In November 2016, I swapped the cold, wet and windy shores of Ireland for the tropical wonderlands of South-East Asia. Armed with my passport, teaching certificate and overflowing with anticipation to get started teaching in Vietnam, I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City excited, nervous and more than a little naïve!
I arrived with massive preconceptions about what living teaching in Vietnam was going to be like. I was certain I would hate teaching younger students. I was never going to teach in public school. I thought I wouldn’t need any help. I was more than a little skeptical about the quality of Vietnamese cuisine.
I have rarely been as wrong about anything in my life! Teaching in Vietnam was not what I expected – it was better. Although, better in ways I would never have expected! Here are four of the lessons I learned from my time teaching in Vietnam.
Lesson 1:Teaching Children is Fantastic!
Before arriving in Vietnam I had absolutely no desire to teach children. I was certain that I would not have the patience for it and that I would end up hating it. My plan was always to teach adults, but most of the attractive positions for teaching adults required at least a year of teaching experience.
I had a cunning plan. I would suffer for a year, teaching school children then jump ship to an adult training center the first chance I got.
Guess what? To this day, seven years later, I have not spent a single, solitary second teaching an adult. I love teaching children! I was stunned to discover this back in 2016, but soon I was rejecting other opportunities to teach adults because I was having such fun teaching the kids! Even more surprising was that I was enjoying the lessons with the youngest students the most!
Kindergarten became my kingdom. I was singing, dancing, and playing games from my childhood that I thought I had long forgotten. I was actually having fun at work, which was a truly novel experience!
Lesson 2: Public School is Great
When you work at training centers you might be offered the chance to go to local schools for extra lessons to earn some extra money. At my training center there were so many public school lessons they offered me 50% extra per hour, plus all transport costs would be reimbursed. I rejected the offer. This was stupid.
I had decided that there was no way, no how that I would be able to teach a rowdy classroom of 40-50 students. I thought they would hate my lessons, hate me and it would be nothing short of a disaster. Money talks though, and a short while later I decided to try it out.
Since then I have spent three years teaching public school full time, and I genuinely think it is one of the best teaching gigs you can get! Usually you can recycle the same lesson plan three or four times a week, and often your lesson is the highlight of the students day.
The lessons in public school are a fun release for the students, and there is little pressure on you as a teacher. The students can be rowdy, but that’s usually only because they are engaged with your lesson. The biggest benefit of teaching these classes isn’t the money or the fun, it’s how it helps to develop you as a teacher. If you can manage a classroom of 50, you really can handle anything else the teaching world may throw at you!
Lesson 3: Ask For Help
When you work in a training center in Vietnam, you are not alone in the classroom. Depending on the age of your students you are going to have one, two or three Vietnamese teaching assistants in the classroom with you.
’ll be honest, I felt a bit awkward with this. I was a new teacher, with no experience and suddenly I am supposed to direct three experienced teaching assistants? I am supposed to tell them what to do? Shouldn’t it be the other way round? I was so reluctant to give any instructions that I simply didn’t. I tried to do it all myself: classroom management, group work, activities, exams, grading – even communicating with parents. Big mistake.
Guess what? There is a reason you are assigned teaching assistants: it is impossible to do everything yourself. If you don’t ask for help your lessons are going to suffer, and you will lose confidence in your ability. Don’t be like me, shed the awkwardness and ask for whatever help you need – especially when you are just starting out.
Lesson 4: Street Food Is To Be Adored
I remember my first full day in Ho Chi Minh as if it was yesterday. I remember walking from my hotel to Ben Thanh market, then to Saigon River and through the bar laden Bùi Viện. There were street carts with food everywhere.
Now, don’t get me wrong, they smelled great and looked even better, but I was wary. I was sure my little Western belly wouldn’t take too kindly to street food. So, I stuck to Western food for the first few days. I was missing out!
Street food in Vietnam is amazing. I started with a little Bún Bò Huế. Before I knew it I was happily munching bánh mì every day for lunch. I started sampling everything I could get my hands on, and everything was so cheap! I was eating out everyday for a few dollars, and washing it down with a bottle of Bia Saigon for a few cents more!
Soon, I discovered that there was a woman selling the best Phởin the city opposite my apartment near Điện Biên Phủ. That was that! I was a complete convert to the delights of the Vietnamese street food scene!
Seven years later the things I learned while teaching in Vietnam still stand me in good stead today. This is one of the most underrated benefits of experiencing life as a teacher – the lessons you learn will stay with you for life! You will learn more about yourself in a year or two than you ever would in a decade in your home country.
My story is a little unique, but since I made the decision to start teaching English in 2016, I have lived in Vietnam, China and now Spain. I met my wife while we were both teaching in China, and our son is turning 1 next month. None of this would have been possible without the opportunities that TEFL provided me!
I genuinely believe that investing in yourself with a course from AVSE-TESOL is one of the smartest decisions anyone can make. Becoming a qualified ESL teacher has the potential to open up your world, and unlock your hidden talents!