Friday, December 5, 2008

Chapter 6...Growing Pains...

Water buffalo graze on a foggy hillside near Sapa

Chapter 6 …Growing Pains…

When the school closed, Roger, the principle, told me that I could buy any and all of the schools supplies and resources in order to start my own English center. On my budget, all I could afford was a portion of the books in the school’s resource center. I couldn’t afford to buy any of the tables, chairs, desks, or whiteboards. When new students called the school to enroll in classes, the secretaries, Minh and Thuy would take down their numbers and I would call them and invite them to come to my home to take classes. Looking back on my journals from that time period, I shake my head and am amazed at my insane optimism. My first class started out with 2 students on the steps of the home of friends where I was staying. The journal for that period was surprisingly cheerful.

Thursday, May 13, 2004…My First Class…

Tonight I had my first class with two students, Hung, a 27-year-old software engineer and Hanh, a 25-year-old sales rep with LG-Vietnam. Since I haven’t found a house yet, I held the class on the steps of the home of friends where I am staying temporarily. I told the 2 students the first class is free…and once I find a house, we will begin officially. Truth is, I enjoy teaching so much that I would actually do it for free. Thanks to the job as foreign editor for the Vietnam Economic News, I really don’t need additional income from teaching to make ends meet. Since students can only learn after work in the evenings anyway, the News job fills my otherwise empty days.

As a paraphrase of the whisper in “Field of Dreams,” the still small voice keeps saying, “If you teach them, they will come.” Even if I only had one eager student, that would be enough. Teaching is not about numbers but about giving. Probably, for the first time in my life, I am starting to get a feeling of finding my niche and being fulfilled after a lifetime of failures.

Tuesday, May 18, 2004…The class is growing…

Tonight I had my first class in my new home, around the dining room table. Now there are 6 students. Again, I told them, since 4 of them are new students, that the first class would be free and we will meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays, from 7 to 8:30. This is an intermediate conversation class. Hung is the most advanced of the 6 but I will have to shoot for middle ground so all can enter in. At our school, we had 5 levels: beginner, lower intermediate, intermediate, upper-intermediate, and advanced. VN taught the beginners and then we NES taught or co-taught the other levels. If I get many more students at different levels, I am going to have to divide them up into skill level classes.

Thursday, May, 20, 2004…Class has doubled…

12 students show up tonight. I don’t know where they’re coming from…like ants, they come out of nowhere. A few of these were more advanced and a few were only at lower-intermediate. I’m going to have to divide the students up into skill levels.

Also, tonight, I came to the painful realization that if the amount of students increases, I am going to have to hire help, especially for the lower level students who need more of the basics. It frustrates the advanced students to have beginners in with them. Also, after working all day at the News, I don’t have the stamina to teach every night.

Friday, June 11, 2004…Maxed out…

Tonight I started a class of army doctors at the Hanoi Army Hospital. 7 doctors, primarily in nuclear medicine. They need English for their jobs and to get further training abroad. Now I have classes each night except Sundays. Next week I am to make a trip to Hue for the VN Cultural Festival and am looking forward to the break in the routine. Feel I’m in over my head. Fortunately, I’ve hired Huong to teach the beginners so that will be a big help. She and a few other students will go with me to Hue this coming week.

Asked each of the doctors to tell a little about themselves. Also in the class is Viet, one of my students from Duc’s class on Tuesday nights. Viet is a physician’s assistant and is the one who told his supervisor, Col. Bao about me. When he brought Col. Bao to my house to meet me, and request English lessons for the doctors, I was surprised to see she was a woman. Didn’t expect a woman, colonel, army doctor. She had to get approval from her superior because I was an American. They’ve never had an American come to the army hospital before. My dad, veteran of WW II and the Korean War era, would turn over in his grave if he knew I was working for a communist government’s army! My conscience doesn’t bother me tho…teaching English isn’t exactly like selling nuclear secrets to Russia.

Always, starting a new class is exciting and it revitalized and energized me after an exhausting week. It was funny…one of the doctors, Dr. Son, who has a high squeaky voice, when I asked him when he first started to learn English, said that the first word he ever learned as a child was the word, “OK.” He said he was watching Vietnam TV and there was an ad for “OK condoms,” and that was what he first learned. I was a little stunned to think they were showing ads for condoms on the state-owned TV station. Then I got thinking…almost all Hanoi families only have 1 or 2 children in the family so they had to start practicing birth control a few decades ago. Dr. son gave me a ride home on the back of his motorbike and he is by far the most advanced student in the doctors class.

Friday, June 25, 2004…Motivation…

Fridays are our busiest day at the VN Economic News. We have to finalize the weekly English edition for publication. The files are sent to the printer in HCMC and printed and distributed on the weekend so they will be in the hands of thousands of English speaking companies by Monday. I go by xe om (motorbike taxi) right from the office to the army hospital. Unfortunately, the doctor’s class only gets my leftover energy from the week but I motivate myself by reminding myself that English is a tool the Vietnamese use for a better life.

I just finished reading Bill Bryson’s book, “The Mother Tongue,” and there is a shocking statistic in there. Bryson writes that of the 1.2 billion people in China, more either speak English or are learning English than all the NES in America! Given the influx of illegal immigrants into the USA, that is probably a fact.

When tired, exhausted and depleted of energy, I can usually motivate myself to teach by remembering that English is the road out of poverty for many of my students. They are so eager to learn; it lights a fire under me…and in my heart.

Sat. July 3, 2004…The Advanced Class
Tonight I had my first advanced class. These students are all the best from all my classes combined. Dr. Son, from the doctor’s class, Huong, my beginner class teacher, Ha, who made an attempt to teach me Vietnamese, and a handful of some of the other advanced students.

I gave the students a listening test, reading an article out of the VN Economic News about the monk I’d gone to interview. Afterwards, I asked 35 questions to see how well they could retain information and Ha got 33 out of 35 right. The next best was Huong at 27, then Dr. Son, 25. My intermediate students got less than 10 right a few nights ago. Dr. Son has a delightful sense of humor and always makes me laugh.

Of the 5 skills in English, the most important is pronunciation. All my students, whether lower intermediate to advanced have one thing in common; they’ve all been taught English initially by VN English teacher, which means they’ve all been taught incorrect pronunciation. Listening, speaking, reading, are sequential in difficulty with writing being the last skill to develop in English.

What a crazy, messy language we have; a conglomeration of Latin, Greek, and Anglo-Saxon. Take a sentence like, “To become a doctor, biology is vital.” We had “bio,” from the Greek root for life and “vita,” from the Latin root for life all in the same sentence. I’m surprised that English has become the language of commerce, travel, and the universal language of the world in general. Little did I ever realize how valuable my mother tongue would become.

I teach my smaller classes, 10-12 or less around my dining room table. I teach the larger classes, more than 12, upstairs in the big room. I have yet to have enough stools for everyone so the students in the larger classes sit on mats on the floor. I apologize for this, but they don’t seem to mind.

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