HCMC Dining Guide

Monday, November 21, 2011

Assembly-line Education

I've been awfully busy recently, hence the string of photo-centric posts. Now here's a long one without a single picture!

A couple of weeks ago, I substituted several classes at three different public schools in Saigon. This gave me the chance to see first-hand how most Vietnamese students are educated, and it could not be more different from the learning environment I have become used to.

The vast majority of my teaching here has been done at what are called language centers. These places offer classes only in English, and the classes only cover the English language - no science, math, or anything like that, and they operate at night and during the weekend, when regular schools are closed. Every classroom is air-conditioned; there are computers and copiers in the teacher's lounge, where snacks and coffee are often provided; and many centers equip their rooms with full A/V facilities - projectors, TV's, computers, etc. Most of the books (all of which are published by American or European education companies) we use incorporate some sort of visual or audio aspect, so it is often necessary to play movies or CD's. Class sizes are usually under 25, and often well under 20. Oh, and white-erase boards are bolted to a wall in every classroom.

As a result of all of this, language centers are quite expensive, with most courses costing several million dong, or a few hundred dollars. This may seem like chump change compared to the cost of schools in the U.S., but remember that Vietnam is far poorer than America. I've become accustomed to the luxuries provided by language centers, so walking into a public school was quite a shock.

Unlike the centers I teach at, which are usually housed in the 'tube' buildings so popular throughout Vietnamese cities - very narrow, but deep and tall - almost every public school consists of a massive square building. Three or four stories tall, the classrooms line long, straight hallways that enclose a large open courtyard adorned with a huge portrait of Ho Chi Minh. Students assemble in these courtyards before class every morning, and a large drum that is struck to signal the start and end of classes also sits in the area. There is no air-conditioning; instead rooms are 'cooled' by a fan or two and open doors and windows. Old-fashioned chalkboards are still used, and there are no TV's or computers, though some rooms feature a microphone and speakers. Why? Well, because every class has at least 40 rambunctious kids in it, crammed into a roughly 20 foot-by-20 foot room.

Whereas language centers are (usually) well-organized, with the correct books distributed several days before  a class starts and a detailed schedule and syllabus spelled out, public schools seem to operate on a more fly-by-wire basis. I never had any idea what I would be teaching, or what book I would be teaching from, until I walked into the classroom. Not to mention, the books were terrible - very thin on content, and pretty useless in terms of context. I had no feel for what level the students were at, so I couldn't gauge which games would work and which wouldn't. One time, I walked into a classroom and the assistant teacher handed me a microphone. I started talking into it, but didn't hear anything. Suddenly, another teacher came running in from another room, yelling for me to stop - the mic was apparently broadcasting to the wrong speakers, beaming my disembodied voice into a random class.

The students at public schools are also far different from those at language centers. Given their expensive tuition, centers attract a lot of spoiled kids whose parents have never learned how to tell them no. All of my teaching friends have horror stories about students that think they don't have to listen to anybody, are always right, and can do as they please whenever they want. There are plenty of good students, but there are also plenty that show minimal respect for their teachers.

Public school students, on the other hand, are incredibly obedient, and very respectful. To be sure, they are still earsplittingly loud - literally louder than jet engines. And I know this for a fact, because one of the schools was a few blocks from the airport, and when all 40 kids got going at a full roar they completely drowned out the sounds of planes taking off down the street. But, whenever I walked into the classroom, every last kid would stand up shout "Good morning/afternoon teacher!", and stay standing until I said they could sit down. The same thing happened when class ended. They would participate in games when I asked them to, and answer questions when I singled one person out, things that can't be said for every student at a language center.

These students are also intensely curious about Westerners, for at least two reasons: they live in poorer areas of the city where tourists and expatriates are rare; and public schools don't hire a stable-full of foreign teachers like language schools do. In fact, there is often only one native-speaker working at a given state school. As a result, I felt like a rock star when I was at the schools. Students would see me coming and swarm around me, forming a lengthy entourage of groupies as I walked through the hallways. Questions rang out from dozens of students: "WHO ARE YOU?" "WHAT YOUR NAME?" "WHERE YOU COME FROM?" "HOW OLD ARE YOU?" After answering the same questions about 37 times, I wanted to stop and say "OK! EVERYBODY LISTEN AND I'LL ANSWER EVERYTHING ONCE," but that wouldn't have worked. When I walked into class the room would erupt, while other students peered in through the hallway. Once, I was walking out of a high school class when a girl grabbed my arm and asked me to sign a page in her notebook. I felt a little odd giving an autograph to a 13-year old, but whatever.

Perhaps the biggest difference between public schools and language centers, however, can be found in how the kids are educated. At my center, classes for children are two hours long, while those for teens and adults are three hours long, once a week. The small-ish class sizes mean teachers get to know their students - we remember their names, we know their personalities, and we know what level their English is at. We're also able to give some 1-on-1 attention during class, if need be.

At public school, on the other hand, classes are 30-40 minutes long, which made me feel as if I was working on an assembly line - I would be ushered into a classroom, start five minutes late since it takes a while to calm 40 kids down, play a game, sort of cover one page from a bad book, and then be whisked away to the next class. I didn't know anyone's name, couldn't tell which students weren't understanding, and couldn't correct pronunciation mistakes because every response was an indistinguishable roar. It only took a few classes of this for me to understand why there are so many locals with terrible pronunciation: if you go through public school, you could progress through years of English schooling without a single native speaker getting the chance to hear just you speak. I also came to the realization that language centers really are worth the money parents shell out to send their kids there: the more personal attention and better facilities ensure that almost every student comes out with at least half-decent English skills.

Teaching at public schools is certainly an experience. I'm actually starting a few classes at a public school in two weeks, since the kids are so great, but I fully understand why local parents are so proud to send their kids to language centers like VUS and ILA. They want their children to have a bright future, and they recognize that knowing English will greatly improve their chances of having one. Unfortunately, Vietnamese public schools are not the place to get that education.


  1. Those kids are very fortunate to have you to teach them some English. I went to Saigon's public school up until 4th grade and never once had an English class. I always have an appreciation for people like you that travel to a foreign country to teach English. Please keep up the good work in helping the kids at the public school!