Teaching English in Hanoi
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Classrooms, culture shock and connections: Teaching English in Hanoi

I shall begin with the disclaimer that this represents my personal experience living and teaching in Hanoi, Vietnam. It can hardly be regarded as the universal experience of teaching in South-East Asia – it instead gives me the opportunity to reflect on good memories and have personal reflection.

I was shocked at the frenetic activity of English-teaching Facebook groups and at how easy it was for me to be given the title of an ‘English teacher’ and secured teaching positions without being asked for a criminal background check, a degree or sometimes even teaching qualifications. Personally, I had previous experience volunteering in schools and organising games for children in the UK and Burkina Faso as well as holding a DBS certificate. Nonetheless, children could easily be exposed to an adult with little experience and possibly a criminal record. Hopefully since Vietnam is rapidly developing, it will follow the lead of other countries and enforce existing laws to increase protections for children and improve the quality of teaching.

The reason why some centres overlook qualifications is because the demand for teachers is so high and less qualified teachers require less pay. This has led to centres employing unqualified teachers in order to save money in their business. While reflecting, I ask myself: did I take advantage of a system where profits overshadow education? When I arrived, I received low salaries due to my lack of degree and teaching qualifications. However, I do consider myself very lucky to have been so easily able to increase my teaching hours: after a few months, I used my experience to apply to an English centre which I taught at for a wonderful 10 months.

I hope one day my students will be able to enjoy the same advantages that I have so far taken for granted

Unfortunately, every English teacher must endure teaching the same songs to many classes, such as the seemingly never ending refrain ‘if you’re happy, happy, happy’. However, the satisfaction of successful lessons – vocabulary and grammar retention through the use of active games and songs – increased my confidence tenfold. During class, I was armed with flashcards, sticky balls, hammers, dice, and enticing stickers. My greatest game ‘Ninja Warriors’ consisted of two teams facing opposite each other. After every point scored the triumphant team would stand up and in unison shout ‘HI-YA!’, unleashing a devastating karate chop with the enthusiasm of bloodthirsty warriors.

Successful lessons could not have been achieved without my extremely supportive teaching assistants: they translated difficult vocabulary, created PowerPoints and helped my classroom imagination flow. I felt extremely welcome in the small centre I worked in as I was invited to yummy celebration meals that often culminated in a crazy karaoke bar, and I was even invited to the manager’s Vietnamese wedding – a culturally enlightening experience which I felt honoured to attend.

Some Vietnamese classes are reminiscent of the Victorian era. Despite corporal punishment being illegal and Vietnamese teachers able to contact parents regarding their children’s behaviour, I often witnessed the threat of being violently slapped by a long, hefty ruler. In light of this, I placed emphasis in my classes on group activity, speaking, playing games and singing songs. For example,to improve their listening skills in a fun manner, we did different warm-ups and icebreakers which my pupils enjoyed.

I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to experience Hanoi and to see life through a different perspective that I would have otherwise been unable to experience

At first, it proved difficult to adjust to the huge classes of energetic children and implement punishments to students who would not pay attention. However, lessons ran more smoothly with the introduction of ground rules and the implementation of a very crucial tool: sweets. Every student wrote their name on the board and I drew stars next to their names for good work. If they achieved a certain number of stars, this resulted in them getting a piece of candy. Although quite unhealthy, this form of bribery was very effective. If the class became too crazy and loud three times, I removed all of the stars on the board. This brutal punishment caused well-behaved students to quieten any chatty rebels whenever I called for silence.

Class sizes of 50 or more enabled riveting group activities which increased competition as each team raced against each other to finish the task first. Moreover, I loved watching their creative juices flow. Presentations about their dream cities, terrifying monsters, crazy national holidays and slightly ambitious vehicles were obscure but impressive in their application of the English language.

With a month of observing Hanoi’s crazy roads under my belt, I took the courage to join the throng of manic motorcycles on my very own noble steed. After surviving each journey and breathing in my fair share of poisonous pollution, I arrived at school. I slipped off my shoes, climbed a few flights of stairs and skipped into my class meeting an ear-splitting cry of ‘Hello Teacher Seeeeeth’.

During the hot season things got rough: sweat dripped from faces, frequent water breaks were necessary and I found myself praying that there wouldn’t be a devastating power cut. Usually, upon leaving the school building, the humidity increased to almost unbearable levels until the atmosphere burst! Thunder echoed and large bullets of rain blurred my eyes and soaked my clothes. Hanoi weather is extreme.

Despite being guilty of not remembering and often mispronouncing hundreds of names, I felt that the bonds between me and my students were very strong – body language and simple gestures that do not require speech go a long way in establishing classroom relationships. I found that being a minority created huge curiosity with students who excitedly practiced their English with me. Sometimes I think back to being stuck inside a school during a heavy rain downpour sitting in a circle with my students happily munching on xoai. I would answer their inquisitive questions while the thunder rumbles and the rain splashed against the window.

I constantly felt like a role model and strived to evoke morals and kindness passed to me by my own secondary school teachers

It was extremely dispiriting to leave as I felt emotionally attached to my students. I constantly felt like a role model and strived to evoke morals and kindness passed to me by my own secondary school teachers. I sympathised with my students, having just been in their position, and tried to reflect the methods of my favourite teachers in the UK.

However, I found that while attempting to set an example, I would often feel inspired and motivated by their responses. Actions of honesty, kindness and modesty were deployed nonchalantly by young adults and children. They would often give humble anecdotes about life and their outlooks on the world with a pure happiness devoid of pain and suffering. This two-way street shared between the teacher and student refreshed my confidence and mental health after the delivery of each successful lesson. Although, I longed to continue learning the language and belong to a culture of transcendent food, coffee and spirit, it is comforting to know that I can always return to this little corner of the world.

My Vietnamese friends would love to share my privileges. They often struggle to apply for visas, even to simply visit their loved ones abroad. I hope one day my students will be able to enjoy the same advantages that I have so far taken for granted. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to experience Hanoi and to see life through a different perspective that I would have otherwise been unable to experience.

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