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What’s teaching English in Laos really like?

June 14, 2015

I spent six months living in Vientiane, Laos and teaching English at Vientiane College.  I had a range of classes from eight year olds at intermediate level to absolute beginner adults and a class of government officials learning business English.

I’m not a teacher and I’d never taught before arriving in Laos. I’m also pretty shy and hate public speaking so I was absolutely terrified walking into my first class.  Luckily I loved it and (I think) did a good job.  Thankfully I have so many wonderful memories to look back on.  My students were my sunshine during in my time in Vientiane – they never failed to challenge me, to make me laugh, (and sometimes pull my hair out), and to make me see the world through a different lens.  In many ways they were the source of my happiness, especially during my first couple of months when life was hardest.

I loved each of my classes for different reasons.  My kids would regale me with creative homework excuses, my teenagers would ply me with questions about when I was going to get married and if they could come to my wedding, and my adults always kept me on my toes asking me questions like ‘what’s the difference between present continuous and present perfect continuous’ (I still don’t know so don’t ask me).  I swear some of them went home and looked up questions to ask me.

I can’t honestly say I miss life in Laos, but I do miss my students and I think of them often.  It’s been nearly a year since I taught my first class so I thought I’d share some of my favourite memories from teaching English at Vientiane College

teaching english in laos - the traveling anthropologist

One of my young classes had had a really busy few weeks of tests and assessments and they were burning out.  I decided to plan a fun class one Saturday morning full of games.  I thought a fun one would be to do a blindfolded obstacle course in two teams using some new directional vocabulary we’d been learning.  It started off really well and they had a lot of fun with it.  Gradually I started to make it harder and have them climb under or over desks and began timing them. At this stage it started to get competitive (even the most timid and shy Lao students are extremely competitive!) and a bit rougher.  I let it go on because they were having fun (and so was I) but before long it got too much.  When one of the boys was blindfolded and his friend (and the only other boy in class that day) started moving the furniture out of the way to help him the girls on both teams surged forward and tackled them to the ground.  By the time I had broken it up there were a few bruises forming and many rude words being shouted.  Goodness knows what the classes next to us thought was happening.   After all that though they had a great time and at the end as they were all pushing toward the door I heard one of the quietest girls in the class turn around and tell her friend in English “ladies first Alex!” It was the first and only time I’d heard her use English unprompted and I definitely attribute it to the fun we’d had that morning.

teaching english in vientiane - the traveling anthropologist

Another favorite memory is from my very last class was with my favorite students – my teenagers.  They were such a fun class – cheeky but quick to behave when I needed them to.  As I was walking along the corridor to the classroom two of my students; a boy and a girl, ran into a bathroom giggling.  In Laos culture that’s considered extremely inappropriate, so I gave them a minute and then knocked on the door to get them to come out.  Unfortunately at that moment the principal popped into the corridor and noticed me knocking on the door.  When he figured out what was going on he started pounding on the door and loudly telling them to come out.  Meanwhile the rest of the class were causing havoc in the classroom so the teacher in the adjoining classroom came out and sternly told them off.  After another few moments of knocking and shouting they emerged in tears and looking very abashed.  We sat them down at a table and asked what they were doing in the bathroom together but they were so distraught they couldn’t choke an answer out.  The principal tried to calm them down (getting told off by a teacher is a big thing in Laos and these students were good kids) while I went and sternly told the rest of the class to behave again.  Eventually the boy got up and whispered something in the principal’s ear which made him do a double take.  He told me he would sort them out and sent me back into the classroom to calm down my still unruly class.  Just as I’d finished telling them off again (they were blasting music from the computer and writing all over the whiteboard) the two students from the bathroom came in still crying but holding a cake in their shaking hands.  It turned out that they had been decorating the cake in the bathroom (and the rest of the class had been set the task of distracting me).

Needless to say I felt terrible.  Each of the students had put some money in to buy me the cake and they chose a chocolate one because I’d told them once that I loved chocolate.  What was most impressive and what still astounds me was that they had organised it – these were 11 and 12 year olds kids, and Lao students aren’t the most proactive individuals at the best of times so I was surprised beyond belief.  It was such a sweet moment, and I’m so glad it wasn’t ruined by the earlier miscommunications.

Last day surprise - the traveling anthropologist

Another memory that still makes me smile comes from my adult intermediate class who were to say the least challenging! One day I decided we would have a debate to try to get some of the quieter students talking.  I split the class randomly into two groups and told them we were going to discuss whether Laos joining the ASEAN community was good or bad.  I still chuckle recalling the looks on their faces when I announced it – they really didn’t like unstructured activities. We brainstormed as a class for a few minutes and then I gave them 20 minutes to talk amongst themselves while I walked around whispering “English please” in their ears.  When the debate began both sides ended up taking the ‘for’ side – so in the interests of time I decided to argue the against points.  They told me that it would be good because it would mean more people could visit Laos.  When I suggested that more people might mean more crime they responded “no it’s okay because we have police”.  When I pushed a little harder and said that maybe there would not be enough police they insisted “no we have police.”  Their next point was that it would bring more money into the economy because international companies would set up businesses and factories.  I suggested that this might mean less jobs for Lao people as the companies might want to hire trained or educated people.  They responded that no, Lao people would get these jobs.  When pushed, they told me that the government would look after them.   And the debate continued like this.   At the time it was funny, a little later on I found it frustrating – but now I look back on it as a valuable learning experience for me. It demonstrated how fundamentally different some cultures thought processes are. Lao children aren’t taught or encouraged to think critically, and this isn’t a skill that is fostered in the education system – or indeed the professional sector.  It was a good opportunity to witness first hand how differences in thinking shape a society and it made me appreciate how complicated ‘development’ and ‘progression’ are.

teaching english at vientiane college - the traveling anthropologist

My last day with my government class is another day that stands out clearly in my mind.  This was a new initiative through the Ministry of Energy and Mining – they wanted their employees to learn proper business English to be able to interact with various international lawyers, developers and officials who visited Laos.  The poor students had so little English I have no idea how they got on in their jobs, and they were so shy it was painful trying to get them to speak (I was teaching the communications class).  Progress was slow, very very slow and at times it felt like it wasn’t happening at all.  But, on the last day all the teachers gathered for an afternoon tea to say goodbye and one of the shyest students stood up and gave us a speech thanking each of us.  All of us were stunned because we knew how much courage it took for her to do that.  Then, after the speech we were all presented with a gorgeous silk scarf as a thank you.  I wear my scarf often – I absolutely love it.

I can honestly saying teaching is the most rewarding job I’ve ever had.  Each day was different, it was challenging and never easy but always fun.  I’m looking forward to getting back into the classroom during our Central American travels!!

2 Comments

  • Reply Amanda | Chasing My Sunshine January 18, 2016 at 12:52 pm

    This post honestly made my heart so happy. I’m at a point right now where I am trying to decide if teaching is the way I want to go, even after I’ve been going to grad school for something completely different. And these, these right here are all the moments that I would absolutely live for! I would love to hear more information about how you got into teaching in Laos (around the world I guess – Central America sounds fun!). I’ll poke around your site a bit more but I might be sending you an e-mail shortly. 🙂

    • Reply pippav@windowslive.com January 18, 2016 at 6:15 pm

      Hey Amanda!
      Absolutely feel free to email! I can definitely give you some advice. Teaching English is still one of my favourite memories and I can’t wait to get back into it soon. 🙂
      Pippa.

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