Tuesday, November 9, 2010

EFL Teaching - tips

Anyone who was been reading this blog for a while, while know that I got into English teaching through my good friend James Hendicott. Since we were teaching English together in Korea, he has been a successful travel writer and has written many articles for countless publications. I was lucky enough to be interviewed by him for an article about English teaching for a popular travel website - Travbuddy. Not only can you learn valuable information about any country that you are thinking of traveling to, but there are interesting travel articles for general information. Visit www.travbuddy.com/blog.

Here are some things I think you should consider if you are contemplating teaching English in Asia.

How do you get into English teaching? What qualifications do you need?

I got into teaching because a close friend of mine was already teaching in Korea. He was writing a blog about his experiences and I was jealous of him. I spoke with him about the possibility of coming over and joining him as I found my job in finance dull and tedious. After that, he gave me the contact details of the company he was working for and I emailed the HR department and after sending them my CV, application and passing the phone interview I was offered a job.

In terms of Qualifications, I just needed a BA Degree (in any subject). However, the EFL market is now much more competitive, even in the 3 years I've been teaching. Now, most schools require you to have an English teaching qualification such as TESOL or CELTA. For many countries in Asia, they require you to have a BA degree to get a work VISA but I'm not sure about Europe or South America. Other qualifications vary from school to school.

What are the best and worst sides of the lifestyle that it brings?

The worst side is usually the working hours. Most EFL jobs in Asia require you to work very odd shifts. For instance, in Korea, if you work for a privately run school for adults, you will generally have class before people start work (6-8am), during their lunch breaks (noon-1pm) and after they finish work (6-10pm). These splits can be difficult to deal with as burning the candle at both ends isn't the easiest thing to do over a prolonged period of time. In Vietnam a lot of jobs require you to work 6 days a week. This makes traveling difficult as you don't usually get 2 days off in a row. Of course some jobs have really good schedules and give you the weekends off, but in my experience the minority of people enjoy that here.

Any tips for those looking to get into the job?

The most important thing you should do is think about whether you have the ideal personality for the job. You must be flexible in terms of the hours that you hours that you work, patient when explaining language to students as they often don't understand things that you perceive to do really easy and be willing to embrace a new culture.

How much time do you have to travel?

There isn't really a lot of time to travel. People tend to think that we just work for a couple of hours and then have endless amounts of free time to explore, but this isn't the case. In Asia, companies don't allow you to take so much holiday time (maybe 10 days a year would be standard) and with working 6 days a week, it's difficult to travel. However, rather than visiting many different places, I've really managed to learn an awful lot about the cultures I've been exposed to. I lived in Seoul for 1 year and I've now been in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) for 2 years and I think I've learned so much about the food, the life style, relationships and social etiquette that I would never have been able to do if I was only here for a week! After a year, the city you are in really starts to feel like home and you consider yourself a local which is much better than just passing through a place.

What advice would you give a first time teacher?

Two things that I've found useful, though not everyone would agree with me, is to be honest with your students and to lose your inhibitions in the classroom. Firstly, if you're not sure on a grammar point or spelling, check it or take a note of it and tell them in the next class. I don't believe it makes you lose face, and I think you gain respect for it. Obviously you shouldn't do this too often, but English grammar is very complex so don't be ashamed if you don't know the difference between how we use 'while' or 'during'. Secondly, don't be scared to make a fool of yourself in front of your students. When I explain new vocabulary, I'll often mime or fall dramatically to the floor to show the meaning of new words. It will make them laugh and they are probably more likely to remember it! Other than that, when you start, careful planning is a must and try to predict problems that the students might have are. The best way to do this is ask teachers who have been in that country for some time as typical problems vary from country to country.

Tell us about your best and worst moments on the job since you started...

My best moments have been in the relationships I've built with my students. I've always taught adults and I now have friendships that are incredibly strong. Some schools may disallow this, but I often go for dinner or class parties (usually ending up at karaoke bars) and these are the memories that stand out the most for me. Other than that, just helping students to achieve a goal is an incredible feeling. Take this, I recently received an email from a former student telling me they had been accepted onto an MBA programme in the US and they thanked me for my help in their interview preparation. You can really make a difference to someone's future with study, promotion or just developing their confidence when speaking to foreigners.

My worst moment was in first ever class. In walked in all prepared, and stood in front of the class (a group of 7 business students). Unfortunately I lost the ability to speak! I felt like a deer caught in headlights. I just stood there. I looked at my notes, and spoke so quickly that the students couldn't understand me. After 2 minutes, I excused myself and gathered my thoughts. I tried to find my manager but he'd gone home so I went back into the class. Then the students said 'Mark, are you ok?'. 'No, this is my first class, and I don't know what I'm doing' I blurted out. After that they just laughed, told me to relax and we chatted for half an hour about their reasons for studying and why I had come to Korea. Then, with confidence restored, I taught the remainder of the class. At its conclusion, the students told me they'd had a good time and they all came back the next time without complaining or mentioning the incident to my manager!

Do you suffer and difficulties resulting from working in a different culture to your own? How do you deal with them?

Cultural differences manifest themselves in many ways. One of the biggest problems I've faced have been from pet hates of mine. For example, I'm currently teaching in Vietnam where people don't queue. It's survival of the fittest and you just push your way to the front. I really dislike this and it annoys me more than I think it should! Another one is that Vietnamese time is about 30 minutes later than ours. When I arrive to meet people for a beer or coffee at 6, I expect them to arrive at 6:05 by the latest but in VN, you'll often be waiting 20 minutes for them to proudly announce they're on time! It's a touch irritating at times but you just learn to live with it. Other problems include things you miss from home. In particular, I miss good English Tea and desserts which are extremely difficult to find here. The only way around it is to either substitute the things you miss with the next best alternative, or just over indulge it your cravings when you find them!

However, I think the biggest problems can come in terms of relationships. If you end up falling in love overseas, especially in Asia, you need to be careful of different expectations and the nature of family. For example, relationships are expected to end in marriage. There's not so much of 'let's see where it goes'. Also, what the parents say goes. If the parents don't like you, then it's likely your new girlfriend will finish with you. This could be anytime in the relationship. Of course, this would be very difficult to deal with so stay cautious.

There's no magic button or solution to cultural problems though. You just learn to accept them and adapt to them. This is why having the right personal qualities is really necessary. If you can't adapt to your environment you'll have a miserable time. If you're worried about it, I'd suggest start teaching somewhere closer to home, in a culture more similar to your own. If you can successfully adapt then try moving further afield. Just come with an open mind, remember you need to adapt to your surroundings, not the other way round!

What kind of cultural insight can you get from teaching?

A lot! The answers students give you are incredibly honest! This is probably because their language often isn't good enough to be more diplomatic and they are just trying to get their point across. A good illustration is when I asked a student to describe me and they said 'short and fat'. Nice! You just have to laugh and not take it personally. Other things you learn are what it's acceptable to ask people on a first meeting. For example, in Korea, many students would say 'Are you married?' and when you reply 'No, they say 'Why?'. Now, this wouldn't be acceptable in the UK as it breaks social rules but you quickly learn that there are not many questions you won't be asked from your relationship status to your salary. You also learn about interaction between people. For example, if there is a class with a manager and employee, you quickly learn that the manager (or student in the more senior position) will dominate and the employee will wait to speak until his/her manger has finished. Of course there are many things you can learn but these stand out to me.

If a traveler would like to become an English teacher, how would you suggest they go about it?

I suggest speaking to someone who is already teaching in the country your thinking of going to. They will be able to tell you about their experience and what qualifications (if any) you need to get a decent job there. I would recommend doing CELTA or an equivalent to gain some experience and to open doors. Also, if you have friends who are teaching, ask them if you can go to one of their classes to see what they do. You can gain a valuable insight into their methodologies and rapport with their students. For me, taking my first job where a close friend was working made the settling in process much quicker and I felt more comfortable than I would have otherwise!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

5 Rules of driving in Vietnam

Being someone who enjoys driving anything and everything that has wheels, it was only a month before I bought a bike when I came to Vietnam. For those of you thinking of coming here to live, the motorbike is the only way to travel! It's much faster than a taxi on most occasions and isn't actually as dangerous as you might think. Here are my top 5 tips for driving in Saigon!
1) Green lights don't mean shit!

The basic principles of traffic lights in VN are: Green means GO. Yellow means GO AS FAST AS YOU CAN AND PRETEND IT WON'T TURN RED. Red means GO, HONK YOUR HORN and HOPE THAT NOTHING HITS YOU. Okay, may be I'm being a little unfair. On most major roads and junctions the laws of the lights are observed. However, on other roads the lights may as well not be there. Those running the red light honk for all they're worth, alerting people to the fact that they are there. Contrary to England, honking means that you're there and don't hit me! In England honking is usually the action of the innocent party, not the one breaking the law. Anyways, be careful when you approach traffic lights. Just because the light is green doesn't mean that traffic perpendicular to you is stationary or is indeed going to stop.

2) Don't follow directly behind the bike in front of you


This is common sense really. If you are directly behind someone, how can you see? The answer is you can't! Therefore you should drive slightly to the left or right to the person in front of you. This will, of course, improve your visibility but also allow you to see any potholes, uncovered manholes or roadkill on the road. I put a hole in the oil tank of my bike when I went over a raised manhole because I was directly following another bike, he swerved to avoid it and I didn't have enough time to react. Furthermore, if it's raining you really don't want the spray coming into your eyes. For one, the roads aren't exactly clean, and obviously is quite dangerous!


3) One way streets aren't really one way

Expect traffic to come in both directions on your side of the road, especially if you are driving curbside. As previously mentioned, those traveling in the opposite direction to the flow of traffic will be honking, but again, that's just to tell you they are there. The basic principle here is 'so long as I get to where I want to as quickly as possible, other people's safety doesn't matter. Therefore, if I have to go the wrong way down the street, so be it!' It isn't only young boy racers who this, it's everyone to grandmas to parent's who decide having an entire family on a 125cc scooter is a good idea! Sometimes driving in this city feels like one of those handheld games machines that where popular in the early 90s where you where dodging traffic coming in the opposite direction!

4) Indicators can't be trusted!


Blinking yellow lights should be suspiciously treated at all times! Indicators generally mean that the vehicle in front is going to do something, but exactly what you can't be sure. A signal could mean that the bike is going to stop, turn left or right, or might simply be someone forgetting to turn it off after previously turning. Also, non indication doesn't mean that the transportation in front of you is going to stay straight either so you need to keep your wits about you at ALL times! Expect the unexpected! Watch the traffic carefully and be ready, waiting and willing to take evasive action at any time!


5) Don't worry about what's going on behind you

One of the only rules I hold to steadfastly is that of not worrying too much about what's going on behind me. The mirrors on the vehicles are nothing more than an instrument to check ones makeup or pimples! On the motorbikes they are generally to small to see anything out of anyway, and they are missing from most cars in previous collisions. If something is traveling very quickly it will generally be honking frantically to let you know its coming. You can generally tell the different between the size of the vehicles by the pitch, depth and duration of the sound! Turning around for a second means you might miss someone circumstances changing in front of you so you just have to trust your ears for what's behind you, and your eyes for what's in front!

If you follow these core concepts in HCMC, you should have few problems negotiating the roads of Saigon! Happy Driving!!!!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Our First Wedding Anniversary

If you were expecting a peaceful dinner with a few of our closest friends, then you would've been thinking the same as I was at 5:45pm 9 days ago when I was driving to a respectable party hotpot party venue in district 3. However, 2 hours later we were wondering what we'd just walked into. Fortunately it didn't end in tears or shattered relationships, but things were certainly dicey, but all in good time my friends.

It had all started so promisingly. Hanh and I arrived at about 6, knowing full well that our guests would be at least 30 minutes late to arrive. We sat down, ordered a couple of pepsis (we wanted to have something to eat before tucking into Saigon Redd) and waited for our invitees to arrive. We weren't sure how many people would show up as I have a horrible habit of not keeping tabs on exactly who I'd spoken too. After an hour, most of our guests had arrived, we'd started on a few beers and the food was being ordered and promptly demolished by hungry bellies!


So what happened next? Well, the hotpots arrived, which was the beginning of the end at this particular venue. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see that someone (obviously after a few Saigon Reds too many) was having an increasingly heated argument with one of the staff. This quickly escalated into a full on brawl. Now for those of you not used to Vietnamese style drunken 'bar room' brawls take note. It makes England seem positively tame! Please bare in mind that non of our party where involved in anyway in the resulting melee.

Before we knew it, our table was overturned, the staff had run into the back to pick up table legs and chairs as weapons, glass bottles were taken from our table and things kicked off. Now, we have no idea what triggered the incident in the first place, but what ensued wasn't pleasant and will stay in my memory for a long time. The drunk guy who I will label as the instigator, wasn't alone and had a few friends. The two lines drew up against each other and some over exuberant thug threw the first punch.

From then on it's a blur. Glass bottles were smashed and thrown, chairs and table legs wrapped around people's heads and terrified customers running into the back, ducking and running for cover. Unfortunately, there was no where really safe to run. Inside the 'restaurant' was safe as the staff were as much to blame for the violence as anyone else and glass bottles were being launched inside. Running outside wasn't really an option either as you'd have had to go through the fight to get outside. So we just had to wait it out, hope things died down quickly and pray that one got hurt.

Fortunately, things died down relatively quickly. I have no idea how long things lasted for or why/how they came to such an abrupt end. We were lucky that no one got hurt and amazingly, sauf a few bloodied faces, no one seemed to be seriously wounded or injured during the battle royal. Needless to say the wreckage and debris was alarming and wasn't really fitting of the evening we had envisaged. Unfortunately I don't have any pictures to show you. However, it didn't finish without a couple of notes of comedy. Firstly, one of my friends Vo, casually walked to the only upright table at the end of the brawl, sat down and continued to eat. Additionally, another said to me that we should leave immediately without paying. I completely agreed with the first part of this statement but after seeing the staff so armed and ready to use such implements I wasn't willing to take any chances, so I got the bill, paid and we went to karaoke.


Karaoke is where I think we'll try to remember the party from. Following the conclusion of the meal, several of our guest had decided to call it a night. I can't say I blame them either. I was a real shame as the party had only really just got going. We had 3 groups of people who didn't know each other so it started a little slowly but by the time the fight had broken out, the ice had just about been broken which made the interlude even more upsetting. Anyhows, we arrived at karaoke and quickly got into the swing of things. I sang Elton John's 'can you feel the love', we ordered a crate of beers and some food and away we went!


A good time was had by all after that. Lots of 'Mot, Hai, Ba, Yo!' (1,2,3 Cheers), '100%!' and '50%' toasts were made. The singing varied in quality from the terrible to the vaguely audible but no one seemed to care about that! Obviously the more drunk we became, the more ambitious we would become in our song selection, just at the time when we should've realised we were not professional performers after all! Finally, common in all karaoke sessions, the dancing came out and we knew the party had been a success!

After Karaoke, we moved to district one. A few brave soldiers decided we'd have a few more at a bar and Vietnamese nightclub. It was fun and relaxed which was a fitting end to a night full of drama! I'm sure it's one we'll never forget, I've got this blog entry to make sure of that and I hope that next year will be just as eventful, but obviously in a less violent way! Married (in the eyes of the family) for 1 year, 1 week and 1 day, who'd of thought!!!