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The Many Ways I Taught English in Saigon, Vietnam
Written by: Matthew Cardoza
Last Updated: July 19, 2021
When I arrived in Vietnam, I thought that I was probably going to be teaching children. I had read that in Asia this was the most common scenario. With my TEFL certification in hand, courtesy of International TEFL Academy, I found a job and unsurprisingly started teaching children. As it turned out, teaching them was just the beginning.
By the time I was finished teaching English in Vietnam, I had taught a large group of children on the weekends, small groups of children during weeknights, private lessons to teenagers, and additional private lessons with a few college students.
American Academy: The Standard Teaching Experience
My time spent at American Academy was divided into two styles of teaching: a weekend group class and small group “Active Learning” style classes three times a week.
Every Saturday and Sunday morning I taught 16 twelve year-olds from 8:00 a.m. – 10:00 a.m. We met on the fifth floor in a small room filled with individual desks, a teacher’s desk, a whiteboard, and a computer connected to a television.
Each day I would get on my motorbike and ride through the awakening city to the language center. I would grab my teaching materials, including the books, attendance sheet, and dry erase markers, for class. Usually class started late. I would teach for an hour, and then the class would break for about fifteen minutes. During this time I would talk with my teacher’s assistant (T.A.) while my students went and got food from downstairs, played Uno, or played games on the computer.
I always had a lesson plan written out on paper, and I did my best to follow it. Sometimes it went well, but many times I changed games on the fly, repeated an activity, or needed extra time to quiet the class. Every day was different.
I got very good at addressing a large group of students. I learned how to discipline students, organize them in at their most chaotic moments, and treat them fairly so that they all had a chance to speak and participate. With the help of my T.A., most lessons were successful.
The best part about teaching the group class was getting to know the students and learn their personalities. Many of them surprised me with their knowledge of English. I got to know them all by name (their English names, some of which were hilarious, i.e. “Dragon”), and I would often ask them about their daily lives in between teaching sessions. The part I disliked most was the early morning hours and the room itself because on a few occasions, there were problems such as malfunctioning AC, broken computers, and disorganization. Otherwise it was a good experience.
American Academy: Active Learning
I also taught through a system called “Active Learning.” In this system, students would work with a Vietnamese teacher on grammar, writing, and some listening skills. Then they would meet with a foreign teacher (me) 1v1 for speaking practice. With young children I was mostly listening for pronunciation, vocab recall ability, and simple sentence structures. It could be repetitive, but it was important for them to interact with a native speaker. For older students there would be more advanced question and answer set-ups where they would have to formulate a coherent answer and explain their reasoning. I would always record notes on their mistakes and successes and leave a note in their book for their Vietnamese teacher. I did this 3-4 times a week usually at night.
About halfway through my time at AMA, management changed the format of “Active Learning” from 1v1 to small groups of 5-8 students. In this format I taught in thirty minute sessions to a small group based on age level and usually followed a theme for the lesson. At first this change was difficult because of the disorganized implementation, but afterward it was more enjoyable and less repetitive than the way it was before. I would teach 8-9 year-olds, 10-12 year olds, and 13-16 year-olds- all in the same night. My teaching experience was slowly broadening.
Teaching my Vietnamese Family
One of my favorite teaching experiences occurred right in the home where I lived. During my time in Vietnam, I lived with a Vietnamese family where I rented a room on the third floor. It was a great location and the family was tremendous. In the home lived the mother, grandmother, the oldest brother, two teenage sisters, and two younger siblings. I was given the opportunity to teach the teenage sisters to help reduce my monthly rental costs.
We met in my room Monday through Thursday night for an hour. With their older brother’s help, I found the recommended textbook at Fahasa (a local bookstore chain), borrowed a whiteboard, and bought more dry erase markers. Each day I would spend a small amount of time summarizing the book lesson, organizing how I would present the material, and prepping anything for the night’s lesson.
Teaching these private lessons was a lot of fun. I liked that there was less pressure and that I had more independence in crafting the lesson. Because the girls were older than my young students, they were more engaged and we had a lot of time to practice conversational English. I often incorporated American pop songs, idioms, and tongue twisters. I think they enjoyed the lessons a lot.
Additionally, these lessons provided me with a great way to really get to know the family. I learned about their schools, what they studied, what was going on in the house, and their personal interests. They both told me a lot of funny anecdotal stories about their crushes, Korean boy bands, favorite foods, and places I should visit in the city. This was probably one of the most unique experiences I had in Vietnam.
IELTS Prep Lessons with College Students
My English teaching experience reached its apex when I met three college students and began giving them private lessons in order to help them prepare for the IELTS exam. IELTS (International English Language Testing System) is a test that many foreign students take to prove fluency and gain access to universities abroad. The test is comprehensive, covering the four parts of language, (speaking, listening, writing, and reading), but we focused on only speaking and listening.
I taught three college students, two young men, and a young woman. The woman was my teacher’s assistant at AMA, and this was where the idea for private lessons started. We all would meet twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays at my Vietnamese family’s house. I found an excellent book to use for the foundation for our lessons. After introducing or reviewing a specific concept I spent most of my time conducting mock exam style questions in hopes of replicating what the students would face when they took the test.
This experience was amazing. The students were so cool, and we all became friends. We all would go out for roadside phở, lunch, and random hangouts. It helped that they were already close friends and so we all were able to joke with one another freely. Because they were nearly my age, our conversations were that much more relevant and relatable. I was able to discuss a lot more mature subject matters with these students which made the experience a lot more interesting. Our friendship outlasted my time in Vietnam, and we still remain in contact. I can’t wait to go back and visit them.
I am very happy I was able to teach in so many diverse ways to many different segments of Vietnamese society. I feel it made my teaching experience unique and more enriching. It also helped me become a better teacher. Most importantly, it gave me ample opportunity to interact with the Vietnamese people. Meeting people is the best part of travel and being able to teach English provided many opportunities to do so.
For anybody teaching or preparing to teach, I encourage you to find different ways to reach the local population and teach them. My experience can also be used as testimony to the fact that there are many ways to be a teacher. You do not have to be confined to one job or classroom. When you branch out and apply your skills differently, you will be pleasantly surprised with the rewards that it may bring. Good luck!
To learn more about his experiences teaching English in Vietnam, check out Teaching English in Vietnam - The Land of the Endless Summer.
Matthew is 24 years old from Springfield, Missouri, where he obtained his B.S. in Political Science from Missouri State University. After his Vietnam adventure, he’s looking to pursue a career in journalism or public policy, and then travel some more!
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