Annigje Jacobs delves into the world of professional and passionate teaching in Vietnam.

“So, what do you do here, you teach?”

Who hasn’t heard the question a thousand times?

Those of us that answer affirmatively are greeted with either disdain or respect, depending on the audience. Jake Houseago recognises the stigma that exists within the expat crowd: “When I say I teach English, I get standard ‘oh right, yeah’…” and their eyes float distractedly away.

Educators in the international circuit receive more recognition, but some still prefer to say that they work at a particular school, than say that they’re a teacher.

The Vietnamese, however, react differently to teachers than expats generally do. Teaching is a respected profession here and most locals value anyone who calls himself a teacher. It’s not uncommon for teachers to receive praise and gifts, especially on 20 November, Vietnamese Teachers’ Day.

But not all teachers are the same, especially not in Vietnam. Some start with nothing but an online course, others have a master’s degree in education and years of classroom experience. The fact remains that all good teachers have one thing in common: they are passionate about helping students prepare for their future.

Booming Business

There are thousands of foreign teachers in Ho Chi Minh City. Most of them teach English as a Second Language (ESL) in a language centre or at a public school. In practically all “where to teach English abroad” lists, Vietnam is in the top 10. The American website Go Abroad even named Vietnam as the very best place to teach English in 2018.

And for good reason: the demand for language teachers is incredibly high. In fact, Vietnam is one of the fastest-growing job markets for teaching English. In Ho Chi Minh City alone, there are hundreds of language centres and public schools that are always on the lookout for new English teachers.

First of all, because Vietnamese parents recognise the value of English as a foreign language, they strongly believe their kids need it to perform better at school and university, and eventually to get a better job. Many parents, especially in the larger cities, want their children to start learning as early as possible. State news recently reported that English lessons are being offered to two-year-olds.

The government also wants to boost English with the National Foreign Languages 2020 Project. All school teachers and university teachers are required to undergo language training and an English proficiency test. Their level of English has to be significantly improved by 2020 and the government has allocated a substantial budget to realise this.

The influx of foreign companies into Vietnam also boosts demand for teachers. For an increasing number of jobs, a decent level of English is now a requirement, rather than a preference.

The Doors Are Open

The high demand for English teachers leads in some cases to a rather casual attitude towards the applicants’ skills, qualifications and experience. Many of the smaller language centres hire teachers who have never been in front of a class. Jake remembers how he started. “I had been staying in Vietnam for a while, and it got to the point where I either had to go back home or stick around and find something to do,” he said. Some of his mates in the pub recommended he consider teaching.

“I had never thought about teaching, but thought I’d give it a shot,” Jake said. He took an online course and was hired by a small language school. “My first day was terrible, I had no idea what I was doing and wanted to quit right away,” he said.

Jake is not the only one to tell such a story. At many of the small language centres, teachers are left to their own devices, with very little assessment or support.

The larger, most established language centres, like VUS and ILA, offer guidance and observation classes and only employ people who have both an undergraduate degree and a teaching certification. Obviously, they need to master English, but that doesn’t always mean they have to be a citizen of a native English-speaking nation.

Seamus Gregan, a former English teacher, knows why. “Non-native speakers often make good teachers because they fundamentally understand why certain things are the way they are,” he said.

Officially, all language centres require their teachers to have some sort of certificate. But there’s a wide variety of training, and not all courses prepare people well for teaching. Most language centres prefer people with a CELTA (Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults), an internationally recognised qualification that is provided by Cambridge English Language Assessment. This course provides its students with both a theoretical and a practical component. Taking the CELTA course in Vietnam, four weeks full-time, costs around US$1,750.

The simplest and fastest way to get a certificate, however, would be taking an online TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) or TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) course. This will set you back a mere $200 and you’re basically guaranteed to pass the final exam. But it doesn’t give you any practical experience. Hence, it won’t secure you a job at any of the more established language centres, let alone at an international school. But the smaller, independently run schools will hire people who have only completed online training. And as long as the Vietnamese are willing to pay for essentially unqualified people, things are not likely to change anytime soon.

And the Vietnamese do pay. Teachers who are just starting out make around $17 dollars an hour, and work around 20 hours a week. A teacher with a little more experience can earn around $1,500 per month, more than enough to live comfortably in Vietnam. Worth noting is that the Vietnamese teachers who essentially do the same job and are fully qualified, earn about one fifth of what their Western colleagues do.

The high demand and flexible entry requirements make teaching in Vietnam attractive for many young foreigners who want to make a quick buck or two.

“It might be the easiest place in Asia to become a teacher,” Jake said.

But entry is not easy for everyone. People of Asian origin often have a lot more trouble finding a decent job, despite their qualifications. Singaporean Gabriel Ang, a native English speaker and certified for the job, applied at multiple language schools when he first came to Ho Chi Minh City.

“Nobody wanted to hire an Asian person to teach English,” he said. Parents of children in language centres particularly wanted to see white people in front of the class, Gabriel said.

Curriculum

The time a teacher spends working at language centres varies from a few months to a few years. Many come to the conclusion that the working conditions and the associated lifestyle are simply not sustainable.

Firstly because of the curriculum. In most of the centres, teachers have to follow a strict syllabus that doesn’t leave much space for creativity.

“You are expected to provide some of the games around the mandatory exercises, but also to keep singing the alphabet song and not complain about it,” Seamus said.

On top of that, teachers in language centres have little autonomy over their working hours. Most work evenings and weekends, which can make socialising with non-ESL teachers difficult.

However, as Seamus pointed out, language centre facilities are good, the class sizes are modest and the odd working hours provide an opportunity for people to work on their passion projects. “Many of the bands, film festivals and craft breweries in Ho Chi Minh City exist because there is a group of young, relatively rich people with a lot of free time during the day,” he said. Seamus used his non-ESL teaching time to give cooking classes and set up two businesses. He now runs a school that teaches kids to cook.

Other ESL teachers, including Jake, choose to pick up a few hours at a public school. “I have more freedom, the hours are better and I get paid more,” Jake said. “But it’s ten times more work.”

Public schools often lack the comfort of the language centres. It’s not uncommon to give a two-hour classes to 50 kids in a room without air-conditioning. But Jake has come to love it. “I know my job, and have seen that the result of my teaching has helped people,” he said. “One day one of my students won a big award for a project I helped her with. She came to me and thanked me so much. Then I realised I was making an impact, and now I’m in it for life!”

Jake has been teaching English for eight years and clearly hasn’t quite had enough of it. “I’m always inspired to learn more, to get more creative with different materials, from popular songs to Shakespeare’s plays,” he said. But curiosity and self-learning alone are not enough to get him to the next level.  “I am at a point in my life where I want to advance my teaching and I can’t do that at a language centre or a public school,” he said.

Taking it to the next level

Language teachers looking for a lifelong career in education often dream of a job in an international school. There are more than 20 such schools in Ho Chi Minh City. Most of them, especially the top tier schools, only hire people who have a teaching degree and several years of experience.

But there are a few ways to get a foot in the door. Mary McAloon, deputy head at the British International School, Ho Chi Minh City, known as BIS, recommends aspiring teachers complete a CELTA course. “It will equip you with the skills needed for teaching English as an Additional Language (EAL) in a school like BIS HCMC,” she said. “A number of years’ experience in a quality English teaching school will always set you up to be ready for a move into an international school.”

There are also opportunities at the International School of Ho Chi Minh City (ISHCMC). “We take teachers who are getting their degree and allow them to work alongside a qualified teacher,” said Philip Rogers, principal of ISHCMC’s secondary campus.

Qualifications

Entering an international school as a CELTA-certified ESL teacher is one option. Another one is getting a PCGE (Postgraduate Certificate in Education), a programme that combines the theory behind teaching and learning with practice, and costs around $9,000. This course trains teachers in the education of one particular age group: lower primary, primary, secondary, or students 16-plus. Within each age group, candidates specialise in a specific subject.

The PGCE can be done part-time and distance learning options are available, which means you can earn the qualification while teaching in Vietnam. Gabriel, who entered the international teaching circuit as a substitute music teacher, chose to take this degree and was, after graduation, rewarded with a full-time position at the (now) Australian International School.

Jake, meanwhile, plans to start his PGCE this coming  September. “The 18-month programme will hopefully get me into an international school,” he said. “And if I get enough experience under my belt, I can then progress to one of the top tier instutions.”

From abroad

Experience in a less-established international school can defintely be used as a stepping stone to a top tier school. Many of ISHCMC’s new hires, for example, are professionals that have worked at other international schools. But the schools also look beyond the pool of teachers already in Vietnam.

Teaching graduates often look overseas for jobs, especially when their local labour market is tight. In Canada, for example, there are more qualified teachers than teaching positions.

Others teachers consider the international teaching circuit because of the innovative learning environments and lavish facilities.

“I know public school teachers from England and the US who had to buy supplies, and sometimes even breakfast, for their students because the parents couldn’t afford it,” Seamus said.

To get hired in Vietnam, teachers need to have an open-world view, and professional experience abroad is not a strict requirement. “A good teacher is a good teacher, no matter where they come from,” ISHCMC’s Philip said.

Mentality

Even if you have all the qualifications mentioned above, you are not guaranteed to find a teaching job in Ho Chi Minh City. A teacher’s mentality has to mesh with an individual school’s philosophy, Philip said. “Teaching is not just about delivering information, it’s about getting kids to learn about key concepts and understandings,” he said. “Our profession has shifted from being the sage on the stage, to being the guide on the side.”

BIS’s Mary McAloon said “being creative, agile, open-minded and flexible” were the most important characteristics of a good teacher.

At the top international schools, you won’t find authoritarian teachers who order the kids to sit still, be quiet and memorise things. It’s actually quite the opposite.“If you set the conditions for learning to take place, it becomes natural,” said Gabriel, who now teaches at an international school in Uganda. “There’s very little need to force a child, learning will happen automatically because their environment encourages them to do so.”

Having a suitable learning environment is therefore essential for every child’s development. “BIS HCMC’s new Early Years and Infant Campus was specifically designed to allow children to learn directly from their environment, with a plethora of creative and adaptable learning spaces, including a sensory walkway, a rooftop classroom, and a splash pool with its own waterfall,” BIS’s Mary said. “This allows even the youngest children to learn by playing and exploring, by being active and through creative and critical thinking which takes place both indoors and outdoors.”

This student-focused approach to education requires a specific skillset from the teachers, according to ISHCMC’s Philip. “They have to provide guidance and structure. They need to get the children to ask the right questions, to reflect, to critically think,” he said.

Sometimes that means taking a step back, even when a student is about to fail. And sometimes it means accepting that a child knows more about a certain topic than the teacher does. “That can be very scary for a teacher,” Philip said with a smile.

Staying up to date

Once your qualifications, experience and mentality have provided you with an entry ticket to one of the top schools in Ho Chi Minh City, your ride isn’t over.

“We need to keep developing, we need to keep improving, because the world is changing,” Philip said. Reminiscing about his own school days, he said: “our kids are different, our environment is different, what the kids need is very different. Looking at the ISHCMC Secondary Campus, the world has changed a lot indeed: practically all walls function as whiteboards; lessons take place in the corridor; there’s a film studio and a room with 3D printers.”

It can be challenge, and an opportunity, for teachers to stay up-to-date with the latest developments. Both ISHCMC and BIS HCMC offer their staff a range of professional learning sources and several mandatory training days. The latter even offers an Executive Master’s in International Education, a programme designed specifically for teachers working in international schools by King’s College London. Both schools regularly send their teachers away to conferences, workshops and trainings abroad.

But all the hard work pays off, and not only because of the extensive packages the employees receive. BIS’s Mary said: “Working with children, teachers and parents from around the world, along with fantastic colleagues from your host country, is a rewarding and fulfilling experience.’

Keep pushing

For Jake, he continues to dream about working at a top international school as a literature teacher.

Philip offers this advice: once you’ve finished your PGCE, look at some of the other international schools. “If you do an exceptionally good job, you’ll find that your reputation will be out there,” he said. “It’s a small world.”

Singaporean Gabriel knows from experience that a passion for teaching is often the key to sucess. After his initial ESL adventure in Ho Chi Minh City, Gabriel won full-time teaching positions at international schools in Vietnam, China and Uganda. “When I first came to Vietnam, I never thought about being an international school teacher,” he said. “I didn’t even know how one would get into that kind of role. But it’s all about being resourceful. It really isn’t that difficult once you know how; all you have to do is talk to the right people. There’s always a way.”