Teaching Bit


I find this a very complex issue and one which concerns me every day when I make choices about what to teach, what not to, which questions to ask and which to avoid.  Two recent events have prompted me to write this post.

The New Teacher: As a precursor to a brainstorming activity, a really sharp and bright new addition to our staffroom had printed a photo of  Ho Chi Minh.  Out of interest, I asked what she was going to do with this photo. She outlined what, in America, Greece or the UK would have been a really fun and motivating introduction to her subject. Here in Hanoi however, the staffroom fell silent with all the other teachers, TAs and administrative staff simply looking at each other somewhat aghast.

The Experienced teacher: I received an SMS  from a colleague on Saturday saying that he felt down because during a classroom discussion most of his students had argued against the State’s ‘one child’ policy.  When it came to writing their opinions up as essays, 100% were in favour the State’s one-child policy. The teacher felt as if he wasn’t trusted and as if he hadn’t encouraged the students enough to give their opinions.

Recently, in Ho Chi Minh City, me and several other teachers went through MacAndrew and Martinez’ , ‘Taboos and Issues’ book and discussed which issues we felt were acceptable from a learner’s point of view in an adult Vietnamese classroom.  Our trainer encouraged us to discuss all of the issues with our students as if they had a ‘right to know’.

I’m in a quandary about this.  I’m a pretty liberal kind of teacher and person but this is such a sensitive area.  The main difficulty lies with what do the learners want to discuss in class (this may well be different from what they ask after class).

An AM of mine posted on the staffroom noticeboard a BBC report about a journalist who had been imprisoned for speaking out agaisnt the government. Over the next days, the notice became covered with anonymous comments (written by Vietnamese TAs or staff) including one along the lines of  “if you don’t like it here, leave.”

As a teacher, I must bear in mind:

  • The State apparatus is huge and many, many people work for it including some of my students and their families.
  • There is a mixture of  both genuine respect for the State and a fear of speaking out against it.
  • I’m a guest in a country I have a great fondness for and work with people I also have a great fondness and respect for.
  • I’m here to teach English.

I’ve noticed that personalization may be a big ELT cheese elsewhere (in Greece I remember students loved giving their opinions) but actually, giving someone else’s voice/ character / role for learners here is much more successful in terms of  encouraging freer participation.

Obviously, one solution is to throw the ball into the learners’ court. But this, too, presents difficulties.  Learners will hit it off on all sorts of levels and get on like a house on fire in class…but some things are taboo. It’s an unsaid (d’oh..obviously!) rule…that some things are not discussed.  No-one wants to be the first to say something that may be troublesome. And should I put them in that position?

Is it my role to make these issues be discussed as my trainer suggested? I don’t know.  Please do tell me what you think.

The Importance of…Ending the Week on a Good Note…but also keeping a sense of perspective

It's alright guys... there'll be another 'last supper' next week.

It's alright guys... there'll be another 'last lesson' next week.

Last lesson of the week and it’s all going a bit pear-shaped with 45 minutes to go.  I’ve got to pull something out of the bag! How was I supposed to know that the papers are full of stories about somebody who died of a ‘broken heart’ whilst watching Avatar? None of my students were remotely interested in paying  100,000 dong to be shocked to death …or, indeed, engaging in conversation about a film that shocked people to death.

Thanks a Million Avatar! Really!

Thanks a Million Avatar! Really!

So, I do manage to pull a few things out of the bag and also borrow an activity from a colleague and it all goes swimmingly and they end up speaking more English than they ever would have if I had tried to plough on with the Avatar thing…

Why was it so important? I have this ‘thing’…which I have just asked other teachers around me here in the staff room about too.  I really like all my lessons to end on a good, positive note whereby we all sincerely wish each other good luck and take care until the next lesson.  (The good luck thing partly relates to driving around Hanoi – see Day 2 post).  But the last lesson of the working week – be it on a Friday (as it is for me because I’ve opted out of the 8am weekend kindergarten teaching thing) – or on a Sunday,  seems to hold a special significance for me.  A couple of other teachers said the same.  It’s great to leave the school on a, “I love teaching; all my classes; all my students; the fact I’m going to get better by doing a DELTA etc etc” note.   On the other hand, I can feel well…pretty peeved if the last lesson just doesn’t go right.  Is this just human nature or am I truly being daft – or maybe both?

Now for the self-appraisal bit…

It may not be my fault the lesson bombed and it’s certainly not the students’ fault if things don’t work. Yes, I should reappraise the lesson but no, I shouldn’t have a broken heart about it.  The thing is, I shouldn’t let a dodgy last lesson effect:  (i) my overall confidence as a teacher or (ii) how I feel about that class of students next week.   (You may have guessed I have let this happen before now).

In other news…

I am delighted to announce that our school has won a coveted (by whom I don’t know) ‘Golden Dragon’, awarded by the Vietnamese Government.  I’m going to represent the teachers and go to the Opera House in Hanoi to receive the said award.  So, if any of you are tuned in to VTV1 channel at 10am Vietnamese time on Sunday (that’s 3am UK time) do watch the live ceremony!  (Thank Heavens I had some new suits made in Hoi An that fit my orangutan-length arms.  Thanks also to Ken Wilson for the Orangutan Lip anagram of my name!…Some people have too much time on their hands  😉 )

Corporate Client soccer update!!! Packaging won 3-1 on penalties after it was 2-2 at full time.

dutch lady whistle seller

Even in Hoi An subtle product placement reminded me of the soccer-playing Business English class.

Day 4 hasn’t even started yet and I know that the first 3 minutes of each lesson are going to be racked with indecision…

Holey Moley it’s 2010

So the educated twittering and media types are concerning themselves with the date.  Good.  It’s important.  But why am I the only person on my side?  (again!)  It really would never cross my mind to say ‘ twenty-ten’ as opposed to ‘two thousand and ten’.  David CrystalThe Guardian and Radio 4 and tens of thousands of Facebook users say I’m wrong.  I usually deeply respect the opinion of at least two of the three aforementioned folks.  Why not now?  It just sounds so “November 30th” without the “the”… just so American.  I’m sorry, it grates.

How far do I push it?

So, I have a teaching dilemma… Do I encourage my learners to sound as outdated and ‘wrong’ as me?  I have already (I hope) left a worldwide trail of teenagers and adults thinking it’s cool to say, “Tip Top” and “Holey Moley”.  Can I add “two thousand and ten” to this list?  Of course! But maybe I should point out to them that I am the only person I know (who isn’t European) to not be overly- concerned about the  extra  syllabic effort that this entails.

Day 3 of kind of semi-comotose teaching by hour 8 at work…

The Joys of a Plan Falling into Place (and thank the Lord for learners who make it all work!)

Today’s exciting task… (among 876 others) write a lesson plan – with very little notice – based on the theme ‘Paradise Island’.  What a dreamy image of the Paradise Island on Google images.   The image with the bloody great hotel complex in the background of  Paradise Island.*

Paradise Island, Bahamas, image

I so wanted to hook Joni Mitchell’s ‘Big Yellow Taxi” into the lesson somewhere.  I hooked in another song instead.  God bless the learner whose ‘personal paradise’ included a river and a sunset …and who played into my song of choice… “Waterloo Sunset”.

Looking forward to tomorrow’s forwards…

I’m still deliberating about joining 98% of my corporate client students and watching the grand factory football final:  HR v Packaging Dept  OR teaching the one woman who wants another lesson on writing business emails….

Day 2 of more conscious teaching…

The deal is that two days a week I get driven to Phu Ly in the Vietnamese countryside and teach a corporate client ‘Business English’.  The guys are great, keen, love learning and are going great guns.  We all leave the class happy and with a sense of having progressed and  ‘good job done, chaps.’  BUT by the time I get back to car I’m feeling more than a little anxious.  At first I thought it was due to the fake, life-sized cows near the factory entrance (it’s a dairy company!?)  But now I know what it is…

FRAME OF MIND: The importance of the journey to work

Just Google ‘Hanoi traffic’ and you will laugh.  YOU will laugh because you’re not in it!  Sometimes my colleagues and I laugh too…but it’s a kind of hysterical ‘if I don’t laugh, I’ll cry’ laugh.

This morning I cycled the 1km journey from home to my school’s office.  I saw the motorbike driver in front of me carrying a 2 metre-wide roll of carpet width ways (makes great holiday snaps) and wipe out the two motorbikes either side of him.  Both people were hurt – but not badly by Hanoi terms.  It’s funny… until you see it 3 or 5 times a week… until you get used to the fragile sound of cheap Chinese  copied Honda Wave’s crunching… until you have been wiped off your own motorbike twice while stationary!… until two of your teaching colleagues die in separate motorbike accidents.

Yesterday, a colleague witnessed three accidents in one morning.  She arrived at school frazzled and in no frame of mind to plan or teach.  Even in the huge company car today I realized that the only way I can ‘cope’ with all the near-misses is by closing my eyes and listening to music.

The strangeness that I feel out in the countryside after my corporate class is safety mixed with the lurching feeling that I’m heading back into the chaos.

It may sound like I’ve just been Hanoied *.  (The symtoms of being Hanoied include shoulders which hug your ears and teeth grinding…) but what I really HAVE realized in my newly- acquired, blog-inspired consciousness is the importance of getting to work in calm frame of mind.

So today’s teaching-related conscious thought is:

I need to work out ways of relaxing whilst having eyes in the back of my head during the ride to work.  Crucially, I also need to maintain serenity while watching crashes three floors below me out of the window from the photocopy machine!

* Thanks to fellow Hanoied teacher, Jacob for coining the term.

Day 1 of more conscious teaching…

Well, it had its good bits and bad bits.  The great bit was that I introduced all my 3 classes (Beginners through to Pre-Intermediate) to twiducate.


We set up the classes by doing some internet vocabulary work.  I have learnt NEVER to assume anything about Vietnamese world knowledge.  I consciously used Facebook as an example of a social networking site. Facebook has been blocked in Vietnam since November 11th, 2009. Because it was embedded in terms of eliciting comprehension I was able to establish that about 80% of my students had a FB account.  This makes it an interesting move by the government ‘encourage’ all ISPs to block it.

We all headed to the computer room where they logged on to find messages and questions that I had left for them. The only rule I set was that everything must be written in English.  Anything in Vietnamese I would delete.  I did have to delete a couple of posts.  What I actually wrote was, ‘Only post things in English or Greek’…  One smart guy obviously went to a translation site and wrote Θέλω να πάω στο σπίτι .  What could I do?  I had set the rules!  Anyway… having told said student that he couldn’t go home until 9.30pm, we all posted merrily away. Homework assignments were to find and then post recommendations for English websites.

It will be really interesting to see how this develops…and how we can utilize it with good pedagogical purpose.  I’ll keep the blog posted!?

The bad bit….  Well…I cut a class early by 5 minutes so that I could give the security guard, Mr Ngi, a bottle of rice wine for Christmas!  He’s a star and always smiles…even if I’m the last out of the building!

Happy security guard = happy teacher = better teacher.  No?

14 thoughts on “Teaching Bit

  1. “Happy security guard = happy teacher = better teacher. No?”

    Oui! of course! I fully agree too with the importance of “frame of mind”. If you can’t get some kind of silence on your way to work, at least give yourself some silent quality time before leaving to work. Silence is, to me, the kind of preciousness I cannot do without if I am to give a great lesson. To really BE there with the students, I need to have centred myself together, not not be scattered away by all the chaos around me. Your idea of music is good, too. A way to concentrate, to keep yourself together. Bon courage, Laura!

  2. Thanks for the camaraderie re Mr Ngi the security guard. And…Can I blame you when I turn up in class with my ipod still glued to my ears? 😉

  3. Pingback: Most Tweeted Articles by English Language Teaching Experts

  4. You work in Nam? I didn’t know that. I only spent about 3 days in Hanoi. I was “stationed” in Saigon. I absolutely loved Vietnam. Wish I could go back every day.

    The traffic in Saigon is much worse in my opinion. I was always amazed the things people could put on a bike. I actually loved biking in it. It was like a little adventure. Every day you got to cheat death. The first time I ever actually road a motorbike was in Nam. I taught myself to drive one in the craziness.

    I look forward to future blog posts.

  5. Twiducate looks awesome. how long did it take to set up (w messages etc)? Like the FB ‘politicate’ conversation with Viet Ss. Interesting you relate wider issues (trying to relax) with T issues. Give Mr Ngi a kiss from me!

  6. Twiducate took about 40 minutes to set up for 3 classes…but now teachers can enter more classes under 1 teacher name so it will be even quicker.
    Guess you’d recognize where I took the photo for the blog banner this morning?…
    No I’m not going to kiss Mr Ngi for you! He’d die. But I will say ‘heyup pet’.

  7. I hope Mr Ngi doesn’t realise “pet” is short for “petal”. I’m starting to learn the language of the ‘north east’… where Wii is the only games console pronounced “why eye!” :o)

  8. Hey Nick,

    Sorry to take so long to reply,

    Thanks for commenting. Yes, sometimes I love biking in Hanoi…other times it’s not so good. I prefer HCMC for the biking…or even better..getting out of town. I did the Northwest loop and hired a Minsk and went up to Sapa in rainy season. Great stuff. I bought my own Minsk in the end and have done a fair few memorable trips! Was good of you to comment on the blog and I see we share the same opinion re. JH’s abstract.
    Be good to see you back here.

  9. Laura,

    I’m glad your lesson went well and you were flexible. This happens to me as well when something I planned is not that interesting for my students. Sometimes, the students even picked the project but we have to think on our toes as times, eh?

    Congratulations on your award!

  10. Thanks for the comment Shelly. It’s nice to know it’s not just me!…and it’s nice for all new teachers reading this to know it’s not just them either! The award has absolutely nothing to do with me! I have no idea what it’s for..(?).I’ll let you know when I do!..but it’s all good publicity for the school.

  11. As the person said; knowing it is a bad lesson is the most you can hope for and isn’t it funny how no matter how experienced you are a good lesson takes 5 mins and a bad one days….

  12. Thank you so much Ffinlo. As I said to Shelly, it’s always good for teachers to know they’re not alone when it comes to these kinds of things.

  13. Laura B as was? Your name has come up in conversation/on facebook a couple of times recently. A quick convo with Dad who’d spoken to your Mum and with some prodding and the aim of Google – tada! – Laura Ponting! Life seems very interesting at your end? Hope you’re well and enjoying life. People who’ve been asking about you recently include Judith Jones, Angharad Jones and Joanna Drew. You see… we all still love you!

    God I do hope you approve these comments and they don’t just appear on your blog… :-/

    Catherine Pick

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