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Published: December 17th 2022
In January of this year (2022), I was summoned by EIS (the European International School) to fill the breach after an English teacher suddenly decided to quit. When I left in June, I thought that was the end of my career as a school teacher. I would return to private teaching and occasional subbing and never again be in charge of an English class. I have written a blog about my time at EIS entitled ‘Unexpected Return to the Chalk-Face
After EIS, I did five weeks of Summer School at AIS (the Australian International School) and must have made a good impression because, in late August of this year, AIS contacted me and offered me a job. An English teacher had been granted extended bereavement leave, and the school needed someone to cover his classes for the remainder of Semester 1. I was interviewed by the Head of Secondary and, happy with the contract offered, agreed to teach English to Years 8, 11, 12 and 13.
Now, on December 16th
, I have finished my latest rescue operation and can look back on four busy but enjoyable months.
Before leaving Vietnam for a therapeutic holiday in Indonesia, the
teacher I was replacing gave me the lowdown on his English classes. Years 13 and 12 were IBDP English B Standard Level, Year 11 IGCSE 2nd
Language and Year 8 an ordinary mixed ability class. He told me Year 11 were a good bunch but lazy. I met the teacher only once. My main support at AIS was the English Coordinator, Joe Brown, a very modest and helpful Aussie, who answered all my queries and left me alone to teach. Not once did he, or anyone else, enter my classroom during a lesson.
The classroom I inherited – C 305 – was on the English/Maths corridor. I soon struck up a friendly relationship with the English teacher in the room opposite: Jack Moreci, a youngish American married to a Thai. He was interested in jazz, so I bombarded him with recommendations. The other English teacher I talked to frequently was James Eyre, an Englishman from Stoke-on-Trent, who coordinated Year 8.
My two IBDP classes – 16 students in Year 13, 12 in Year 12 - were studying for an exam that is not taught at ISHCMC or EIS: namely English B SL. It is the easiest of all
the IBDP English courses, and those two schools have no truck with it. The weakest English students at ISHCMC and EIS are entered for English B Higher Level. English B SL consists of a listening paper, an oral exam and two writing papers – one a reading comprehension, the other a piece of extended writing. It is a non-literary exam (whereas English B HL includes the study of two literary texts). Teaching the IBDP classes was a piece of cake. The students, with the exception of one Korean, were all Vietnamese. They were well-behaved, and some of them were certain to achieve the highest grade: a 7. Several students were plainly capable of doing well at English A SL but had opted for English B SL in order to maximize their IB points total with a minimum of effort. Distinctly unethical, in my view. English B SL in intended for students who struggle with English, not for high-fliers who want to concentrate on Higher Level Maths, Chemistry and Biology.
My Year 11 was a peculiar class, unlike any other I have ever taught. They were mostly Vietnamese, except for two Koreans and three Chinese. “Lazy
” was what their teacher
had called them. This was certainly true of several individuals, but many students were hard-working. The general level of their English, however, was pitiful. In terms of English vocabulary and grammar, they were some of the weakest students I have ever encountered. One day I put the word ‘cattle
’ on the board, and only one student knew its meaning. The class has been earmarked for IGCSE 2nd Language Core – the easiest IGCSE English exam. Entirely non-literary, the exam comprises a listening comprehension, a reading and writing paper and an oral. There were 23 in the class, including only 3 girls – a strange ratio. Teaching them was difficult because a) I am used to teaching Language A mixed ability classes, not a Language B bottom set b) I am used to teaching literature c) I like to show videos, but the level of English was so low, they had difficulty understanding English dialogue. On the plus side, the class was very docile and did whatever I told them to. The worst students in the class were downright unmotivated but not troublesome in the least.
My one ‘normal’ class was Year 8. There were 21 students, all Vietnamese except
for two Koreans, one Taiwanese and one Dutch. They were enthusiastic and well-behaved, and we enjoyed each other’s company. The centrepiece of my teaching was ‘Macbeth
’, about which I have written a separate blog (https://www.travelblog.org/Asia/Vietnam/Southeast/Ho-Chi-Minh-City/District-Two/blog-1072467.html). Teaching ‘Macbeth
’ to 12-year-olds for the first time in my career was a pleasant surprise; they enjoyed the story, and some of the brighter ones were seduced by the beauty of Shakespeare’s language. I also taught them ‘The Landlady
’ and ‘Lamb to the Slaughter
’ by Roald Dahl. Year 8 was a breath of fresh air compared to my other classes because a) I like teaching bouncy 12-year-olds b) I enjoy teaching literature c) I love teaching ‘Macbeth
’ d) there were some star English students in the class e) I did not have to worry about public exams. On Teachers’ Day, November 20th
, I received gifts – chocolate and a painting - from several students. My own gift to this fine class was a light-hearted poem, mentioning each individual, which I recited into my camera and published on Youtube. If you want to hear me reading it, enter 'The Ballad of Year 8 English: the Magnificent 21
What I had not bargained for when I
signed on at AIS was the supervision of three IB Extended Essays, inherited from the teacher I'd replaced. I found this quite onerous. I advised my tutees to add more critical thinking to their overly descriptive essays and, in the end, got them up to ‘B’ standard.
I also had a Homeroom each day at 9-20am. It lasted ten minutes, barely enough time to register the students and read the morning notices.
I got used to the morning routine of rising at 6am, then meeting my motorbike driver, Trung, at 7-20am. The trip to AIS took 10 minutes, 5 minutes of which we spent waiting for the lights to change at the huge intersection near the school. Unlike EIS, AIS did not provide a free lunch, so I dined on fresh fruit and nuts supplied by my wife. I spent each day in my classroom, either teaching or marking or planning. My aim was to take no work home with me - which I usually accomplished.
The technology was, initially, a bugbear. Nowadays in teaching we depend to an alarming degree on technology. My morning routine in C 305 began with opening my laptop (the school provided
me with a sturdy Dell) and going to ISAMS, the site used for registration. Then I checked my school emails, which meant going to two sites: Outlook and Microsoft Teams. Sometimes I posted messages on Teams for my classes to read. Often I sent photocopies to the photocopying room and went there to print them off. Finally, I connected my laptop to the OHP, ready for the first lesson at 8am. And there was also Managebac, where marks had to be entered.
Phew! I got the hang of all this technology fairly quickly but often yearned for the good old days of 1975. Back then, there was no technology – only a blackboard, chalk, exercise books and books to read. No photocopying or OHP or internet.
While teaching at AIS, I continued to teach privately, but this was not especially burdensome because my teaching day at AIS was punctuated by plenty of free time, giving this old man a chance to rest and do his planning. Moreover, being only a temporary teacher, I was not obliged to attend after-school meetings or do an ECA (extracurricular activity).
Live theatre is rare in HCMC, so I did AIS a
favour by inviting my actor friends, Daniel Foley and Nigel Miles-Thomas, to perform ‘The Return of Sherlock Holmes’
and ‘Baron Grumpy
’ in the auditorium in front of several hundred students.
One bonus of being at AIS was that I picked up two more private students. Another bonus was that I signed up for AIS Winter School – three weeks at 3.45 million VND per day. A nice little earner. And perhaps the biggest bonus of all is that Ben Armstrong, the Secondary Head, told me I will be first in line for subbing in 2023.
The English department had an end-of-semester dinner on the final Thursday at Baba’s Kitchen in Bui Vien Street, District 1. Not a great occasion, and 3 teachers – out of 8 – failed to show up.
The culmination of my 4 months at AIS was Sports Day on the last day of school, Friday December 16th
. This was preceded by the usual Friday morning briefing, where Ben Armstrong eulogized me, presented me with a bag of gifts, and the staff applauded. My gift bag comprised an AIS notebook, a pen, a miniscule box of chocolates, a biscuit and a card signed by
Now I made my way to the gym. I was not looking forward to Sports Day, since I'd been given an unknown sport to supervise: end ball. I had looked it up on the internet and downloaded the rules. In the event, it was a lot of fun, and all the hard work – i.e. the refereeing – was done by a Filipino PE teacher. The four houses – Griffin, Phoenix, Sphinx and Pegasus – played without much skill but with great gusto.
During recess I returned to my classroom to meet Hong An, a Year 12 student, who said she wanted to meet me. She came bearing a lovely gift from the Year 12 class: a gold and silver chess set. All the students know I am a chess fanatic, and this was the perfect present. I have put the set on our living-room table, where visitors can admire it.
The teacher I replaced is returning in January after his leave of absence. I have left his classroom untouched. The only adjustments I made to his lessons were the library periods. I felt Year 11, who were not interested in reading English for pleasure, were
wasting their time going to the library for 35 minutes on Friday afternoon. When I cancelled their library lesson, they din't mind. Many Year 8's, however, were avid readers, so I expanded their single-lesson library period to a double lesson on Wednesdays. I have recommended that Sean keeps this in place.
As with every school, I remember outstanding individuals. I have already mentioned the English teachers who helped me the most. The Secondary Principal, Ben Armstrong, was a model of courtesy in all our interactions. The IT staff were super-helpful – in sharp contrast with the aggressive guy I had to suffer at EIS. Now let me mention some of the students.
My favourite class, Year 8, had some stellar individuals. In international schools, it is normal for Vietnamese and Chinese students (but not Koreans, for some reason) to adopt English names. In Year 8, Nemo (aka Lac An Nguyen), Tina (Tran Khanh Linh), Thomas (Tran Minh Huy), Didier (Wang Yung Huan) and Bella (her real name) were outstanding. Bella, along with her partner Suri, performed the fight between Macbeth and Macduff and won the prize for best actress. Nemo had no idea, until I told him, that his nickname was Latin for ‘nobody’. Didier composed a lovely little haiku about the death of Queen Elizabeth (“London Bridge is down / I thought she was immortal / She lives in our hearts.
”). Another student, Rose (Pham Nguyen Phuong Khanh), used our weekly library lesson to peruse art books. I made a habit of sitting with her and showing her my favourite paintings. It was Rose who gave me one of her paintings on Teachers’ Day and another one on the last day. Years 13, 12 and 11 were dull by comparison, but Nguyen Gia Huy in Year 13 is a star chess player. He has a rating so much higher than my own that I avoided playing him until the very last lesson, when he beat me hollow.
Now I have to focus on Winter School. My working life in January, after Winter School has finished, will surely revolve around private lessons but, who knows, another school with a problem may come along and offer me a short-term position. How many more swansongs will there be for this old English teacher?
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