Two years ago, I found myself teaching English in Vietnam. It was nearly an accident. I had met a guy in the Philippines who was contracted to teach English to the staff of a hotel in Hoi An, but had to cancel at the last minute due to a family emergency. He asked if I knew anybody in the area who could fill his role, and I, a being of near-infinite arrogance in my own communicative abilities, volunteered to take over for him.
I didn't speak a word of Vietnamese and I'd never taught before. Some might call this folly, but I was interested in tackling whatever adventure came my way. So within a month, I found myself stepping off the train in Hoi An, ready to meet my students and change some lives.
Long story short, I underestimated the experience. Teaching is hard, time-consuming, and if you don't know what you're doing, you can easily fall into a downward spiral of apathy where your lessons are stagnant and your students don't learn. If you reach that point, the experience is horrible on both sides.
But I decided early on that I was going to make the most of the experience. And while I didn't come out the other side speaking fluent Vietnamese, my students improved and I had a great time, feeling both fulfilled in my work and better connected to the foreign land I had called home. Here's how I did it.
I Dedicated Myself to My Job
I wasn't fully prepared for what I was about to do. While many teaching programs include a training period to make sure teachers are ready for success, I had never taught English before, and I hadn't even taken a class on how to teach English as a second language (which, my experience aside, you really ought to do if you're considering this line of work with more than a few months' advance preparation). In short, I was armed with little more than patience and will.
When I arrived at the hotel where I was teaching, I learned that I would teach two separate classes. One was the front-of-house staff. These people already spoke a bit of the language, but I was going to help them communicate better with a Western audience -- verb tenses, vocabulary, that sort of thing.
However, I was also assigned to teach the back-of-house staff: the cleaners, the janitors, and the cooks. These guys spoke the same amount of English as I spoke Vietnamese, and those first few days of speaking to them, let alone teaching them, was akin to debating a wall on ethics. It was simply impossible to exchange ideas, and for a few days, I contemplated coasting through this lower class while focusing my time and energy on the higher-level speakers I was more confident I could help. This was a toxic idea, and I'm glad I realized that early on.
I dedicated myself to my job. I studied lesson plans from other teachers. I read strategies. Funnily enough, I found a connection with the lower-level students through Tom & Jerry cartoons.
See, if I were to do that -- to allow apathy to sink into any aspect of the job -- there would be no guarantee I'd be able to quarantine it to just that aspect. If I slacked at all due to simple frustration and a "can't do" attitude, I'd probably eventually wind up feeling the same way when I reached a rough patch in my other class, and then there'd be no reason for me to be there at all.
Instead, I dedicated myself to my job. I studied lesson plans from other teachers. I read strategies. Funnily enough, I found a connection with the lower-level students through Tom & Jerry cartoons, using them to segue into vocabulary and rudimentary discussions about what was happening.
And while nobody came out of that class reciting Shakespeare from memory, I felt like I had actually accomplished something. It may sound obvious (or worse, superfluous), but fundamentally making the decision to take your job as a teacher seriously can be the difference between gliding through the experience and actually making the most of it.
I Recognized My Students Were Adults
Absolute power corrupts absolutely. I thought this was just something they say in superhero movies, but having people under your tutelage can really go to your head if you let it. This is especially true in a scenario where neither of you speaks the other's language, because the ensuing frustration can easily cause you to lash out, to act superior, and to punish the person who's not doing things exactly as you pictured in your lesson plan. Bad teachers do this. New teachers do this. It hurts everybody involved.
It's less of an issue when you're teaching children, who need guidance and discipline, but if you're teaching adults, you have to realize that they're not there because a parent is forcing them. They're there because they want to improve themselves by choice, and that makes them your equal.
They're there because they want to improve themselves by choice, and that makes them your equal.
At the beginning of my time at the hotel, I spent all my mornings and afternoons with other backpackers from the youth hostel next door. Hoi An is a pretty small town, being made up of only two or three roads in the central Ancient Town district, and few people venture far beyond this area.
The backpackers in the area wind up being pressed into tight quarters, visiting the same bars and following the same routine no matter which pack was in the city at any given time. And because I was hanging out with these backpackers every day, I didn't fully take advantage of my time teaching in Vietnam -- as well as in Vietnam in general. I wasn't taking in the culture. I wasn't seeing all there was to see.
But when I decided to respect my students as equals, I saw a shift. I was able to bond with them beyond the student/teacher relationship. We became friends. And as that bond developed, I spent less and less time at the usual backpacker haunts, and spent more time out of town, visiting small cafes by the beach that hadn't seen a tourist in weeks. I went to a wedding. I met their family. I made much better use of my time away from the classroom simply because I respected the people within it.
I Let My Students Teach Me
As I spent more time with my students outside of the classroom, our interactions changed. We started to develop a new method of communicating, far better than my previous attempts at frantic pointing and guttural sighs. This one was based more on rhyming, leading words that eventually got us to where we were trying to go. Conversations (and teaching) became easier.
But more than that, I realized just how much I was learning myself. I picked up basic words of Vietnamese much faster because I was conversing with native speakers rather than tourists -- you'd be surprised how easy such a readily-presented benefit of teaching can sneak its way out of the picture.
And while I can't remember much of the little Vietnamese I did pick up, I remember the stories I heard. I learned more about the Vietnam War from the 70-year-old woman cleaning the hotel rooms than I ever did in school. I learned about the country's relationship with the Chinese and the French. I tried and fell in love with Vietnamese coffee. I sampled what Anthony Bourdain called the best Banh Mi in the world without even realizing it.
Sure, I might have been able to find these things eventually. It's easy to stumble upon new ideas when you're in a country on the opposite side of the planet. But I think it was because of this friendly, respectful, middle-of-the-road teaching style that allowed me to leave Vietnam feeling like I could not have possibly experienced the country better.
Can You Replicate My Experience?
Teaching English is a weird profession. It's as easy to get caught up in the intricacies of the job as it is to ignore them entirely. If you go to either extreme, apathy or tyranny, you'll leave in a confused state, realizing that you squandered something life-changing.
But Vietnam is a special country. It's my favorite country. It's beautiful. But the people there are even more so, and teaching them is an experience you'll never forget -- if you know how to make the most of it.Photo credits: manhhai, emilio labrador, podoboq, Lucas Jans.