Becoming a TEFL Teacher

 | Teaching House Nomads Blog

I think I have successfully adopted the image of a teacher; I grade with a red pen, I’m often covered in whiteboard marker dust and I lecture my students when they are late. I feel like I have turned into my 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Sawyer — minus the frumpy hair bun.

I’ve been teaching English in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam now for 5 months and it’s had its ups and downs. It was hard work at first, adjusting to my new role, but it’s been getting easier and easier, the more time I spend in the classroom. However, I’m still rapidly trying to learn the rules of English grammar most days and constantly reading up to stay one step ahead of my students. I wonder if I ever learned any of these grammar rules when I was in school or if it was simply a matter of learning from exposure.

One thing I have learned, though, is the all-important phrase “Let’s go over that tomorrow when we have more time,” which buys me time to do some language research.

Managing the Classroom

To maintain order and discipline in the classroom, I have adopted the persona of a strict schoolmaster. Just the other day, we covered how to say the time of day in English. The next day, one of my students arrived 30 minutes late, which is infuriatingly typical for students here. I let him come in and sit down (interrupting my class) and then I asked him “Tuan, What time is it?”

He paused for a second, recalling his vocabulary, and said, “Half past five.”

“And what time does class start?” I asked Tuan.

“At five,” he answered sheepishly.

I continued teaching, feeling proud that I had made my point and I had reinforced my lesson on how to tell time in English.

TEFL teachers might adopt a strict persona to maintain order and discipline in the classroom
My adorable class of Vietnamese students

It’s been an evolution. I started off being overly nice, and now I find myself confiscating phones and scolding people for not showing up on time.  And much to the surprise of anyone who knew me in my former corporate career, I spent my first few months in the classroom learning how to assert myself with more authority and confidence.

I certainly didn’t expect to grow into the role of “strict teacher” because I assumed I would be teaching older adults. But it turns out that most of my students are young adults under 20, and they seem to still be in their giddy school kid phase. Therefore I find myself thinking up silly games and competitions to keep the pace of the lessons up so I don’t lose my students’ interest.

Vocabulary Lessons

About 75% of my time in class is spent miming vocabulary, drawing stick figures, acting out feelings and singing songs. I should be nominated for an Oscar, or whatever award they give to dramatic teachers. I don’t really know who has taken over my body and mind when I do these things, as it’s certainly not the norm for me to behave this way. But I guess teachers go to great lengths to make themselves and their vocabulary understood.

In addition to my new acting skills, I’ve also learned to think things through long before I speak (which is a good skill to have anyway). In the beginning, I found myself accidentally making my role more difficult by using complicated or obscure words in place of simpler alternatives. The other day, we were learning food vocabulary and I made the mistake of saying my favorite ice cream flavor was cinnamon. As soon as it came out of my mouth, I regretted it. How the hell was I going to explain cinnamon? They don’t have cinnamon in Vietnam!

Vocabulary lessons were an important part of Sherry's class during her time teaching English in Vietnam
Me with my class in a café in Ho Chi Minh

Strangely, the fact that my students have a limited vocabulary is one of my greatest sources of joy. If I walk into class wearing a dress and nice shoes, the girls all give a shriek that startles me, followed by exclamations of “Teacher, you look beautiful today!”  I love these moments – who doesn’t want to be called beautiful? They don’t say, “Teacher, you look very sophisticated today!” or “Teacher, that dress looks really good on you!” These phrases are way too complicated for my elementary level students. No, instead they tell me I’m beautiful – beautiful is a word they know.

However, with the good comes the bad. Like the times where I get the other variation, “You are so beautiful, why you aren’t married?” I know there’s a compliment in there somewhere, but sometimes it’s really hard to find.

Cultural Exchange

Teaching is both tough and rewarding. The reward is when you actually bond with students and catch them using something you’ve taught them. I have some students who have been with me for 5 months. They invite me to parties and out for karaoke. They know more about me than many of my ex-boyfriends do. They know I love cinnamon ice cream and I hate green peppers. They know about my entire family, where they live and what their names and ages are. They know all about my close friends and what they do for a living. They know I don’t want children. They know I love to travel and write.

Teaching ESL in other countries can be a rewarding cultural and learning experience
I finally feel comfortable in this role as teacher

Equally, I get to learn about my students’ culture. They love the fact that I’ll eat anything, so they often bring me bags or bowls of street food to try. They wait in anticipation as I try the new, foreign substance, hoping I will like it. Sometimes it’s a success and sometimes I’m spitting it out into my napkin.

One thing that amuses me is my Vietnamese students always take off their shoes when they sit down in class. I have no idea why, but when Vietnamese people sit down, they prefer to be barefoot. I look around my classroom and most of my students are completely relaxed, shoes off, watching me mime new vocabulary.

I am their window into western culture and they are my window into Vietnamese culture — a mutually beneficial relationship. I love learning about the lives of people in other countries, and the classroom brings me closer to people who love to teach me about their culture.

Yes, I am a teacher. And because of that, my learning never ends.

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