Dispatches from the present
November 20th of the past year marked the fortieth anniversary of Vietnamese Teachers’ Day (ngày nhà giáo Việt Nam). Across Vietnam and Vĩnh Yên, where I teach English on a Fulbright scholarship, shops carried bouquets of flowers, gift boxes, chocolates and other goodies; soccer, volleyball and badminton tournaments sprang up; and at the Vĩnh Phúc High School for the Gifted, hundreds of students competed against each other over several afternoons for the chance to perform at the school’s official ceremony—fifty groups gunning for ten slots. Two young intern teachers at the school acted as hosts of the dance-off, the five-hundred-seat auditorium was packed, and most performers were dressed in beautiful áo dài or some type of costume—farmers, soldiers or teachers—carrying ornate folding fans or streamers or flags. (A class of mine, the senior English majors, would go on to win first prize.)
On the day of the ceremony, the school had erected a huge stage with a banner bearing the dates of the holiday, 1982-2022. Just three years before Teachers’ Day was founded, the country had fought a war with Cambodia and China amid an economic and agricultural meltdown that forced them to import hundreds of thousands of tons of rice to prevent starvation. Against this tumultuous backdrop, Vietnamese Teachers’ Day was instituted to raise awareness of the “honor and responsibility of teachers.” In 1986, Vietnam would institute the brilliant economic program known as Đổi Mới, or “renovation,” which lifted forty million people out of poverty between 1993 and 2014. While Đổi Mới inaugurated the official pursuit of a “socialist-oriented market economy,” that opened itself up to global trade, the program also marked the steep decline of Russian as the country’s primary foreign language and the rise of its replacement: English. And so the country’s economic rise was tied intimately with education generally, and the rise of English education specifically.
In the Vĩnh Phúc province where I live and teach, the results of the reforms are plain. Here the average annual growth of GDP is 13.42 percent. Cars not only dot the roads but fill them, braces are common for kids, and new shops, movie theaters and international businesses like Pizza Hut are moving in. It is perhaps no coincidence, then, that within my school’s community, education is seen as the path to upward mobility. High-stakes tests determine whether kids get full rides to university, or whether they’re allowed to attend a traditional secondary school at all. English—for reasons widely known and lamented: global hegemony, rapacious capitalism, the neoliberal era, etc.—is seen as one gateway toward that success. Alongside fifteen years of formal and financial investment in English learning, there are now over four hundred English-language programs in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City alone. And in this quasi-post-COVID world, the demand for foreign English teachers—to make up for the many who left at the beginning of the pandemic—is huge. But how many of us are truly up to the task?
I’d planned to build a sense of responsibility and community in my classroom, encouraging students to support each other while working through tough issues in a second language: stress culture, social media, climate change. And knowing they learned primarily in a high-stress environment, I wanted to create a relaxed space where students’ health and happiness was prioritized: no homework or tests, just a grade out of 10 at the end of every class, the 10/10 guaranteed. But in trying to create some utopian space where kids would be excited and motivated on their own terms, centering classroom discussions around their own lives and experiences, I’d instead created a blow-off class that a growing number felt comfortable ditching. The other foreign teacher at school gave little inspiration. Also an American, he had proudly told me over lunch that he was only interested in business and spent time in the classroom to product-test his students. Trying to decide what might make him rich—an ice-cream shop, skateboards, rollerblades—he would pitch his students on the products and ask if they would be interested in buying them. If they said no, he shelved the idea. If yes, he kept it alive. But his product-testing, and by extension, his classroom, was serious. Students feared him, and they feared his loud, angry outbursts. But they always showed up to class.
So where had my consciousness, my self-critical teaching aspirations, gotten me? We both, the foreign teachers, had seemingly failed in our own ways to uphold the “honor and responsibility of teachers,” whether or not we had arrived with doctrinal preconceptions about the profession. Okay, yes, I could admit to a few good moments in the classroom: the one student, after watching a short film about a painter who loses his creative spirit, who took several minutes to prepare a passionate response about the value and nature of art; the student whose eyes lit up after he used some new vocabulary words to talk about stress and fear; the one who picked out the word “approval” from a song-listening exercise (it was Justin Bieber). And there were the times outside of the classroom spent eating meals with students, helping them with college and scholarship applications, learning about their families, their hopes, frustrations, plans, dreams. But even those moments rang hollow against the grandeur of the day’s celebrations, for which classes were canceled, generations of retired teachers returned, and prizes, flowers, candies, chocolates and good wishes were given out.
In the final performance of the morning, a group dressed as secondary school students took to the stage. They danced gaily, brilliantly, until the soundtrack stopped and the sound, unmistakable, of B-52s boomed overhead. “This is about war,” a colleague leaned over to tell me. I nodded; she didn’t need to say which one. The kids scattered and died on the stage, one by one, their teacher running around frantically, trying and failing to save them. My stomach dropped out. No willful naivety; no removing myself from the situation. Back, then, to the blackboard.