Me (to a class of 19 9th grade ESL students): “Who are some of the most famous rock bands of all time?”
Students: “K-Pop.” “Green Day.” “Flo Rida.”
Me (trying not to get angry): “No, no, no. Think older. Think bands from the 60s and 70s.”
Students: “We don’t know, Mr. Matt. We don’t care.”
I taught a lesson to my 9th grade class last week that focused on using the Present Perfect Continuous (PPC) tense. For the uninitiated to the inner workings of the English language and its tenses (You know them because you use them all the time, but you probably don’t know what to call each one.), PPC tense takes the following form:
“to have” + “past participle of to be (been)” + “verb-ing or gerund”
For example, I have been living in Hanoi for almost two months.
I enjoy teaching grammar. Most English language students hate it. I’m always looking for fun and interesting ways to get grammar points across to my students without boring them. In a stroke of genius, I remembered that my all-time favorite Rolling Stones song is full of the PPC.
Well, I’ve been haunted in my sleep
You’ve been starring in my dreams
Lord I miss you
I’ve been waiting in the hall
Been waiting on your call
When the phone rings
It’s just some friends of mine that say,
Hey, what’s the matter man?
Were gonna come around at twelve
With some Puerto Rican girls that’s just dyin to meet you.
Were gonna bring a case of wine
Hey, lets go mess and fool around
You know, like we used to
So, patting myself on the back, I planned a killer lesson on PPC using Miss You as an example. I thought the students would be way into it. I figured they would love the idea of listening to a song in the classroom, dissecting it, talking about it, and then I could trick them into using the PPC in a way in which they’d forget they’re actually learning grammar.
As it turns out, (social discovery of the century…wait for it…) teenagers are difficult. None of the students likes The Stones. No one was really into the song. And – no surprise to anyone who’s spent any significant time with teenagers – those kids are smart. They all knew that I was teaching grammar. In the end, it was a good lesson because the students got it. They understood the grammar structure and function. They were able to use PPC correctly and produce the language by themselves. But I totally underestimated what it will take to keep the attention of 19 teenagers. This has been the most valuable lesson I’ve learned in my first month and a half teaching English in Vietnam.
A Brief Background of My Job
I teach English/ESL (primarily, but not exclusively) at a private Vietnamese secondary school in Hanoi. The main aim (though many of the students may disagree) of the school is to prepare Vietnamese teenagers for college/university abroad in places like the U.S., Canada, Australia, and the U.K. I teach:
8th Grade ESL
9th Grade ESL
11th Grade ESL
11th Grade IELTS Exam Prep
11th Grade Speaking and Writing (also prep for the IELTS exam)
10th Grade “Fun With Films”
Plus, I got roped into co-teaching 6&7th Grade Drama Club. After one week, I threw a fit and told the English Department head that I wasn’t doing that anymore. Now, I run 6&7th Grade English Sports Club
Most of my classes, I only see once a week. One class – my least favorite, of course – I see twice a week. I also do small group tutoring after lunch (sort of like teacher conference time) a few days a week.
My favorite class is a group of three women that I teach for 40 minutes, once a week. One is the primary school principal, another is the secondary school principal, and the last is the secondary school vice principal/dean of students. They’re very low level, but lots of fun, dedicated, and way into learning English.
When I accepted this teaching position, I remember thinking to myself that it wouldn’t be easy to teach teenagers, but it could be fun. I remember thinking that while teenagers are difficult, I get along with them quite well and usually tend to have no problem understanding them. What I didn’t take into account is that I’d be spending the majority of each and every day (at least M-F) with these kids. To say the least, they are a handful. To be more accurate, they’re exhausting. In less than two months, I’ve already found this to be the most challenging teaching job in my young ESL career.
My two previous teaching jobs were a breeze compared to this. Granted, the hours were harder. I worked at language centers in both Peru and Costa Rica. In both jobs, my schedule was split to accomodate working adults (e.g. teach 7-10am and 4-9pm). That was awful, but my students were amazing. The majority of my students were young 20-somethings (not unlike myself) just trying to learn English to get through university or get a better job. They were dedicated and an absolute joy to spend time with and teach. We often hung out together outside of class, had dinner, shared drinks and laughs, and exchanged languages. The language center, though I didn’t know it at the time, was amazing. It was unbelievably well-structured and the curriculum was solid.
Now, the school I teach at is somewhat of a…well, I won’t use the word that first comes to mind. Instead, I’ll just say that it’s challenging to teach there. It’s unorganized and not much is standardized. This environment in and of itself has been challenging for me. As those of you who know me well can attest to, I’m a very structured, practical person when it comes to my work and my career(s). (Put less delicately, I’m straight up anal-retentive most of the time). I tend to be more laid-back in everyday life, but unfortunately, the same is not true at work.
Here’s the fun part. Adjusting to a different school and environment is no problem compared to the challenges of teaching teenagers. In a twist of fate, I’ve transitioned from the respected foreigner teaching English to his peers to The Enemy. Though it was not that long ago that I myself was in high school – at least I keep telling myself that – I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a teenager, to have adults who “don’t know sh*t” always telling you what to do and how to act. Now that’s my job. I’ve been tasked with controlling and educating large groups of teenagers, and it’s painfully difficult.
The biggest challenge, without a doubt, is convincing students to care. It’s hard for me to relate to because I was always a good student. I always tried hard in school and got good grades. If I didn’t like a class, I still put in a good effort and did well. More often, I liked my classes and my teachers. Now, I have to get into the minds of teenagers who are being forced to learn English. I keep trying different approaches thinking I can grab their attention and hold it long enough to get through a 70-minute class. So far, I feel as if I’ve done an OK job of teaching English, in a technical sense. I believe my students are learning. What I’ve struggled with is motivating my students to enjoy English, inspring them to go above and beyond.
Along the same lines, some (being generous) of the students are just flat-out lazy. In most of my classes, homework is as foreign to my students as the Vietnamese language is to me. I’m on the verge of discontinuing homework in some of my classes to save my breath – i.e. not having to take three minutes at the end of class to explain the assignment to the class. But I’ll never do that because I’m stubborn and I won’t give in just because no one does the homework. Plus, if I stop giving homework then the students will know that they are in charge, and that’s not happening.
OK, this the last thing I have to say about lazy students. I know I’m not a great teacher. I believe that I’m a blossoming young teacher that can be good in time if I continue to work hard and never stop caring. With that said, I can do everything in my power to help my students and give them every opportunity to succeed, but I can’t do the work for them. Let me give you an example. I gave my 8th grade class a writing assignment: Write a short “dear diary” entry talking about a problem you have and explaining what you can do to solve it. There were a few more specifics, but it’s a pretty simple task. The students had one week to complete the assignment. Six of the students in that class also see me one day a week for small group tutoring. In last week’s tutoring session, I re-explained the assignment (because, obviously, none of them had started it) and gave them 20 minutes to get started. I walked around the room constantly for 20 minutes, asking prodding questions, giving ideas, and pushing the students to start writing. At the end of the tutoring session, only one student had written more than one full sentence. He wrote three. Two days later when the assignment was due, none of the students had written any more than what they wrote during the tutoring session. Again, I can’t write for them.
Another challenge that I never had to deal with at my previous teaching jobs is being a disciplinarian. Half the battle is getting my students to behave in the classroom. So much time is spent corralling them, quieting them down, policing them. It’s been hard to put forth a good lesson because so much effort is wasted on behavior problems. In general, my students aren’t monsters. They’re good kids. The problem is that when you put 15-20 of them in a class together and ask them to be quiet, you’re just asking way too much. They’re kids. They want to have fun with their friends. I can understand that, but just listen to me and respect me every once in a while, damnit. Pretend like you’re listening to me.
Finally, my biggest pet peeve is this: Students just won’t stop speaking Vietnamese in class! God only knows what they’re saying about me, but that doesn’t bother me. What does bother me is that it’s not an effective way to learn a language. Students try to translate when that doesn’t work most of the time. To learn English, you have to understand new vocabulary and the like in English – not what you think it means in Vietnamese. Kids don’t get it, and I don’t blame them. It’s really tough to learn a new language, especially when you’re asked to completely forget about your native language. If they only knew that I was trying to help when I yell, “English, please!”
Now that I’ve successfully vented for almost 2,000 words, it’s time to do something about it. I’ve been in Hanoi for almost two months and I’ve been teaching at this school for six weeks. I’m done adjusting to the school, adjusting to the city. My goals when I came here were very general, but they hold true. I want to help the students at my school improve their English. I want to help them succeed and get into colleges and universities around the world. I want to inspire them to follow their dreams and do what makes them happy. For myself, I want to learn more about Vietnamese and Asian culture. I want to start learning Vietnamese, a painfully difficult language. I want to travel in the region and experience new places. And I want to meet new people and learn from them.
As for the challenges that I face at school, I keep running ideas through my head day in and day out. There are so many things I want to improve. I could write another 2,000 words on my ideas for helping improve the English department and school in general. The problem is, when you try to change a million things at once, not one thing receives the necessary attention and nothing is actually improved. With that said, I’ve decided to focus on a few major projects – in addition to spending most of my time trying to capture and keep my students’ attention – and run with them.
For now, my goals are (more specifically) as follows:
- I’ve started to “digitize” and centralize the relevant information within the English department through Google Drive. I’m going to continue developing this project to help make the lives of English teachers easier. I want to eventually get all of the curriculums, materials, and much more centralized in one place for easy access for all teachers.
- I want to help standardize the curriculum. As it is, much of what we teach is at our own discretion. In my opinion, students suffer with this approach. If the curriculum is more structured and linear in a way that one topic naturally follows the other, students benefit from the consistency.
- Most importantly, I need to focus on getting my students to use English as a means to develop and share their own personal interests and talents. Maybe I’m fighting a losing battle, but maybe not. I want to inspire my students to love English and in turn improve greatly. With this goal in mind, I’m going to start incorporating more long-term projects where students have choices of how they want to display and present their interests and talents…using English, of course.
Taking on new challenges is important. To make a positive impact on others and the world around you, not to mention self-improvement, you must continually take on new challenges. Whether you succeed or not is less important. What matters is that you try. I’m looking forward to taking on this challenges and hopefully making everyone (including myself) and everything around me better than when I arrived in Hanoi.
P.S. To all my teacher friends out there: Any and all advice you can offer on teaching teenagers is more than welcome and greatly appreciated. Respond with a comment below or shoot me an email at email@example.com. Thanks!
* If you enjoyed reading this, please consider sharing it! – MJP