Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Teacher, Teacher!

I was having dinner with a colleague from the language school where I work, when I began talking about language teaching. I apologized for bringing up "shop talk" during dinner, and he stopped me with some blunt words: "Don't apologize," he said, "There's nothing wrong with liking your work."

Indeed. One of the major reasons I left the US was to reinvigorate my career. I had hoped that once I started teaching again, my livelihood would cease to be a "necessary evil," and become something I enjoy. One month into it, my decision to leave seems, for now, to have been vindicated.

Let me say right off that everything I had heard and hoped about Vietnamese students is true. They're smart, energetic, easily-engaged, and willing to do just about anything in the classroom. They are, simply put, the best students I've ever taught, and while you do get a tough crowd once in awhile (elementary-level teens seem to be a challenge), according to my colleagues, these groups are the exception, rather than the rule.

It also helps that I've found my fellow teachers at Language Link to be a terrific combination of professional and - how shall I put it - fucking crazy. They - we - can best be described as a band of intelligent misfits. Being mostly British, you do have to understand that they're not really happy unless they're complaining, but after taking their jaded, bitter, and cynical natures into consideration, it becomes readily apparent that most of them are - and please don't tell them I said so - happy. And they take their jobs seriously. The combination makes for a nice atmosphere at work.

The Vietnamese staff is comprised of a band of attractive and competent young women that I can only be grateful the lords of Language Link saw fit to employ. The office banter between these gals and the English teachers is a source of constant amusement. Watching a dreadlocked Englishwoman explain to an innocent young Vietnamese gal the meaning of the term, "rug-eating" (cunnilingus) the other day, was a case in point. These are the types of cultural exchanges, I believe, from which we can all only benefit.

I've had three classes to start with: one group of 18 children, one class of 18 elementary level adults, and my 3-hour/3-times-a-week "English for Academic Success" class (8-students), for teens and young adults planning to study abroad. To this 18 hours/week teaching load, I've added an equal amount of prep-time - much of this just refamiliarizing myself with EFL materials and re-learning how to write a lesson plan. This should change in the next few weeks, as I become more comfortable in the classroom, and get weaned off the children's classes and pulled into the academic/test-prep niche. To be honest, I'll be happy to leave the kids. They are adorable, but I'd rather fill them with sugar, wind them up, and give them back to their parents. I'm too much of a peer to be any good as an authority figure over them.

In all, I have found the work to be challenging. My initial classes have had some ups and downs as I've tried to regain my footing as a teacher. The Director of Studies in my school observed one of my classes the other day, and had a lot of constructive criticism - ways to improve error-correction, create more opportunities for communication, and other methodological deficiencies. My opinion: his comments were on the money. I can see where there's room for improvement. But he also said I had, "the perfect combination of warmth and professionalism," and suggested that I, "am made for this work." The feedback from my students, I should mention, has been overwhelmingly positive, so I trust it's just a matter of time, and continued effort, before I hit the level of professionalism I expect of myself. 

From a psychic standpoint, these are huge issues. "Right livelihood," the Buddha said, is a moral foundation on the path to enlightenment. In my experience, the question of livelihood has been one of life's most intractable dilemmas, and my failure to resolve it in the US a major impetus behind my current expatriation. I don't know for how long I will find the life of an expat English teacher fulfilling, but in the month I've been teaching, I've re-learned that there is nothing wrong with liking your work. 

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