A question that we have been frequently asked is ‘how do you explain what a word means when you can’t speak a word of Vietnamese?’ The answer is simple. We don’t. Our Vietnamese teaching assistant takes on that noble task.

We have a Vietnamese teaching assistant supporting us in each of our classes. We use the term ‘supporting’ very loosely as the quality of assistant varies greatly from each school and each grade. Some of them speak fantastic English. Others can barely muster a good morning. Some provide valuable feedback on our lessons. Some simply smack a ruler against a desk to control the unruly 2nd graders. Some encourage the children to take part and generate added excitement. Some try their utmost to take over your lesson. Some try to help with pronunciation, but end up passing on their own incorrect articulation of words. E.g. Lib instead of live, tank instead of thank. Drilling this out of the children is a labourious task.

Bach Mai – Lawrence’s school
vs. the entrance to Thanh Luong – Naomi’s school

When Naomi arrived at Thanh Luang primary school on day one she was greeted by a friendly Vietnamese teaching assistant. Within 5 minutes they were Facebook friends and Naomi was grilled on her age, relationship status and shoe size. Naomi’s TA has already invited her out for dinner and has given lots of tips and feedback surrounding the delivery of lessons.

In contrast, we both have the same Grade’s 1 and 2 teaching assistant at our shared school, Ngo Thi Nham, who we only know as ‘grumpy bitch TA’. Whilst we spend 35 minutes working our arse’s off trying to teach children very helpful words such as ‘apple’, ‘pumpkin’ and ‘jellyfish’, she keeps herself occupied by taking selfies, answering phone calls (which we suspect aren’t work related/emergencies). The children seem to irritate her, inconveniently reducing the precious time that could be spent perfecting her makeup. Lawrence managed to make her smile once, but he thinks this was out of pity rather than an acknowledgement of a job well done.

Thankfully, once out of the classroom, most of the teaching assistants become more like friends, and we are embraced into the exclusive teacher community. They welcome us into the air-conditioned staff room, offer us a wide range of fruits, snacks and chilled water. They are inquisitive about us, where we are from, why we are in Hanoi. They offer suggestions about places to eat, where to visit, and where the nearest bakery is. The last tip was particularly helpful as scrambled eggs on Vietnamese sweet bread for lunch was beginning to test our patience. We’ve even had free lifts home on the back of a bike sandwiched in between the rest of their family.

A slightly more subdued staff room during the mammoth 3 hour lunch breaks. Tables = beds for napping.

The behaviour in lessons is generally ok; it’s just the sheer number of pupils piled into each one that can make them feel uncontrollable. Lawrence taught a class of 100 children this week, and as expected, the lesson fell to pieces. The teaching assistant looked equally as helpless as they tried to regain some form of control. Fortunately this was a one off due to a school performance for the mid-autumn festival disrupting the afternoon lessons.

In most classes, students view our lessons as fun time. Perfectly understandable when compared to the dull Vietnamese English teacher lessons, which consist of writing and sitting in silence. Any slight noise is addressed by a clobbering round the head with a book. Our lessons focus on speaking, singing songs and playing games so its no surprise this leads to lots of hyperactivity and noise. We are there to create enjoyment and help them to improve their English, so we are all for a bit noise and excitement. However, at times it’s impossible to be loud enough even with the microphones. Three sharp cracks of a ruler on the desk by our trusty teaching assistants normally does the trick.