What Teaching Taught Me

I taught my last class on Friday evening.  It was bittersweet walking out of the classroom, saying goodbye to many students whom I’ve grown to be quite fond of, and likely ending my last work day ever which will end with a game of musical chairs.  But more on the last day later…

Over the past nine months, I have learned more at the front of the classroom than I did any individual year of schooling behind a desk.  I learned so much about myself, so much about how to problem solve, how to work with others, and how to be a leader. 

Teaching is different from any other job.  Many other jobs you can show up and go on autopilot and complete the day.  Mindless tasks, busy worker bees, cogs in the machine (think Fight Club).  Teaching is not the same at all, especially teaching English in Vietnam.

With a Class back in May

Each day, I have to capture the kids attention and fight their microscopic attention spans to impart upon them a distinctly foreign language which has no overlap with their native tongue.  The kids were compliant at best, often disinterested, and at worst malicious with their disregard for what I was trying to do up there.  But, I can sympathize with the kids.  Back in elementary school (and middle school… and high school…), I was a menace.  I had to be bribed with Yu-Gi-Oh Cards to behave, and I was learning in my native language.  These kids taught me patience.  They taught me how to not get overly frustrated when someone isn’t doing what you told them.  Perhaps most importantly, they taught me that no one will ever willingly do something they are not ready to do.  Half of my job was convincing these kids they wanted to learn english, because once they wanted to learn, teaching them became quite easy. 

That was perhaps the biggest revelation I had which improved my job performance.  “Tricking” the kids into wanting to learn with games, offering candy as prizes, or just developing lesson plans which appealed to the kids mentalities.  It reminded me often of giving a dog a pill – they aren’t gonna take it willingly, so you have to hide the lesson in a nice exterior of white bread, metaphorically speaking.

I learned so much about how to work with others.  Whether It was the parents whom were asking me for exercises their kids could complete at home to continue improving, my Teaching Assistants who served as the bridge between me and the students for many lessons when I was explaining decently complex grammatical concepts to the older kids, or when I was telling the younger kids to turn to page twenty and they didn’t know what “twenty” meant. 

I had to keep the TAs involved and had to learn how to lean on them to bolster my lesson plan and fill in gaps which I couldn’t teach the kids.  Though proficient in English, there were often times when  my TAs didn’t understand fully what I was trying to tell them, and again this taught patience.  Working with an individual who speaks a little of your language to teach a lot of people who speak none of your language to speak your language – you learn to rely on that person and depend on them in many ways, so you have to make yourself as approachable to them as possible.  It was the first time in my professional life I’d ever had someone who’s sole responsibility was to help me complete my task.  But they aren’t there to complete the task for me.  It took a couple weeks to find the balance, but once I was able to figure out how to effectively utilize the TAs (and got to know them, they were outstanding young Vietnamese women attending the University of Hanoi), my classes improved dramatically.

I learned humility.  I like to think I am great with kids and have always considered myself to be so, likely because in many ways my humor and other parts of my personality are young.  This, mixed with the fact that my father was a teacher and I had volunteered at a couple of schools in New Orleans, lead me to believe I’d come out swinging and hitting nothing but homers.  Quite the opposite, for the first couple months I was in way over my head.  I didn’t know how to get the kids attention, couldn’t get them interested in the lessons, couldn’t get them to stop screaming.  Many times in life, before Vietnam, when I faced a task this difficult, I bailed.

Not in Vietnam.  I was knocked down a few pegs, but I endeavored to become a better teacher.  It’s not like I had much of a choice, I was quickly running out of money.  But I really worked at it.  I asked friends I’d made out here who were teachers for their teaching advice.  I sat in on a couple of my bosses classes.  I watched YouTube Videos and read blogs about how to be a better ESL teacher.  Like Tom Brady, I filmed myself at my craft and then watched the tape.  I experimented with different methods and games.  In the end, I found the most effective method of being a good teacher was (big shocker) actually caring about the kids.  If they believe you want them to learn English, then eventually they’ll want to learn English too.  It also helped once I figured out they had an OBSESSION with “Musical Chairs” and I used that to bribe them to paying attention and get through the lessons so we would have ample time at the end of the lessons to play.

Being a leader, being a teacher, isn’t telling people what to do.  It’s showing them how to do it, and getting them to want to do it.  This lesson I will take with me throughout my life, and I think It’s applicable to so much more than just teaching.  Instead of telling kids to do the exercises on page 22, I would do the first couple examples with them, on the board and acting excited about the lesson.  I have no doubt all I learned teaching little Vietnamese kids about the letter “F” will be a bountiful fountain of knowledge for all types of scenarios going forward in my life.

On Friday, as I finished a rousing game of Musical Chairs with my favorite class, the Bright Falcons (Friday 7:30-9, Sunday 5:45 – 7:15), it hit me for the first time that I was about to be finished teaching.  I’d known obviously the date was coming for several months, since I started, but now it was here.  The final student sat down, and my teaching career was over.  I normally end class by shouting “Goodbye Teacher, See You Again!” which all the children chant back in unison before running out of the room.  Not today, I gathered them all and led them out of the room for my boss to take one final picture of us all.  Though I had told the students leading up to the class it was going to be the last time I saw them, I don’t think they understood until we were taking pictures.  Afterwards, unprompted they all gave me a big group hug and thanked me for being their teacher these past eight months.  I was shocked I didn’t cry.  I can think of no word other than bittersweet to describe the feeling of watching these kids run out of my life, hoping that I had made a positive impact on theirs.

Goodbye Teacher!

I hope through teaching I learned to be a bit kinder, a bit more patient and more humble, a bit better at working with others, and a bit more fun.  I know for a fact I got a lot better at musical chairs and hang man.  It’s amazing what kind of learning can actually take place in a classroom.

This doesn’t have anything to do with the Teaching Blog Post, but for all my non-Facebook linked readers, last Thursday I was attempting to start cleaning my room and pack up my stuff as I only have just under two weeks actually left in Hanoi, but that was making me sad so instead I made this montage of some of my favorite photos from this epic journey I’ve been on.

One thought on “What Teaching Taught Me

  1. What a beautiful story Thatcher. It shows how much you have grown and what you have learned. Can’t wait to see you next weekend. Love you


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