TAs: they can be heaven, they can be hell. First school 2015 – 2016.

8th February 2019

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’, my TA for Kindergarten Class 2016. We worked for a modest, low-tech private centre, that was part of a larger international group.

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

mark workbooks.

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 🙂

Recycling lessons: “Reissue, repackage, repackage …”

31st January 2019

One of the less interesting aspects of teaching is lesson planning; I can easily spend an hour or more trying to make activities or find suitable video clips for a class. It can be worthwhile if said activity is a success, but quite often the reverse occurs leaving one with a sense of futility. All that time wasted …and for what ?

To counter this we can, with the necessary tweaking, use and reuse parts of previous lessons for different classes and thereby justify the time spent on creating slides that may only have been employed for a few minutes (having taken considerably longer to create).

It’s early afternoon, I have two more classes at my centre this week, one for young teens the other for actual teens, and I’m not entirely enamoured of either class. Still, needs must … so I open the student book, and see the subject is UNESCO (which should be interesting) but then I see the vocabulary; words such as ‘heritage’. I see the general knowledge section, mentioning places such as Pompeii, then referencing the Tower of Hercules. My students are Vietnamese and most, if not all, attend public schools. At age ten, eleven, twelve, it is highly unlikely they will know these places. It is also highly unlikely they will want to know these places.

There’s going to have to be some pre-teaching before the main book work and, as it’s Tet Holiday next week, I’m think I’m justified in making the lesson more game or activity based. Tet is also a time of tradition and superstition, which was the subject of last night’s adult class, so I will be able to re-use some slides, video clips and class work. The adults were at level 1, so their language skills are about the same, if not less, then these young teens. Furthermore, I will adapt and recycle for tomorrow’s class thus making the effort totally viable in terms temporal (“I never knew you wrote such bloody awful poetry,”).

As in cinema, my centre favours a ‘show don’t tell approach.’ Therefore, I’ll show a short YouTube clip about Unesco. There will be ten sites, and I’ll write the countries on the board. On paper, I’ll write the names of the sites and I’ll stick them around the room, making sure that they remain there and not torn down, eaten or generally mutilated in some way. Telling students (at least in Vietnam) NOT to do something is an sure-fire invitation for them to do exactly what they have been admonished NOT to do and I kid you NOT. In my first centre, which was modest and low-tech, the rooms had old, cantankerous CD players. Students were told not to touch them. I walked into class one day and found one boy sitting with the plug in his mouth, sucking happily away. He wasn’t a Kindergarten child … he was in his early teens.

Back to the use of video clips; I seem to spend an inordinate amount of time searching for appropriate clips. So many videos take forever to start, with opening credits and endless introductions that are merely exercises in tautology. If one can find a clip that “does what it says on the tin,” bookmark it – It’s gold.

I can also reuse slides showing various aspects of Tet Holiday and ask the students what they mean – what is ‘lucky money’ ? What special food is eaten, what clothes are worn … and why ? At this age, some role-playing could be fun … the students can act out for me the procedure for giving and receiving lucky money.

Another useful teaching ‘trick’ is to reverse the class dynamics, and have the students teach me Vietnamese, correct my pronunciation and grade my performance. They learn different English skills here, to instruct as opposed to being instructed, and as it’s fun and they are in control, it doesn’t seem like a lesson … but it is. We teachers can be a pretty sneaky bunch … we have to be … however the only object is to make sure the students leave the class having learnt new words and been given the chance to practise using them. The ends justify the means.

Young Teens: A funny thing happened to me …

Thursday 17th January

Tonight’s class has fourteen students, mostly girls (“made of sugar and spice and all things nice,”) and four young lads, one of whom demonstrates slight Hulk-like tendencies (i.e. gets angry at the slightest provocation and starts lifting chairs as if to hurl them through several walls). Simple classroom management has to be employed here; the lads are NOT allowed to sit next to each other. Of course, at this age the boys categorically will NOT sit next to any girl (just wait a year or two until those hormones kick in!) so I have to locate them around the room. It can be dis-illutioning for a teacher to allocate so much time to controlling a class as opposed to teaching them, but such are the realities. C’est la vie.

The theme of the lesson is how to tell an anecdote, but to begin (and to wait for the inevitable latecomers), we’ll do some quick warm-up games. I’ll also be able to recycle work form other lessons (which justifies the time spent making slides / Powerpoint Presentations etc).

We’ll begin with a quiz; I’ll show four famous buildings and ask the students to identify them and tell me as much as they can about them:


After, I will point to some (previously-boarded) numbers and ask how to pronounce them, numbers such as:

2019

10, 000

£35.99p

$10.33

Friday the 13th

I’ll show them that amounts (e.g. £35.99p are often said as simply 35 99, rather than saying ‘pounds and pence.’

For a more active game, help them burn off some energy, I’ll do a ‘run & write.’ In their previous lesson, they learnt past continuous. For this game, the class can be kept in two teams (a bit of competition adds to the excitement, even if there are no prizes at all), one team has a red marker, the other, a blue. I will say a sentence using simple past, they have to write it on the board, using past continuous. For example:

Last night I slept = Last night I was sleeping

Then the whole team has to shout out the sentence. It could get somewhat noisy and impossible to monitor, but it creates freedom for everyone to speak (they are not being listened to individually) and gets the whole class involved, and a noisy engaged class is far preferable to one slouching, sighing and sleeping.

We will then move into the topic area, combining story-telling with pronunciation and accents. I have a great clip of the magnificent Irish actor, Peter O’Toole being interviewed by the fast-talking USA TV host David Letterman. The students can compare the two accents, see which one they understand easier. The clip is below:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Fl3bOeXvyI

Letterman asks O’Toole if he has a story about a fellow actor, Richard Harris. Instead of a rather pedestrian, “Let me see …,” O’Toole, cigarette in hand, responds, “Oh, I’ll shuffle through my memory,” before proceeding to tell said story (this occurs at 0:32 – 3:33).

I extend the activity by asking the students to mimic / copy O’Toole’s voice and elocution. Obviously, I don’t condone smoking at all, but students have had great fun sitting crossed legged, imaginary cigarette held aloft, and repeating, “Oh, I’ll shuffle through my memory.”

The serious aspect here is to demonstrate the rhythms and stresses in English – the elongated “oh,” as he thinks, the focus on the verb, “shuffle’, the linking of “through my,” and the final stressed but downwards – intonations of “memory.” A lot of work covered in just six words. Good value for your teaching bucks !

We’ll then move into a personal anecdote of mine. I’ll create a slide and give a leading narrative using tonight’s key language:

For one thing

As I discovered last year

As you can imagine

In fact …

like the time …

Thanks to ..

People are very interested in stars as I discovered last year when I was in

I saw a very large

Outside a large

in the centre of the city. As you can imagine, I was curious. There were a lot of people there, in fact many were extremely …….

Why were they there, for whom were they waiting ? This was like the time I was in London and many film stars were going into a cinema. I waited … but nothing happened. I was thinking of going, but thanks to some screaming and shouting, I stayed. To my surprise, I saw the world-famous Hollywood movie star …

I felt very lucky. Actually, it was very exciting I just wish I had my phone with me.

The students will then turn to book work, some listening and then creating their own anecdote. Here, I will probably have to help, give ideas. Most students spent too long thinking about ideas and therefore not producing any work. I have found it better to give them a limited choice and then make them start the work.

(In my first year, at my first centre, the students had to write a short story about a boy and girl going to the cinema. I checked all the pupil’s progress, only to find one student had done nothing, all lesson, because he couldn’t think of names for his protagonists. At the end of the semester, I was asked for my recommendation; should he be allowed to progress to the next level ? Absolutely not (it was the only honest answer) CUT TO angry parents, wagging of fingers and pulling of student out of school. Good riddance to bad rubbish, as we say.)

Today we also have some speaking practice and a quick lesson about British culture, in which they will listen and read about the author Daniel Defoe. This will be a chance to elicit how much they know about British literary characters. It could be surprising; they may know Oliver Twist, or Alice (Wonderland). Who knows … some may even have heard of Robinson Crusoe … we shall see. This will then lead into famous writers from Vietnam. I think the most famous is The Tale of Kieu’ by Nguyen Du.

Very famous Vietnamese poem and I highly recommend giving it a read.

A week is a long time in politics … and evidently also in teaching.

Last week I was so impressed by my teenage class. This week, I want to quit, or do anything to find a replacement teacher.

Obviously, I won’t be naming and shaming, but the general pattern should be familiar to teaching of these wonderfully polite, respectful and hard-working students (yes, an example of irony).

The lessons are three hours (which is far too long, in my opinion). The teacher has a set book and must teach the assigned pages, but there is still time for activities, games, warm-ups, anything to break the boredom of sitting and ploughing through seemingly endless, seemingly pointless text.

This class has twenty students, most are willing to participate, but some are committed to seeing out the entire three-hour lesson without saying a word and some will speak… but not in English, just Vietnamese, and theirs is not the most euphonic of tongues. I find it akin to a dozen drunken cats having a fight in a karaoke bar … only worse.

As it was Christmas, I had more activities planned, and wanted to reduce the book work, to focus more on producing English speaking. The first game was a B2B – I’d prepared a number of slides and one student had to sit with her back to the board and ask questions while the other students offer clues; they are not allowed to sat exactly what they see. For example, if they see a cat playing piano, the could say, “An animal like a dog, a pet making music, but not a guitar.

Well, one of the smart-asses just began saying exactly what she saw. It was clear the game was dead in the water, so I moved onto book work.

One exercise was putting life stages in order; same student just shouted out the first thing on the list. Once someone starts destroying the plan, others join in, the pack mentality, the need to express their rebellion. The misnomer that Vietnamese respect teachers is greatly over-stated. As mentioned in other posts, they relish the chance to express their pathetic teenage angst. They will refuse to work, talk over the teacher and break every class rule as a challenge … and there is nothing they want more than to argue with the teacher.

Ultimately, it’s their parent’s money they’re wasting, but, as an old-hand informed me, they know they’ll get some (basically worthless) certificate that says they attended a class – after all, this is a business and got to keep the customer satisfied.

As expected, the rot spread. One student, not graced with fair of face, began eating in class, ostentatiously masticating while trying to out-stare me. Other students just stared at me when I tried to elicit a basic answer.

It was really a case of running down the clock

I’ve taught teenagers at several schools. It a mixed class, naturally, but I feel no hesitation using words like ‘obnoxious’, ‘disrespectful,’ and ‘futile.’

Let’s see if i can do some horse-trading – agree to another class IF I can drop this one. I no longer care about helping this motley collection. Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.

As a Christmas coda, or miracle if you will, I have subsequently been informed that I will not have to ‘teach’ this mob again – tiding of comfort and joy.

Terrible Teens – Bad Day at Black Rock

2nd December 

I’ve taught at some of the biggest private centres, and smaller modest schools, at university and public schools. I’ve taught pre-Kindergarten classes, pre-teens, late-teens, business people, professionals, children from modest background, children from privileged backgrounds, gifted students and those with clear learning disabilities. 

I’m happy to take on any challenge and attempt a Pygmalion-style transformation. I’m happy to turn screaming, crying nippers (young children) into model students who can speak the Queen’s English at the drop of a hat (that one takes a bit of time). But I’m not happy when I see I have a teen class … and this was one of the worst.

On the plus side, I was just substituting, so this was a one-off. I wouldn’t have to see any of these students again (they no doubt feel the same about me, but this is MY blog, so I don’t care what THEY feel).

This was similar to other horrendous teen classes; the students don’t want to be there, don’t want to learn and don’t want anyone else to learn. What they do want is to shout, scream, sleep, fight, eat, sleep (again) and show how rebellious and disrespectful they can be, the pack-mentality just reinforcing this behaviour. And there’s always someone who shouts out, “Boring !”.

Actually, it wasn’t as bad as it could have been; one teacher at this centre told me he was once sworn at by a student. That teacher refused to continue the class and walked out.

What I noticed here was a total lack of interest from half the students, while the others were demonstrating how they wouldn’t listen to any instruction e.g. to keep eating when they were told not to, to continue talking, fighting, sleeping on their desks. And it was a large class. It resembled a public school class more than a private centre of high-repute.

I’ve been told that students are terrified of both their Vietnamese teachers, and of their parents. Physical punishment is still used at school and in the home. Being bad at school will not only bring a beating but also bring shame and disgrace. When students have a foreign teacher, it’s a chance to ‘fight back’. Teachers represent authority, and here’s a chance to be a ‘normal’ teen, to be arrogant, rude and obnoxious. Some of them take that chance.

Some methods for dealing with the terrible teens include what I term the ‘Full Metal Jacket’. This involves punishing the whole class for one person’s actions. For example, if student A says, “Boring,” again, you all get extra homework. Hopefully this peer pressure works.

A more productive way is to negotiate with them. If they do the assigned work, they can play games or do activities of their choice. 

Sometimes a teacher just has to pick their battles. No way can I outshout even one student (the Viet, bless their hearts, are not the quietest people on the planet), let alone twenty-five. Ultimately, we are here to help but if they refuse help there is no point wasting time or energy. Instead, identify the students who do want to learn, gather them together and teach them. Do not let the trouble-makers spoil it for the real students.

To end on a high note, this class is an anomaly. Other teachers have commented on how bad it is, how unteachable the students are. I’ve recently taught two other classes of teens and they have been darlings … but that is for another post.