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Five Things I Learned From Teaching English In Asia

Guest posts, Vietnam

By Amy Blyth from Our Big Fat Travel Adventure

I’ll never forget my first teaching experience. It was a Sunday and I was taking a summer-school class at a language centre in Hanoi, Vietnam’s chaotic capital. It was swelteringly hot, I had a sore throat and was visibly shaking with nerves. I’d spent hours planning my lesson, calling upon everything I’d learned on my TEFL course, but nothing could have prepared me for the moment when I had to standalone in front of a class full of eight year olds. It was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done and you know what? The kids ran rings around me.

Yep, my first teaching experience was an unmitigated disaster, so much so that at the end of it when one smart-mouthed boy said to me: “Bye Teacher, see you…never!” I was on the verge of bursting into tears and booking the first flight home. Luckily, I didn’t. I stuck it out and things got so much better. In fact, the year I spent teaching in Hanoi’s public schools turned out to be one of the most interesting and rewarding experiences of my life; here are five of the most important things I learned from teaching English in Asia.

Don’t lose face

Losing face roughly translates as losing the respect of others and it’s a big deal in Asia. You can lose face as a teacher by losing your temper, which I did many times, especially when I first started teaching. It’s hard to keep calm and not raise your voice when you’re faced with a class full of 50 screaming five year olds, but I eventually realised that flipping out was doing me no favours. I learned that it was much more effective to stay calm, establish clear classroom rules, use a firm, no-nonsense tone and enlist the help of my Vietnamese teaching assistant to deal with discipline. Students can also lose face by failing a test, for example, or simply answering a question incorrectly in front the rest of the class. In Vietnam we weren’t allowed to give less than a 50 percent mark in tests, even for students who had a very low level of English, so as not to show up the child or their parents. This can make things extremely tricky in the classroom; all you can do is try to create a supportive learning environment where it’s okay to make mistakes.

Learn to love chaos

I’m one of those annoying people who love to be super-organised and plan everything in advance, which made my teaching experience in Vietnam extremely frustrating. I knew working in Asia would be different from working in the UK, but I didn’t realise it would be total chaos. It was standard practice for my teaching schedule to be continuously changed at a moment’s notice, to be given books and resources the night before I needed them, for schools to cancel or move classes at the drop of a hat and announce school holiday, inspection or test dates at the last minute. It took me a long time to get used to the fact that life in Vietnam, as in many Asian countries, is just way more chaotic and unpredictable than life in the UK. There aren’t a set of easy-to-follow rules, low-level corruption is a part of everyday life and people generally just go with the flow and don’t sweat the small stuff. In order not to completely lose my mind, I had to try and let go of my obsessive planning tendencies and learn to love, or at least tolerate, the chaos.

Make friends with your co-workers

Walking into the staff room at school for the first time was one of the scariest parts of my teaching experience in Vietnam. I was the only western teacher in a room full of local teachers who I couldn’t communicate with because I didn’t speak a word of Vietnamese. On top of that, I’d been warned by my language centre about the importance of getting on with my co-workers; the year before a teacher had gotten on the wrong side of his assistant and she’d apparently made his life ‘hell’ for the rest of the year. In light of this, I made a special effort to always smile and greet my Vietnamese co-workers and ask for the advice of my English-speaking assistants. Although some members of staff remained indifferent towards me, many more responded kindly. By the end of the year teachers were offering me fruit in the staff room and chatting to me, I even received cards and envelopes of ‘lucky money’ from the school on Teachers’ Day. I learned a lot about life in Vietnam through making friends with my co-workers and it made my time there even more special.

Always have a back-up plan

I lost count of the amount of times I turned up to class to find the projector wasn’t working, I’d been given the wrong material to cover or my assistant was mysteriously missing. After having a series of mini-breakdowns, I quickly realised the importance of having a back-up plan. In short, I always took a USB full of reserve teaching games, songs and videos with me to school, along with a collection of flashcards, balls, magnets and reward stickers; I developed a fail-safe catalogue of games and activities to fall back on when things went wrong.

Teaching in Asia is awesome

I’m not going to lie, teaching in Vietnam was intense; the days were filled with extreme highs and lows, occasional tears and so much laughter. One thing’s for sure, it was certainly never boring. My students were lovely and I miss their boisterous energy, high fives and shouts of “Hello Teacher!” I also miss the Vietnamese friends I made, riding on the back of a scooter to work, shopping at the local street market and being caught up in the chaotic energy of Hanoi. Although I don’t claim to be an expert on Vietnamese culture after living there for just a year, I do feel that through teaching in Hanoi I got a deeper insight into local life than I did from merely backpacking through the country. For all its ups and downs, what I learned most of all is that teaching English in Asia can be pretty awesome.

Amy left the UK in 2013 to explore the world with her boyfriend Andrew. Together they’ve travelled, taught and volunteered their way around South-East Asia; the couple are currently planning a U.S road trip and are hoping to move to Spain to teach in 2016. Amy shares their adventures on her blog: Our Big Fat Travel Adventure.

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