Teaching (and Learning) in Vietnam

March 13th, 2013

By Jan Barry

vietnam_educationThree decades after the end of the Vietnam War, Americans are welcome visitors and even classroom teachers in Vietnam.

Before launching a career as a teacher in Texas, John Davin, a native of Rockland County, NY, decided to broaden his experience by teaching in Vietnam for a year. Armed with a degree in English from Hunter College and a master’s in education from Long Island University, he ventured into the Southeast Asian nation that repelled a US military invasion—and then embraced Americans on peaceful pursuits.

Amid his teaching stint at Da Lat University in the Central Highlands, Davin had these thoughts on his experience:

“I imagine that we are building bridges here. I occasionally feel that, because of the lack of Americans here, we are small ambassadors for our nation. I imagine that we are dispelling some negative stereotypes about Americans, and also reinforcing some positive ones,” he wrote in a blog post.  

“Vietnam is rapidly changing and growing in its infrastructure,” he added in another blog post. “They are steadily modernizing and becoming an economic power in Southeast Asia, all the while reestablishing its cultural identity beyond the Vietnam War. It puts your work in a different perspective when you realize you are contributing to the economic and cultural revival of a nation.”

Returning to Her Native Land to Teach

Iris Nguyen decided to return to the nation that her family fled from due to the bitter upheavals of what for many Vietnamese was a civil war. With a B.A. in political science from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, she is teaching courses in conversational English at An Giang University in the Mekong Delta.

“Before I left to teach here, my family and friends had concerns about what kinds of food I would eat, and how I would deal with mosquitoes, the currency, and the language barrier,” she wrote to her sponsoring organization, Teachers for Vietnam. “What concerned me was whether or not my students would understand me, would I get the time to get to know my students and vice versa, whether or not I would be a good teacher, and most importantly, would I connect with my heritage and culture on another level than what I had experienced before. So far, I can safely say that I have managed to accomplish most of those things on my invisible checklist.”

Teachers for Vietnam, a small nonprofit organization based in Piermont, NY, sponsors newly minted college grads as well as experienced, older adults as teachers of English at universities in Vietnam. The program provides travel stipends and health insurance, which supplement salaries that cover living costs and housing provided by the host institutions.

The program was founded in 2006 by John Dippel, an historian and author who served in the US Army during the Vietnam War, with a focus on providing Americans to assist Vietnamese college students in honing language skills important to expanding their country’s tourism and international trade relations.

Memorable Encounters in Former War Zones

As a member of the board of directors of Teachers for Vietnam, I’ve heard and read about many memorable interactions of people from both sides of our previously warring nations. Davin, a US Navy vet, felt adopted by Vietnamese in Da Lat. Many others felt adopted by their students, families and communities.

“Part of the mission of Teachers for Vietnam (www.teachersforvietnam.org) is to bring native, American speakers, usually recent college graduates like myself, to the English department of Can Tho University,” Kelly Fitzgerald, a graduate of the University at Albany, State University of New York, wrote in a blog post. “We are supposed to share our culture, customs and linguistic knowledge with our students. They love English class – are surprisingly but refreshingly enthusiastic about it here, even though they are reluctant to actually speak it! I even have students who aren’t enrolled in the course who come sit down just to watch me teach.”

Fitzgerald wrote that she wasn’t enthralled with the heat, humidity and hordes of mosquitoes in the Mekong Delta city, nor with the university’s communist-legacy bureaucracy. But she loved the people she met in Can Tho.

“… it’s impossible to get frustrated with my students for long, as the ear-to-ear grin I get from every single one of them upon entering class every day is so humbling that I almost feel I’m not worth it. They invite me to dinner with their families, they offer me rides home on their motorbikes when it’s raining and they always tell me that I’m pretty, no matter how awful I might be looking that day. They are undoubtedly the best pupils that a first-year teacher could ever ask for,” she added.

Thinking about doing such an adventuresome experience? Teachers for Vietnam is currently accepting applications for the 2013-2014 academic year.

Apply (by April 1) to:
P.O. Box 384 Piermont NY 10968
e-mail: info@teachersforvietnam.org

For application form and further information:  teachersforvietnam.org/

(This article was also posted at EarthAirWater.)

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