The Real English Teachers of Saigon

Education - Saigon/HCMC: Nov. 9, 2018

Anyone who’s spent a significant amount of time in Saigon can’t help but notice the preponderance of foreign-born English teachers living in the Vietnamese metropolis. In fact, if you go to any of the city’s nightlife hotspots on any given day, chances are that you’ll be surrounded by drinking party-goers who have just a few hours earlier been in front of a classroom teaching local students the finer points of English grammar.

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English teaching became a viable means of living for foreigners in Saigon in the early 1990’s when the demand for foreign English teachers skyrocketed, vastly outstripping the supply. Since then, backpackers, travellers, and expatriates have come to the Southeast Asian city and settled in, providing a means of sustenance for themselves as English teachers in language centres, international and public schools. Some of them are highly-skilled, while others have been able to get their feet in the door of language-teaching based primarily on their countries of origin. City Pass Guide sat down with some of them to discuss the pros and cons of teaching English in Saigon.

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If you ask around, you might find that there are a fair amount of English teachers in Saigon that have no prior experience or interest in teaching. I sat with Hien* and Sarah*, both teachers at a prominent English centre that specialises in teaching students from age three to adulthood. I asked Sarah, an English teacher of Polish origin, how she got into the profession.

She replied, “I hate office work and having to work 8 hours a day. I also wanted to be able to live somewhere abroad. I was looking for something that would take less time than full-time, but still make a lot of money… so Vietnam seemed like an option.”

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Native speakers of English in Saigon can expect to make between USD15 to USD20 per hour depending on their experience, sometimes even without an advanced degree such as a TEFL or TESOL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language and Teaching English as a Second Language, respectively). Many find that they can have a high quality of life in Vietnam with a teacher’s salary. Just last year, Business Insider named Vietnam the number one most affordable country for expats living abroad.

Hien, an American of Vietnamese heritage and originally a painter with a Bachelor’s degree in Art also found her way into teaching almost by happenstance. Hien recounted her experience. “I got really sick and I was trying to look for a random job and was having a hard time. I applied to hotels for receptionist work. Someone did tell me about English teaching, but I didn’t think that my skills were adequate.” She said she didn’t know anything about grammar but people told her it didn’t matter.

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The Downsides of the Saigon 'Education Culture’ for English Teachers in Vietnam

A common perception about English teachers in Saigon is that they’re underqualified and for the most part are hired if they’re white westerners, regardless of whether they have limited teaching experience or lack advanced degrees. Like Sarah and Hien, few had aspirations to be teachers back in their countries of origin, and a minority of them aspire to be career educators.

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Regina*, a teacher at a different English centre, who also teaches in public schools in Saigon, is one of those rare exceptions. She plans to move back to her home country, the US, to become an educator in the public school system there.

“A lot of teachers in Saigon are not here to be career teachers. They’re here to pay the bills and travel. There’s a lot of going-through-the-motions mediocrity within the teaching community in Saigon. You can come to Vietnam, not have a TEFL or TESOL certificate, just be a westerner and get a job.”

Regina says that she is more concerned with developing her skills and her repertoire as a teacher than she is making a quick buck but also thinks that this attitude is rare amongst her peers. She enjoys working in the public schools, where resources are limited, but students are eager to learn, over the English centres. “I feel like in the government schools, I’m making a difference. It’s sad but hopeful at the same time. The problem is there are 50 kids and I only have a half hour to teach. That’s where I feel the most challenged.”

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Some teachers find that low standards in the school system are perpetuated when teachers are not allowed to fail low-performing students. This often is the case in private schools or English centres where parents pay top dollar in order for their child to attain certificates of achievement. These parents are often more concerned with the ways in which their children can present themselves on paper than they are with their children gaining language proficiency. As a result, these learning centres are burdened with the pressure of keeping these students moving along and often passing them through their systems in order to please the paying customers, even when students are underperforming. All of this can become frustrating, especially to teachers who actually care about the quality of education they are providing.

Conflicts of Interest When Education is a Business in Vietnam

Brendan* has been teaching in Vietnam for the past 18 months, but had prior teaching experience in South Korea. “I left South Korea and did a bunch of travelling throughout Southeast Asia and then money ran out. I knew that outside of Korea and China [Vietnam] was the most viable market within Asia.” He said that landing a job in Korea was easy, despite his lack of experience or certification. “I was very fortunate to get a job at a private elementary school, which I was completely unqualified for. I'm pretty pale and have blue eyes. Yeah, I feel like s*** about it in a way, but also it's pretty sweet. I had one year of experience. I had no right to get that job.”

He described the learning establishment that he began teaching at in Vietnam. “The facilities look really nice from the outside. It’s really flashy but the basic requirements, the things you really need aren’t there. It’s a facade. It’s very much a business.”

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He said he was forced to pass a number of students that were performing below the expectation of the level. “I raised an objection, not even a particularly strong objection, but I didn't keep my head down as a new teacher and I'm 95 percent sure that's why my contract wasn't renewed.” Despite the setback, Brendan was able to find his way into another position at a different international school.

English teachers will likely be a part of the fabric of Saigon for many years to come. Western foreigners will continue to descend upon the city employing the use of their native tongues as a means of acquiring an occupation.

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The job certainly has its perks. Depending on your proficiency, where you’re from, and certainly to some degree what you look like, you can be almost guaranteed a job, even with zero experience or advanced degrees in teaching. There’s certainly a bit of luck involved in that your experiences will vary depending on the kind of educational facility in which you find yourself. Career educators may find aspects of the business culture of education in Saigon frustrating. At the same time, for those up to the challenge, teachers might find themselves having rewarding interactions and relationships with their students, ones that will sharpen their skills as educators while being able to enjoy a relatively good quality of life in an emerging economy.

*Names denoted with asterix are pseudonyms

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