I was given the wonderful opportunity to work at Tra Vinh University (TVU) here in South Vietnam, where I spent 10 weeks creating and running workshops to develop academic and soft skills for university and secondary students.
Honestly, working in the education sector of development scared me a little, for a few reasons. Firstly, as an International Development student, I was extremely aware of the implications of foreigners working in education. I know that I had to be firm about my role working at a school, constantly reaffirming that I do not deserve the title of a teacher, but rather a collaborative trainer that helps with curriculum, not necessarily teaching. Secondly, while I have experience in running leadership workshops and training, I knew it would be a challenge for me to train academic skills, especially in another language. However, even with these challenges in front of me, I was able to have a great experience at TVU.
One of the most amazing things I was able to experience is the working relationships between teachers and students here in Vietnam. In Tra Vinh, teachers and students are friends, while still maintaining a healthy amount of authority between them. It is extremely common for students to go for coffee with their students, and to have dinner together as a group. Students can text their teachers if they need help, or even call their cell phones to ask them a simple question. There are also Filipino student interns doing a teaching internship here, and they explained to me that it is the same for them in the Philippines. I even got to sit in during one of their Skype calls with their supervisor, which was so nice to witness.
I was surprised to see how close students and teachers are here and in other parts of the world, and it made me question why there is such a divide between teachers and students in Canada, especially when it comes to university. I know part of it is the size of classes in university here. With classes with 200+ students, there simply isn’t enough time to get to know each other. That aside, it is just not within our culture to have the kind of relationship where we can call our teachers on their phones for help, or go for coffee. While I have had great teachers in both high school and university that I felt I could turn to for academic or career advice, that is usually the extent of the relationship between teacher and student.
I admire the friendship between teachers and students here. When I spoke to students at TVU about how different it is for students back in Canada, they were so surprised that we are not nearly as close to our teachers as they are to theirs. I think that the closeness between teachers and students helps motivate the students here. They do not want to let their teachers down. Students are more likely to show up to class because someone will actually notice when they are gone, unlike my experience in university. Students do not hesitate to ask teachers for extra help when they need it, and will ask them questions related to their homework on Facebook. They are eager to participate in extra-curricular activities because they care about learning even more from their teachers. They are able to set this closeness between them, but still have complete respect for their teachers, because it is important in Vietnamese culture to respect those in authority, especially with age. When I ran workshops at the secondary school, I was always greeted with “Hello teacher!” and a polite bow. When I left the room, every student says “Goodbye teacher, see you again!” in unison as a sign of respect. At first, I was really uncomfortable with being called “teacher” because as I mentioned earlier, I never wanted to be seen as a teacher because I am not properly trained to be one, and don’t feel I deserve the title. With time I realized that it was about respect, and I embraced the title to help establish authority, and continued to maintain the effort to also get to know the students. I think it was great to see how Vietnamese students can have both friendship and respect for their teachers.
Getting to know the students at TVU despite being a “teacher” was a big part of why my experience ended up being incredible. It allowed me to get to know them and integrate in the community better than I ever imagined. I was able to ask powerful questions that we discussed in pre-departure training that I would’ve been extremely shy to ask before. The students at TVU told me about their dreams for the future, their families, and about Vietnamese culture. I was able to get a better idea of the needs of students and the soft skills they wanted to develop, and I couldn’t have gotten that information if I didn’t establish a friendship first. I could only imagine how much more I could’ve learned if I was staying longer.
Working at a school ended up being the best fit for me as it gave me a community of people within Tra Vinh to learn from and get to know. It showed me an aspect of Vietnamese culture that I absolutely love and wish I could bring back to Canada.