'We are not felons,' say teachers in Vietnam

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A man rides his son home after an extra class at night in Hanoi

The Education Ministry has come in for a lot of criticism from parents, teachers and educators for its ham-handed enforcement of a controversial circular that bans teachers from offering extra classes to students they teach at school and for elementary school students in general.

In reports published in Tuoi Tre this week, several teachers said they were humiliated and were even reduced to tears as authorities in many localities implemented the circular that took effect on July 1.

The manner in which inspections were launched into local extra classes was "rude" and "offensive" to teachers, traditionally accorded great respect by Vietnamese society. 

Speaking to the newspaper, a literature teacher in Hanoi said she was teaching a group of ninth graders, when a team of police officers, along with the representatives of local authorities, educational agency and her school raided the class.

Since she failed to present licenses for the class, the inspectors wrote down the record of her violation and asked her sign it in front of her students, which made her "feel terribly ashamed," although she knew that she was wrong according to the regulations.

Another teacher in the central province of Phu Yen said he was very upset at how his "illegal" extra class was inspected.

He said inspectors even questioned students who were present at that time to get more evidence of his violations, which left him "in tears."

"I know I was wrong, according to the circular, but the way (they tackled violations) was too much, seriously damaging the prestige and image of teaching career."

Worse still, many days later he still heard students talk about him "being busted," which made him "break down," according to the teacher, who said that he actually ran the class because many of his students asked him to tutor them. He even did not charge poor students, he said.

"It is tragic that we are being "˜busted' like any other criminal just because we are delivering knowledge to our students "˜illegally'," said the teacher.

Meanwhile, a high school teacher in Hanoi said even though she does not run extra classes on her own, but teaches at a tutorial center, she was once asked to sign a violation record regarding "certain problems."

She said it has made her "uncomfortable" and stressed her out.

"I know a music teacher who has to sing at weddings to make ends meet, and another teacher who has to work at a grocery store or her school's canteen after school because their salaries are too low. So, why can't other teachers open extra classes (to earn a living)?" she asked.

"Why does this way of tightening control over extra classes make us teachers feel like we are felons in front our students?"

Parents have also expressed their unhappiness about the way agencies are enforcing the new regulations.

Pham Thi Hong, whose child studies at the Kim Lien Elementary School in Hanoi, said although she felt upset that some teachers tried to pressurize students to join their extra classes, she "shivered" seeing inspectors go around and bust teachers running extra classes.

"Such raids are inhumane and against educational values," Hong said.

It is "the most severe punishment" for a teacher to admit that they have violated laws in front of their students, she added.

Another parent whose child is a student of the "busted" literature teacher in Hanoi also called it "too heavy a punishment."

"Now how can teachers teach students, making them believe in beautiful things?"

Confusing rules

Many educators and parents also say the new regulations have failed to control the extra classes as well as the corruption behind them.

Le Hong Vu, chief of Tay Ho District's education division in Hanoi, said the circular should have distinguished between different kinds of extra classes so the regulations could be enforced more strongly and correctly to address the real problem. 

What people have long been upset about is bad quality extra classes which some teachers open just to get money from parents, he said. The teachers usually employ various tricks to get their students enroll the classes like cutting down on lessons they are supposed to teach at school, he added.

On the other hand, many parents are willing to enroll their children at classes run by good and prestigious teachers despite high tuition fees, Vu said.

Nguyen Thi Tuyet, chairwoman of the labor union at Phan Huy Chu High School, Hanoi, agreed with Vu, saying many parents actually want to send their children to classes run by "experienced" and "dedicated" teachers.

Corruption related to extra classes does happen and needs to be addressed, but authorities need to differentiate it from necessary and good quality classes, she said.

"If the control over extra classes is not exerted carefully and is leading to rude attitudes towards the teachers, it should be stopped immediately," Tuyet said

"I would protect the school's teachers by all means from being offended while teaching," she said. "As a parent, I don't accept such rudeness towards teachers, whether they violate regulations or not."

An unnamed parent whose child studies at the Cat Linh Seconday School in Hanoi, told Tuoi Tre that there are "good" and "kind" teachers who open extra classes to earn money by doing their job, and it is the right thing to do given that the government fails to pay them decent salaries.

Managing the problematic part of extra classes without considering all its aspects will end up eliminating the "righteous" ones while failing to tackle the corrupt ones, the parent said.

Meanwhile, officials and educators who are supposed to enforce the regulations admit they find the rules confusing.

For example, at a conference on November 1, Bui Thi Minh Nga, principal of the Tran Phu High School, said they actually did not know how to deal with cases where teachers operate good quality extra classes and are trusted by parents, but violate laws nevertheless.

Such teachers are violating the regulations, but are not doing anything wrong, morally, Nga said.

However, speaking to Tuoi Tre, Nguyen Huy Bang, chief inspector of the Education Ministry, insisted that the circular has created a legal framework to control extra classes and eliminate related corruption.

He said illegal extra classes need to be tackled timely and in accordance with laws, with "determination."

But, "to be determined does not mean to be rude," Bang said, adding that he does not agree on busts on teachers as reported in the media, because they are "anti-education."

Mission impossible

Several experts have also said that it is "impossible" to ban extra classes when there is real, justified demand for teachers, parents as well as students.

"If teachers are capable (of teaching outside school hours) and students demand them, extra classes will continue and need regulatory oversight," said Prof. Nguyen Minh Thuyet, former vice chairman of the National Assembly's Committee on Culture, Education, Youth and Children.

However, the regulations should have been enforced differently, he said.

He suggested handing over the management job to educational centers under close supervision of authorities. Teachers who want to teach after school can work for such centers; and those who want to offer extra classes on their own should sign "detailed contracts" to ensure that they (the classes) are voluntary and in the best interests of students, he added.

Asked if improving policies related to teachers' benefits, including raising their salaries, would help eliminate extra classes, Thuyet said it is necessary to give teachers better salaries and working conditions, but this would not totally stop extra classes.

Dr. Mai Ngoc Luong, former director of the research center for K-12 education under the Institute for Educational Research with the HCMC University of Education, also felt it was impossible to ban teachers from teaching extra classes.

Apart from identifying the corrupt elements, authorities need to tackle other issues which are the reasons behind the mushrooming of extra classes, including the quality and appropriateness of academic programs, examination methods as well as faults in the enrollment process, he said.

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