Meet the Expert: Stephen Thomas on Teaching English in Vietnam

Education - Saigon/HCMC: March 23, 2016

Stephen Thomas has been at VUS (Vietnam USA Society) since 2001, and is now is the head of HR - meaning he has interviewed and hired hundreds and hundreds of teachers throughout the years. A true expert in what makes a great English teacher, Stephen has a thorough understanding of everything from parent expectations to effective classroom dynamics. We sat down with him at VUS to get a better understanding of the teaching scene in Vietnam.

How many native English teaching jobs are there in HCMC?

Well, that would be a difficult question to answer. There are a substantial number of language centers in the city - from last count around 400, and that would include larger, more established centers like VUS, ILA, Apollo, Cleverlearn, but also a substantial number of smaller schools run independently. There is a quite possible need for thousands of language teachers who are native English speakers.

How many native English teachers do you have a VUS?

Nearly 300.

And how many non-native?

About 450.

When you hire an English teacher, what is the #1 characteristic you look for?

Flexibility. They have to have a desire to continue to learn professionally and develop their skills. Teaching English as a second language is much different than teaching content like math or science, because when you’re teaching English you’re really encouraging collaboration. You’re encouraging students to take risks, you want them to expose themselves, give themselves the possibility of making a mistake. It’s the skilled teacher who can get everyone to cooperate. You can have the skillset, there is a very specific methodology. But within that, you’re not managing the classroom, but you’re creating an environment that’s conducive to learning. Most importantly the students are supportive of one another. This we find quite desirable.

Do you ask that all the teachers follow a particular curriculum?

Yes, they do. The students would expect that as well.

What is the typical screening process for new teachers?

They have to meet minimum requirements. They have to have an undergraduate degree. That would have to be in any discipline. And they have to have a teaching certification. We prefer a CELTA (Certificate in English Language Teaching to Speakers of Other Languages), it could also be a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) or it could be a TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages). Once that basic minimum requirement is met we go through a screening process where we sit down and talk about things. What we talk about doesn’t have to be about teaching English, it could be about their perspective of working with children, what’s their experience been in the classroom, the process that they went through to get their teaching certification. Our screening process is very vigorous, because we do want teachers who are committed, because we will commit a considerable amount of time and resources for that teacher.

What is your biggest challenge in the hiring process?

Well first and foremost it’s finding enough qualified teachers. [Vietnam is] still considered being in the outback - a lot of qualified teachers wouldn’t think of coming to Vietnam. But that is slowly changing, and the characteristics of those teachers that are coming now are much more enhanced than 10 years ago, when there were many backpackers. [Backpacker] is considered a derogatory term by the Vietnamese. They’re here for a little while, they show up in a class, they don’t know what to do with a textbook but the students at least get to listen to a native speaker.

What is the number one criteria parents look for when selecting a school for their children to learn English?

I would hate to generalise this, but for most parents first and foremost they would want to see the experience of previous students, have they been able to score highly on exams. Then they’ll want to see the facilities, what the classrooms are like, how are the students interacting with teachers, are the teachers supportive, are the students engaged, comfortable and having a good time. I think that’s what most parents are looking for.

Do you think in the future the English market in HCMC will be oversaturated and English teachers will not be as highly valued?

I suppose anything is possible, but I don’t see that occurring for quite some time. Vietnamese value education highly, and they recognise the value of English as a foreign language. So there is always going to be an exceptional demand for places like VUS that can deliver that service to clients.

Why is it valuable for English teachers to come teach English in Vietnam?

Well, just from a teaching perspective it’s quite refreshing. I come from the US, where doctors and athletes are very highly regarded and respected, and teachers not so much. Here, it’s the teachers who command respect, who are valued and respected. Many teachers that I’ve met have been pleasantly surprised by the respect extended by the students, and the friendliness of the students. Inviting teachers out for coffee or karaoke - it’s totally unexpected and delightful. And of course Teacher’s Day here is probably the biggest non-official holiday in Vietnam. We have a big gala event in a 5 star hotel and have awards ceremonies, entertainment - it’s really good fun.

Have recent work permit issues in Thailand affected your business in Vietnam?

Significantly. The ministry of labor and education initially followed the same requirements they put in place in Thailand. That disrupted not only VUS but many other schools. Things have changed - as this is Vietnam, the only thing that remains the same is change. The rules today may not be applicable tomorrow so we have to stay on our toes.

What are parents’ concerns and complaints that you often hear?

We receive complaints from parents that their children are not exposed enough to native English speakers. They are quite concerned about that. They may see a teacher and to them it doesn’t appear that they are native speakers. We have some teachers here that have an Asian look but were born and raised in the US and speak with American accents. Parents see that and say, “Oh, I thought you said native speakers teach English. He is Vietnamese.” He is Vietnamese, but he is in fact a native speaker. That would be the main concern that parents express. I need to add also that it’s really nice to see parents concerned about what their students are learning. Even if they don’t understand English they check to see what kind of homework the students is doing. This is nice, it keeps the teachers on their toes. The parents expect the teachers to present the material and for the children to do the homework. It’s a very helpful, symbiotic relationship.

Can non-native English teachers teach as well as native English speakers?

Of course, yes. To think that just because that you’re just a native English speaker you can teach demonstrates that people don’t understand all that encompasses teaching a foreign language. It’s quite a different dynamic, it requires quite a few different skillsets. To be an effective English language teacher is not easy. To those teachers who do teach English and do it well, they deserve to be very proud of their skillsets.

What is the personality or characteristics that a good English teacher should have?

These are as broad a personality can be. To go from one extreme to another, we used to have a retired drill instructor from the US Marines, and when you walked into his class… they weren’t saluting him, but they were almost literally standing at attention. And his methods were completely unorthodox. But his TA thoroughly enjoyed working with him and everybody had a great time. I myself couldn’t get away with that, the students would see through this in a second. If the teacher is sincere in their desire, there are many ways to get to the same destination. There are some teachers that are very strict in their regiment, but there are others who are much more easygoing and flexible, but they have that relationship with students where things get accomplished.

What is the average salary for English teachers in HCMC?

The range is from VND350,000-400,000 an hour to start. That would be for a beginning teacher with the appropriate qualifications.

How many hours do your native English teachers teach?

Part-time teachers work 15-20 hours a week and our full-time teachers work on average of 20-25 hours.

Can full-time teachers at 25 hours per week make a good living?

Yes they can. In Vietnam you can have a very comfortable living. At VUS, not only do you get the comfortable hours, but you get additional benefits, health cover, holiday allowance, free visas and visa renewal, an end of contract completion bonus... teachers in Vietnam can make a very comfortable living and still have enough money left over to save.

How can a newly arrived teacher select the best schools to be hired by?

I would discourage teachers from going to blogs. I find that the most vocal people are usually the ones who have an axe to grind or a chip on their shoulder. I would discourage that… on the other hand I would definitely encourage teachers to contact those who are teaching at schools. But the best way is if you’re in the city, just go meet with the schools. You’ll know right away, what does it look like, are they organised; if the person that greets you, meets you and talks to you has an interest in you. Do they really have a desire to find candidates who want to teach English... are they professional. Those kinds of things you’ll only find out if you go and meet with these schools.

What makes VUS the number one English center in Vietnam?

Because our clients recognise that we devote resources to the development of our teachers and want our students to succeed. We have a thorough program to help students get international certifications such as Cambridge Starters, Movers, Flyers certificates for young learners, KET, TOEFL Junior for teens, TOEIC for adults and IELTS or iBT TOEFL for those who want to get academic test scores. In addition, we also give back to the community. We have micro scholarships that we provide to the US consulate to those students who are disadvantaged, we donate to a considerable amount of charities, we’ve trained officials and officers. That’s why we’re number one - people can see that we’re very much committed to helping them acquire the goals they have set for themselves.

Do you get work permits for all teachers?

Yes, we provide the guidance and assistance needed to get the permits. They have to the legwork, but we provide the support and the guidance.

Does English teaching in Vietnam differ from teaching English in other countries?

Well, my experience is admittedly limited, but when I speak with teachers from countries like for example South Korea, where they don’t have the same requirements, or in Thailand, where there is a surplus of teachers and the students’ expectations are different, I’d have to say that teaching in Vietnam is fundamentally different. Why? Because the parents and students have different expectations of teachers here.

Is it easier to manage expat teachers of Vietnamese teachers?

It’s easier to manage the Vietnamese. And it stands to reason. Vietnamese live here, they’re happy to have a stable position. Whereas foreign teachers are going to be, by nature, more transient.

Are English native teachers who speak fluent Vietnamese highly coveted?

No, not necessarily. It’s a nice skillset to have, but that really isn’t important to teach English.

Do you recall the worst English teacher you ever had?

Yeah [laughs]. When I just started here I was asked to observe some teachers. I came into the classroom, and he had this roleplay that he gave to his students. One student had one dialogue and the other student had another and he put them into pairs. So far so good. He sat down with one pair and listened to them talk, then went on to another pair and listened to them talk. There were 12 pairs of students. So you multiply a dozen pairs by 5 minutes each… the last group sat there and chatted in Vietnamese for 30 minutes to get their five minutes of English. When I asked him about this afterwards, he said it was very effective for him [laughs].

Can you recall the best English teacher you ever had?

The best? No, but because I can recall so many that displayed the same characteristics: sincere, motivated, clearly you could see they were very happy to be in the classroom with their students, and all the students were motivated. The really effective teachers, the really good ones are the ones you don’t notice are there, because the students are so engaged and active and involved, and the teacher is in the background facilitating it and guiding it. It’s very interesting. I walked into some classes where it took me a moment to recognise who the teacher was.

What does the future of VUS in Vietnam look like?

Continuing to expand, in addition we donated a considerable amount of resources to the annual VUS TESOL conference. We have thousands of attendees different regions in Vietnam and neighboring countries like Thailand, Cambodia, the Philippines. We have presenters from all over the world who come and present their methodology. That was just an offshoot of the desire of more and more people wanting to both learn and teach English.