Course in a Bottle!

Course in a Bottle!

Ho Chi Minh: Arrive, Train, Teach!

It was time for a change.

I had seven years under my belt as a software developer in Brisbane. I typed and coded, I tested and debugged. It wasn't bad work, the coding, that is. I liked the technical side. But project management in the software industry is akin to alchemy, a few fundamental facts and a lot of make-believe. The schedule started slipping, the hours got longer and longer, and my social life was disappearing faster than ice in the Sahara. In response, my work habits grew more and more erratic and my performance flat-lined. I observed the makings of a vicious circle in action, as I lived through the desperate months of November and December 2002. I regained enough sanity for one firm decision - I resigned.

And what do I do next? It's not that I've quit off the software industry altogether, it's just that I want a little change in my life. I had motivation to move as well as I wanted to join my girlfriend over in Ho Chi Minh City. So I started thinking about the best way to score a job in that town. I remembered that my sister had taught English in Osaka with no previous experience or training, so why couldn't I do the same? I had no experience myself, but a little bit of training couldn't hurt.

A little bit of research on the Net revealed these following facts. RMIT (the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology) had a campus in Ho Chi Minh City. They offered a CELTA (Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults) in March of 2003. A CELTA is generally considered as a good introductory certificate for teaching English as a second language. They also offered English classes for the local Vietnamese community. It cost US$1400 (or AUD$2200); a bit dear, but nothing that my savings couldn't cover. Why not?

Without any shard of irony, I can say it was one of the best decisions of my life.

Firstly, what does a CELTA course teach you? Not only how to teach English, but also their own minimalist, non-authoritarian philosophy behind it. Your goal as a teacher trainee is to take the English students and enable them to understand and produce English. Many schools can produce students that can read, but that's all. Some can help them to write, and hear, at least to a certain extent. But with a CELTA, you also get them to speak and converse with the English they have learnt.

And you shut up. That's one of the cardinal sins of the CELTA philosophy, excessive Teacher Talking Time -- so serious that they created the acronym of TTT for it. You're not yapping away at the beginning of the class for 100% of the time. The less said, the better. Get the students to practice their English. They may make a few mistakes, but you can correct them. Unexpressed mistakes are uncorrected mistakes.

But a warning - CELTAs are not meant to be easy. You are going to be spending 4 weeks on campus, every day -- from 9:30 to 6:00. In this time, you will be attending classes with the tutors studying the techniques you want to learn. You will be observing teachers in action. And you will be teaching yourself which is the main activity for your assessment. Oh, and did I mention the 5 assignments you have to write? And that for each class you teach (and there will be 9 in all), you'll be expected to produce a class plan. Yes, you will have homework, and you will be assessed on that.

But it's fun as well. Your fellow trainees are articulate as you would expect of would-be teachers, but they are also interesting as well. (Note the distinction.) Their backgrounds originate from across all the Anglosphere: mainly Americans and Australians, a smattering of Canadians and British. (And Lynda, one of the tutors, was from New Zealand.) Unlike most on the course, I had virtually no experience with teaching English. Listening to others' anecdotes was an education it itself. Greg, a Canadian hailing from Quebec, turned out to be a long lost, second cousin first-removed. Graham from England introduced me to a shop specializing in making cheap but high-quality guitars. And finally, there were the conversations about this country and its language: Vietnamese. Many on the course were long-term expatriates, and some had learnt the local tongue.

'And what about the jobs?', you may ask? Folks, in good old Sai Gon you are at the financial epicentre of Viet Nam, one of the fastest growing economies on the Pacific Rim. Even during the financial crisis of the late 90s, they reduced their growth from 4.7% to 1%; they've bounced back big time. The people down here want to get ahead, and learning English is one means to an end. There are about 20 schools in this town alone.

Unfortunately, teaching English in this city may involve undoing the damage caused by other teachers. The sad fact is that while many people know some English, their general standard is appaling. Some have been studying the language for ten years and still cannot understand a simple spoken phrase. Teachers who cannot actually articulate the language will speak in their own broken style to young learners, ready to absorb the bad with the good. It's a shame: the students really want to learn; they see the language as a way of getting ahead. And with English being a necessity for upper management positions across the globe, who can blame them? I believe that a CELTA will really enable me to teach students to understand English; it's not just education, but social work.