the Dragonfly journal

Is teaching, teaching? Regardless of how, where and why?

By Billy Waters @NomadicBilly - member of the @Dragonfly_Edu HQ team

Good Morning Vietnam!

So I have arrived in Hai Phong, Vietnam, 2 hours South East of the feverish capital Hanoi to embark on a 3-month stint in teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL).

I can hear many of you saying, ‘oh well, that’s just TEFL, it’s not really teaching’ but when you’re standing in front of 30 enthusiastic students from the age of 3 to 35, I can ensure you… IT IS TEACHING!

Anyway, I had signed up to teach at the AIE Language centre where students already had some ability in speaking English from previous westerners, some children had even developed a Boston twang? They improved in standard as the age increased. I was to focus upon their pronunciation as the Vietnamese struggle with our phonics due to their completely tonal language. I was given a Vietnamese teaching assistant called Thuy, pronounced Twee, (but aptly renamed herself Nancy for convenience) to help explain some aspects of what I was teaching when the language barrier became a problem for the younger children.

My 10-11 year old class and Teaching assistant ‘Nancy’. Teaching the lad in the front in the dodgy shirt to Dance like Michael Jackson was my biggest achievement.

I was given textbooks as a guideline to what should be taught, although I was given no idea how to teach phonics. This was a bit of a learning curve as my only other previous teaching experience had been in PE, so teaching them how to strike a football, with their head down, knee over the ball and to follow through wouldn’t have been an issue, but developing a Vietnamese child’s phonemic awareness was quite a challenge. So, what I decided to do was what many teachers these days are doing, I Googled ‘lesson plans’ and stumbled across the 5 Minute Lesson plan (#5minplan), devised by Ross McGill aka @Teachertoolkit on twitter. It basically allowed me to create a lesson plan that addressed the focal points of a lesson: Objective, engagement, differentiation and Assessment for learning (AfL).

I often heard that AfL was the biggest issue when TEFL (is that the best way to say teaching English?) but when standards were so visible or in this case, audible then peer-to-peer supervised assessment was extremely easy to employ. Also, gauging their development with regular progress checks in student-teacher conversations allowed me hear what they were saying and how they were saying it, 2 major concepts teaching phonics and measuring phonetic values. The visible form of assessing the way in which they used their tongues and lips was of particular interest and something they found extremely difficult because the Vietnamese spoke nasally and appeared to sing when speaking. I found this video by Phonics International particularly helpful.

Either way, forget all the jargon, buzz words and OFSTED friendly terminology, the simple and most effective way of measuring progress was simply looking, listening, giving feedback and providing critique and then repeating until desired outcome is achieved. Plus a few ‘games’ encouraged excitement (please don’t frown upon me).

My time in Vietnam was not all work and no play, as with my somewhat nomadic timetable, I taught 4/5 hours per day, between the hours of 8am to 10pm 6-days a week. This gave me plenty of time to sample the local cuisine where Pho Bo (Beef noodle soup) was the ultimate Vietnamese dish and soon became my staple. Having acclimatised, I soon began to sample other local delights such as boiled eel, chicken’s oesophagus, fried snake and yes, that old South East Asian favourite…. DOG! Before you ask, it wasn’t bad! Plus it didn’t have a name and was put into a samosa, so all the ‘man’s best friend’ judgements were put to one side and it was thoroughly enjoyable.

Overall, it is fair to say that doing TEFL (did we decide upon how to say this?) was an extremely steep learning curve for anyone that had very little teaching experience, but the fact remains the same as heavily noted the World over… wherever you are, however you do it, teaching isn’t just a job, it’s a way of life.

Did I mention – the local home made beer ‘Beer Hoi’ cost 20p per half pint….