Half-way (I/III)

About a month ago, my Fulbright cohort convened for two days in Đà Lạt where we shared updates and stories of successes and failures teaching in gifted high schools, colleges, and universities across Việt Nam. After hearing from everyone, I felt a renewed sense of inspiration to get back into the classroom, to return to my students, to revamp my curriculum, to resume teaching. I felt excited and motivated again, remembering my purpose for coming to this country, because since arriving in my province, I’ve experienced a gradual decline in actually wanting to be here. This mid-year meeting has been, in many ways, refreshing.

It’s been a little over five months since I left home to move around the world to teach English. I look back now and am astounded at how fast time has flown, how much I’ve grown, and how much I’ve learned (more) about myself. I knew coming here I’d expose myself to many learning opportunities and challenges, whether they were laid out in the open or disguised and hidden in the dark.

Being half-way through my Fulbright fellowship, I thought I’d take the opportunity to reflect on three key experiences so far: my classroom, my community, and myself. I’ll be splitting my mid-year reflection into three parts, beginning first with my classroom.

My classroom. My students have been the crux of my teaching experience. Every day, they inspire me with their curiosity and brilliance. They challenge me to think about innovative ways to engage with them critically and thoughtfully. Applying my past experiences as a student to being an educator now, I strive to create a learning environment that fosters creativity, free thought, and mutual understanding. I want my classroom to be a place full not of dread but rather excitement, eagerness—a place where my students look forward to attending and a place where they have an outlet for their thoughts and ideas.

And to be honest, I’m not even sure if I’m achieving (or have achieved?) that.

Here’s a tidbit about my teaching schedule and style: I teach four classes each week and one class every other week for a total of about 10-12 hours each week; I meet each of my classes for about 1.5 hours. I am responsible for improving the listening and speaking skills of a little over 150 students in grades 10 and 11. Although I was initially given some English textbooks to use, I seldom adhere to their outdated teaching practices. Instead, I implement a number of competitive group activities that are centered around listening and pronunciation (think: debates, “repeat after me”, etc.), come up with example texts and statements that are more ~relevant and mainstream (think: pop culture, slang), and consistently seek feedback to which I read, consider, and apply before a new lesson. I also assign online homework (in the form of Google forms) that I grade not for accuracy but rather completion.

The way I structure my class and curriculum is non-conventional (to Vietnamese standards). I strongly deviate away from the traditional practices of assigning countless worksheets and exercises. The Vietnamese teachers at my host institution have confessed that they spend the majority of their time preparing their students to sit through annual national examinations. I quickly learned that there’s little to no room for creativity, group projects, and critical thinking, and the priority lies not with learning but rather with testing. Obviously, I despise and reject this teaching practice. It’s archaic. Drowning students in hundreds of problem sets every week is unhealthy and ineffective, but given the strict structure of Việt Nam’s educational system, I can understand why schools across the country spend so much time and effort in ensuring their students churn out nearly perfect marks. Fostering creativity and critical thinking is not a priority, sadly.

Fortunately, my school has allowed me the flexibility to design my own lesson plans and curriculum. I’ve shared before that I am, by no means, an experienced educator; I possess no formal teaching background nor did I study education during undergrad. However, by applying what I considered to be effective teaching practices from previous mentors and faculty, I consciously work towards fostering a learning environment that is truly supportive of my students’ academic endeavors.

For example, I make an effort to offer words of encouragement and affirmation, which my students have anonymously shared were new to them, albeit relieving, inspiring, and motivating. (Maybe I am doing something right. Ha.)

“I’m really proud of you for trying!”
“You’re so confident when you speak, I love it!”
“Whoa, your ideas are lit.”
“I’m impressed with your thoughts!”

Inserting these small comments throughout my classes, I’ve noticed, shifts the dynamics tremendously. I notice more students participating and asking questions; they’ve also started challenging me and their classmates, which I honestly love the most because it reflects their confidence in speaking up, a practice that remains taboo within Vietnamese classrooms. Among the topics I’ve taught so far, the more “successful” lessons revolved around practical knowledge, application-based exercises, and soft skills.

But obviously, not every lesson or hour spent in the classroom has been a success. There were many days when I returned to my room feeling defeated and exhausted, questioning whether or not my lesson plans made any sense. I battled with the reality that not everyone is going to like me (and that’s okay!), and I had to figure out what I could do (better) to improve my approach and perspective. This required a lot of reflection, humility, and accountability. To this day, I am still asking myself, Am I giving the students what they want? What they need? Or both? I am still figuring this out, and I’ve grown comfortable with my role as a teacher; a role that continues to evolve and change.

I don’t think my students understand how appreciative I am of them, and I must confess, I don’t think I’ve personally done a great job at showing my appreciation. I have learned a great deal from my students, gaining invaluable experiences and perspective. I’ve deepened my understanding of what it means to connect, to build and cultivate relationships; I’ve discovered new ways to support my students outside of the classroom, which oftentimes meant being a shoulder to cry on or having an ear that listened.

Despite the various challenges I’ve faced in and out of the classroom, my students have made everything worthwhile.

I am humbled.

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