they get to use alllll the colors and they know that's a special treat that Teacher Tina has. I do things like use pink or red for women and blue for men when I'm teaching "he is" "she is" or "this is his" "this is hers" etc.
Color coded "this is his" "this is her" game. Level 3.
Ultimately, it's a very easy job. I don't get a lot of real connections with students and it's hard to really get to know them which is disappointing and makes the job not very fulfilling. But on the other hand I basically have complete freedom and the lessons are already, for the most part, planned for me. Teaching here for a year gave me a very basic understanding of what teaching English is like. It gave me a lot of freedom to explore management and come up with games and activities. I think it's a great starting point and if I continue to teach English I would be much more comfortable diving into a real class where I can do some serious lesson planning. I am super grateful for the experience.

If you read this whole post I will give you 5 dollars.


  1. This was one of my favorite entries of yours so far. Very informative. I still think you're brave for doing this even though it doesn't seem as difficult as I initially thought (still way too difficult for someone like me, though, lol). It actually seems kind of fun! I would have loved to sit in on one of your classes, you seem like a very fun and organized teacher.

    1. Aw thank you that's so nice of you :)

      It's one of those things that's difficult at first but gets easier. Like traveling between Minnesota and Vietnam, the first time I made the trip it was like the longest, scariest, stressful day of my life. But now I've made that trip 6 times and by the last time it was just a long inconvenience. The more you do scary things, the easier they get. :)