I met an old class on Tuesday for a speaking test, and one of the students asked me why I stopped taking that class. I thought the reasons were pretty obvious, however if you really need me to explain, how about these:
I was absolutely sick of one of the students sitting directly in front of me, ignoring everything I said because she (yes, you all know who she is) was too busy on her phone, even bringing in a power-bank to make sure she had enough battery for three hours.
‘Student’ Care have mentioned this to her, and once even sent a representative to the class to tell her to stop. It had NO EFFECT; she continued using the phone each and every lesson.
I stopped calling on her to answer in class, as I only ever saw the top of her head. No doubt someone had posted a picture of a coffee or a cat to which she absolutely had to react, immediately, or risk losing a ‘friend’ that she probably hasn’t even met.
During the test I asked her to explain the centre rules, which she totally agreed with … in theory. I followed this with asking why she broke the rules. She replied that she, “Was bored.” She claimed that she was unaware that such behaviour was disrespectful.
Furthermore, I realised that with one exception, nobody was learning anything more; the class seemed happy at their level, and were not making any effort to expand their knowledge. Every lesson I stressed the importance of pronunciation features. I didn’t detect even 1% improvement, nor even the desire to improve.
Well, how did that work out for you in the speaking test ? Not so great, hey ?
Finally, I set a ‘test’ in my last two classes with you. Remember ? I gave you speaking practice then, instead of walking up and down monitoring your activity, I treated you like responsible adults. Instead of working, out came the mobile phones and English was replaced by the less than euphonic sound of the Vietnamese language.
Previously, I had given students one-to-one help. Instead of being thanked for this individual guidance, I was greeted with, “Me, again ? I spoke to you last week.”
I hope that answers your question.
Moving onwards or downwards, my Wednesday class. Talk about laid-back, I need to check if they still have a pulse.
I’ve dispensed with social pleasantries such as, “How are you ?” as I was receiving answers such as, “I’m tired,” or “I’m exhausted.” Just what a teacher wants to hear before a three-hour class.
DRINK SOME GODDAMN COFFEE
I made it perfectly clear, in the first lesson, that I am NOT here to entertain you. YOU are here to pass IELTS, which is a hard subject and requires active participation on your part. This means SPEAKING.
If your teacher asks you a question, damn well answer
Answer loudly and clearly, not just mumble begrudgingly. I told you last night, I am here to help you, I am not the enemy. If you refuse to speak or practice you are only hurting your own prospects.
At least last night, one of the ‘students’ admitted that she lacked energy or enthusiasm but, the punchline … she wants to be an English teacher.
Now we come to tonight’s class, which contains three young men.
Your behaviour over the last weeks has been unacceptable. This is a Cambridge IELTS class, not a Beer Club, certainly not a Kid’s class.
So, here are the rules:
NO SHOUTING IN THE CLASSROOM
NO CALLING OUT STUPID ANSWERS
LEARN THE NEW VOCABULARY – YOU WILL NEED IT TO PASS
NO FIGHTING IN THE CLASS – YES, I ACTUALLY HAVE TO WRITE THIS
Not too much to ask or to expect.
If you do not comply, I will stop the lesson and refuse to teach your sorry asses
I will not let you schmucks ruin an otherwise lovely class
Compare these two photos; which class do you think was more dynamic ?
The basic lesson was the same: what are you doing now, add a connector (or discourse marker) and say what you want in the future.
Students are taught how to use vernacular language, practise changes in intonation and alterations in stress, as well as chunking (natural linking together of words).
The photos, as the saying goes, tell their own story.
Photo 1 is from a high-level IELTS class where I wanted to increase vocabulary, and encourage the students to use more intonation … or basically ANY intonation in their voice.
The topic went down like the proverbial Led Zeppelin (and I wasn’t feelin’ a Whole Lotta Love for the class). I managed to elicit some half-arsed replies before they returned to their mobiles (or cell phones if you’re in the USA) or their natural comatosed state.
On the other hand, take a gander (have a look) at the second photo; same basic lesson target, but my goodness, what a difference, and this from an intermediate class.
Both classes were small in size (about six students) and predominantly teenagers, so how do we account for the chasm between them ?
To use academic language (for one of my new IELTS students):
This would seem to suggest that it was the students, as opposed to the lesson, that was the issue.
Words such as ‘inspire’ or ‘motivate’ are synonymous with teaching. However, as someone who attempts to teach, I must add that a successful lesson relies on synergy; one cannot motivate those who actively resist being motivated.
Teachers only have so much energy, and they can’t afford to waste it on customers who shuffle into class, scowling, ignoring the teacher, sitting at the back clutching their bag, defensively, in front of them before becoming engrossed in their phones and ignoring any questions put to them. I’m not talking about children here, but young adults or adults, on a course that they chose, and need for their future.
I wish I were.
So, to my great students, who come to class willing to learn, to be active, to practice and are polite and respectful:
What is the standard of behaviour in your classroom ?
At my centre, in Sai Gon, Vietnam, we have to employ classroom management (normally reserved for ‘young learners’) to ‘adults’ and some unspeakable teenagers.
At one previous centre, I even had a student write in his book, “I haven’t done any work, I’m not going to do any work,” then laugh at me. Unfortunately, that is not an isolated incident.
Even though we have classroom rules they are mostly ignored, but that is indicative of the country as a whole .
To make sure my customers are in no doubt, here are some rules and reminders:
No mobile / cell-phones in the classroom UNLESS it has been sanctioned by the teacher for educational purposes. My lessons start on time – if you use your phones …
I HAVE THE RIGHT TO TAKE THEM AWAY
No eating, chewing gum, slurping drinks
YOU WILL BE SENT OUT OF THE CLASS AND HAVE TO EXPLAIN TO THE MANAGER WHY YOU ARE EATING
No chatting while the teacher is talking .
FURTHERMORE, IN MOST CULTURES, THIS IS UNBELIEVABLY RUDE AND UNACCEPTABLE.
The teacher is here to help YOU learn.
We are not here to entertain you.
You have a chosen a three-hour IELTS course, so deal with it.
Take notes, write down new words, practice using them. Week after week I give you sample answers, new phrases and personal help to enable you to improve your scores.
If I see you are not taking my advise, I will not waste time and energy on you.
Finally, I will not tolerate any sarcasm, rudeness, insults or disrespect.
In the event that I have been insulted or disrespected, I shall end the lesson and you can answer for your actions to the management
If you are serious, I will do all I can to help you. If you just want to joke around and stop me doing my job, there will be consequences.
Time to turn over a new leaf
You need to work MUCH harder, but don’t take my word for it:
 motorbike riders don’t wear helmets, they overload their bike, use mobile phones, drive any way and any direction THEY want … public urination is endemic, recycling means throwing rubbish in the gutter and for many people, dogs are not pets, but lunch … and they joke about that to my face.
 good luck with this one … in nearly five years, I have never had a class that is able to just SHUT UP and listen. At first, I was shocked, adults speaking to each other, normal volume, continually while the teacher is teaching. As we say in the UK, empty vessels make the most noise, and there is a LOT of noise.
I’m getting a head start on my weekend class planning, and here’s the projected plan for my early morning class of nineteen young learners (13th April). It’s a mixed bag; I have some ideal students, some good but hyper-active students, some ultra-shy students, some recalcitrant students, some who are learning nothing, some who want to learn nothing, and some special-needs students. Thankfully my TA is amazing, but we both end up with vocal chords ripped to shreds, and questioning the meaning of life, or at least the meaning of doing this job. And after, we have two other classes.
One technique is to use one student as class captain, usually the meanest and noisiest. The responsibility can make that student an asset in the un-winable war on noise. I also have recourse to employ John Bercow, Speaker of the House in the UK Parliament for assistance:
And so, without further ado, the plan (and the best laid plans of mice and men …)
In small teams, the students have to write the name of an animal that can fly, one that can swim, then jump, then hiss. This will help review names of animals and give writing and spelling practice.
For this, we pass out small, wipeable boards and marker pens. We also make sure that a different team member writes each time. I know some students will NOT participate, so I will make a note of their names and pass the information onto to Student Support.
Following this, I want to see if the students can use the prepositions ‘on, in, under’. We have 14 flashcards of animals. I’ll ask one student per team to put a flashcard in a certain place e.g. ‘Put the elephant on the board’, or ‘Put the turtle in the bag.’
After I have given one or two instructions, I’ll use the best students to act as ‘thay’ and they can continue giving instructions.
I also want to revise ‘Do you like ?’ and the response, ‘Yes, I do’, or ‘No, I don’t.’ In pairs, the students can ask each other this question, relating to various flashcards that I hand them. Again, I’m sure some students will refuse to open their mouths, and again, their names will be taken. Hopefully, once the parents are informed, the students will start to work in the class.
Next it’s back to old-school grammar drill, and we’re still on the verb ‘to have’. I’ll choose four students and hand them an animal flashcard. I shall model first:
I have a tiger, you have a monkey, he has a turtle, she has a lion.
The students repeat the pattern, while the cards get changed. This helps them learn animal names and the subject-verb agreement.
Finally, before the book work, a chance to practice ‘Can you see .. ?’
I shall model one question: Can you see the rhino ? Where is it ?
After, the students can come up and ask. I’m looking for the students to answer in sentences with correct prepositions.
Then we hit the books and do a project. Fast-finishers can do a work sheet learning new vocabulary and doing a word search. This gives me a chance to hear as many of the students as possible read a few lines from their work books and assess how they are improving, or otherwise.
This weekend, I have a break until 13.00 … and no doubt I shall need it.
One motivation for starting this blog page was to depict, as honestly and objectively as possible, what it’s really like teaching in Vietnam. Today I’ll focus on the teaching assistants, TAs, I’ve worked with. Some were excellent, far better teachers than I could ever be, others who were, as we say in the UK, a ‘waste of space.’
So first, what is the role of the TA. Here, I’ll quote my friend and former TA ‘Kelly’ or Ms Nguyen:
Kelly, pictured above in Tet Holiday attire (absolutely gorgeous, n’est-ce pa ?), says that her duties included:
supporting foreign teachers in class,
translate instructions in case students didn’t understand,
write grade reports each term and
The last two are independent of the teacher’s work, while the second listed is self-explanatory. It’s the vagueness of the first stipulation that caused an issue or two.
In our class, Kelly worked alongside another TA and they helped me arrange the class lay-out, put up pictures or flash cards, encouraged the students to do activities as well as the more prosaic duties such as wiping noses, drying tears, washing hands and cleaning up substances of one description or another. I feel it was a good relationship though it was my first time as a teacher and I had A LOT to learn, most of which I did by making mistakes.
The first part of the class was mainly games and activities, then after break we began bookwork. The class could have up to 18 students and there was no way I could check each of their work. The TAs therefore were vital in helping me, keeping so many young learners in their seats and occupied, and correcting work. It was a joy working with them (and as you see, I’m still in contact with Kelly).
Then we come to the morning’s second lesson; young teenagers. My first TA was a reasonably nice young chap, somewhat rotund, a Dickensian whiff about him. He was in control of the marking, homework and spelling tests. Unfortunately, he had a habit of taking my class folder which I found rather irritating as I needed it as well. But then I noticed a strange phenomenon; a male student, who was by far the weakest and laziest in the class, was routinely getting top marks. Then, the plot (such as there is a plot) thickened – every time I would ask him a question, I would hear the TA ‘whisper’ or feed the answer to him.
Asking questions is essential, not to victimise a student, but simply to make sure that they understand a concept, and are able to process and form a suitable response, as well as checking for pronunciation and intonation. The students seem to think that the teacher just wants to hear ‘the answer’ and will be happy. And the Vietnamese, bless them, are not the quietest nation on earth. A prompted answer can usually be heard in the next room.
It transpired that the TA was in the employ of said student’s parents, to give private lessons (and boy, did he need them). Now, let’s not be cynical. It’s possible that the lad was able to do homework by himself, referring to books. Likewise, a spelling test is just a memory test (and is zero indication of how well someone knows a language). However … a student who was, statically top of the class in homework and spelling, yet was unable to answer even the most basic of questions was highly suspicious.
Soon, both TA and student left (TA to get a ‘proper’ job, the student because his parents were furious that I didn’t approve of his progress. The mother apparently stormed into the office and let rip at the desk staff, no doubt a cause of my unpopularity at the school … but that is for another blog), and so … a new TA and, not to mince my words, as much use as a chocolate teapot (Deliberate over-use of metaphor for my non-native speaking audience … if I have one).
The TA in question was very young, quiet and shy, and appeared to have no idea of what she had to do. Marking books, fine, assisting teacher … not so much. An example, or two, will suffice.
As mentioned, this was a young teens class, so they are mostly polite but they are becoming teenagers and starting to rebel. One day, one of the top students became obsessed with the phrase ‘big bottom’, which she began saying with increased frequency and volume. A real TA would have stepped on that immediately and threatened to call her parents. Instead … nothing. It was left to me to respond and control the situation, and sometimes … well, joking aside, teachers are only human; some things get to us.
Another time, she brought some craft items into the lesson, for break time. Brilliant ! The students continued playing with the bits of this and this instead of doing the book work, thereby giving me a lot more work in class management. I was later assigned a new class and told the lackadaisical TA we would part waves. Her smile was the only emotion I ever saw her display.
My final gripe is perhaps the worst. I was not popular at this school; I couldn’t wait for my contract to end, and a lot of staff couldn’t wait to see the back of me. A lot of pettiness ensured; constant complaints about me not following rules, all of it so juvenile it really isn’t worth writing about, but there was one incident which has to be noted. I still don’t know if information was being deliberately withheld from me. What happened was this: I had the Kindergarten class (with the beautiful Kelly) then a 15-minute break before a pre-Kindergarten class. I used that time to prepare the room, put up posters and pictures, organise the books and CDs.
After putting pictures all around the room, for games and activities, one young chap ran around, knocking all the pictures flying then looked at me with a beaming smile, as if expecting a treat or a round of applause.
This type of behaviour was repeated, but my TA and I were barely on speaking terms and there was no interaction between us. She did her work, I did mine and never the twain met. Until she informed me that the aforementioned whippersnapper was ‘unwell’; he had a learning or behavioural disability. I shall address this is a separate blog, but obviously it altered everything. He wasn’t an obnoxious naughty child; he was a poor boy unable to control his actions. I suspect that she had been told this from day one (I could be wrong, so I make no accusations) but this is vital information for a teacher. It affects the whole class dynamic and approach. If she felt she was hurting me, the TA was wrong. It was the student and students that suffered.
But let’s not end on a downbeat. I had two other wonderful TAs whom I, as the saying goes, love to bits. I shall not name them as I don’t have their permission, but they know who they are. They got me through my afternoon and evening classes, organised and suggested games, assisted my (idiosyncratic) teaching or what passed for teaching, and controlled the hoi polloi, the trouble makers, the big mouths, the lazy, the unfocused, the irritating, those who are committed to driving a teacher crazy. And Vietnam has those people in spades. To Ms T and Ms A …. all my thanks 🙂