Learning as a teacher in Vietnam

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A foreigner teaches at a kindergarten in Ho Chi Minh City

If you have ever taught Vietnamese students, or discussed the special relationship between students and teachers in Vietnam, you may be aware that it is indeed a unique experience which creates wonderful memories that will last a lifetime.

Like any new teacher, when I first came to Vietnam I was somewhat naïve and idealistic about how receptive students might be to my teaching methods. I was quickly initiated and slapped in the face with reality when teaching teenagers. It was a pleasant surprise to see some of the children show respect by bowing and apologizing for being late, while others were very personable and looked forward to talking with the teacher.

But teaching teens was not especially fulfilling except for the few who were actually interested in learning. It was always a delight to discover talent and intelligence and try to provide a bit of extra encouragement. That is not to say that all the children were not special in some way they were, regardless of ability. But I was searching more for an opportunity to share my life's experience and to learn from my students.

I tried teaching young children for a while because I had never done so, in order to see how this might be more rewarding. The children were beautiful of course, and full of energy and seemingly quite happy with few exceptions. They were always excited when the foreign teacher came to teach English and they had an opportunity to speak and play a bit while experiencing someone different from them and their usual teachers. In fact, it was difficult not to fall in love with many of them and laugh at how wonderfully creative they were and how respectful they were.

The foreign teacher was usually much kinder and sensitive to the children than the regular teacher and the children knew this immediately. The children often sought a chance to touch the teacher, rub his hairy arms, and poke his big belly. They were lovely. Although quite fulfilling emotionally, I was still looking for a chance to teach at a higher level.

Many expatriates have written to Vietweek concurring that despite the problems they face in Vietnam, it is simply not acceptable that people direct their anger and slurs at all Vietnamese. This forum, "Your two cents", opens the floor for you, the expats, to hold forth on the changes you see in Vietnam: what disappoints, what pleases and what you would like to see happen. Email your thoughts to editor@thanhniennews.com.

My previous work life in the US in management, industrial sales, safety, engineering, and even counseling, had given me a wide range of experience and knowledge that I thought would be useful in Vietnam, considering the stage of development and lack of experienced people. I was always searching for a chance to teach adults to share and compare experience in all aspects of their work-life.

Over the years, in Vietnam, I have had several opportunities to teach at different organizations, and I just recently completed some courses with a local company which reminded me of how wonderful the people of Vietnam can be. Over a period of months, my students worked very hard despite some hesitation and lack of confidence and made good progress. This was very satisfying to a teacher, but the relationships made were much more memorable. Not only did the students do everything asked of them, but we also shared parts of our lives. In a very short time we became very close and enjoyed spending a few hours a week together.

Teaching is not an easy occupation anywhere, including Vietnam, but the experiences I have had with students of all ages here has been thoroughly rewarding. Despite all the issues that need to be addressed in Vietnam, the people somehow maintain hope for the future and remain open and accepting of strangers like myself.

These are the hard-working and loving people of Vietnam I will remember.

By John Williams
The writer is an American expat who teaches English in Ho Chi Minh City

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