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 🙂