Reflections on a Year of Teaching ESL

Last October I arrived in Vung Tau having been accepted to teach at ILA private language school. From spending a year, mainly backpacking on my own amongst non-English speakers, to being in an office environment full of English-speaking teachers, all eagar to give advice, wasn’t easy to cope with. Information overload coupled with homesickness ensured it was a major headfuck of the highest order. I needed the cash though and I, being the stubborn bastard I am, wasn’t going to be defeated. My first observation of another teacher (to get the feel of what was expected at ILA), was a fellow-Irish man, who was to become a good friend. Marty’s class was a type of  performance art and the 7-8 year olds loved him. I sat there completely baffled as to how I was going to ‘perform’ to that standard. Marty started the class with a quick-fire round of questions (Hello, how are you?) to which each student dutifully replied ‘I’m fine, thanks’. He then stood them up in a circle and together began a rendition of Whiskey in the Jar with accompanying actions (slapping of the knees and sword trusting, etc). They began every class with this ‘warmer’ so they knew all the words. To see a group of Vietnamese kids performing this old Irish folksong with such gusto was impressive sight. Marty continued the high tempo pace of the class with games, drilling, and drawing on the tiled floor (using rub-off markers). It was all fun, fun, fun. To anyone who knows me, being quite introverted, you can understand the looming sense of dread. I put on a brave face but deep down I thought…I’m screwed. This feeling culminated in phoning in sick after my first day of teaching (which included 3 classes). I didn’t sleep a wink after my first day and I hadn’t planned my lessons properly for the next day. The day’s events, every little decision/judgement I made and trying to make sense of everything kept spinning around and around in my head and no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t quiet my mind. Attaching names of students to faces, grammar points, setting up activities, filling lesson time when I hadn’t planned well enough, different classes, levels, ages; it was all too much. The relief of not having to go through the second day of teaching gave me breathing space and the following weekend I was to go through it all again. It didn’t seem to get easier for a long time. I made many mistakes and slowly learned from them. I slowly got used to the schedule and the nerves slowly became less over the months.

Fast-forward a year and hundreds of teaching hours later, I’m saying goodbye to five classes of students who I’ve gained genuine affection for. Familiarity with the material I’m teaching has cut down planning time and the experience of many classes makes the whole thing much more comfortable. I leave with a mixture of sadness, relief, achievement and excitement about the future. I won’t miss working from 7.45am to 7pm at the weekends and I won’t miss the pressures of ‘performing’ to ensure a big corporation makes more profits. In essence my job has been more about ‘good business’ than ‘good education’ and that sickens me. There’s also the fact that I work with Vietnamese ‘teaching assistants’ who get paid a tenth of the wage teachers do even though their workload is just as heavy. Despite the corporate backdrop and the wealthy ‘customers’, I ‘ve come to enjoy seeing my students learn new things and grow and under the conditions I feel I’ve done a decent job departing the knowledge of the language I speak. I can only hope that at least some of them use that knowledge for good in the future and not only for furthering the careers so they remain amongst the richest strata of Vietnamese society.

J4B-2.45-1My ‘Junior 4-B’ class (9-10 year olds)

I’ve learned a lot about kids and human nature from the past year, not least my own. Not having been around children much before last year, the sudden immersement in an environment where their culture, good humour are prevalent. Last year I talked to a teacher on the road who told me that kids ‘get it’ in relation to the oneness and love of the universe. As part of their inherently benign nature, I suppose they do get it. In a way they’re ‘taught’ by adults to be more cynical, selfish and ‘realistic’ as they get older. They are also capable of selfishness and bickering, but these attributes are obviously encouraged under certain environments. It’s also noticeable how similar girls and boys are until they get beyond around 11 or 12, when girls begin to lose confidence and are supposed to ‘know their place’ and act accordingly within the accepted gender role. The thing that’s struck me most about teaching though, is the sheer variety of individual characters and classes. It’s amazing to behold how the vibes and ‘culture’ of a class can change with the addition or loss of just one or two students. Some classes are lively and get on like a house on fire. Others are subdued and are subdivided into mini-cliques who don’t like mixing. Others just seem content to get along without much fuss, while in the more difficult classes it feels like there is something almost toxic in the air, and whatever you do as a teacher nothing seems to be good enough. I took over one such class of teenagers early this year and only lasted a month with them. They didn’t like me and I wasn’t too keen on them either…subsequent teachers also struggled with them. Luckily by end of my contract, I was getting along with all my classes, having found my own style and techniques of teaching. While not perfect, it’s a long way from those first few weeks when I fumbled through lessons.

S3A-2With my ‘Senior 3-A’ class (11-13 year olds)

J4B-7.45-1My other, much smaller ‘Junior 4-B’ class

My favourite class consists of my oldest students and I regret not teaching more older classes. With higher-level teenage classes, instead of trying to keep them entertained with games, there’s more conversation and exploring interesting topics. I put my personality more into those classes and feel the students appreciate that. It’s a privilege to show them the things I find interesting and maybe spark their own interest in certain subjects. Mainly though, they just enjoy having a laugh and have on occasion cracked me up with their wit and humour.

Coming from a society where the generations are mainly unhealthily segregated (in London I rarely talked to anyone under 25, nevermind those in their teens or younger) I can imagine wanting to come back to some form of teaching, preferably on my own terms where a more holistic curriculum can be taught. The philosophy (or lack of it) of teaching English as a Foreign Language is not something I’m comfortable with, as it’s almost entirely entrenched in the business world, something I am loath to contribute to. I’m not going to moralise too much about it though, as it’s one of the less damaging sectors of the capitalist world, albeit one that is a major contributor to ongoing globalisation. Vietnam has to be one of the best countries to teach in, as most of the students are happy to learn and are enthusiastic. Contributing to their education in some small way has made me happy.

S6C-2My ‘Senior 6-C’ class (14-16 year olds)

J5B-3My ‘Junior 5-B’ class



  1. Sean matthews

    Enjoyed reading your review. Probably going to do an intensive celta course next year which has more practicle experience before jumping in. What do you think?


    • freetoramble

      Hi Sean, thanks. Aye, I think it would be worth doing the celta to gain practical experience and give you more options (although there are jobs available if you just have a degree). I’ll send an email with more info.


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