Finding work. Good work.

It’s hard to believe that I’ve already been in Hanoi for over a month now, whilst at the same time unbelievable that it has only been a month. It feels like it has been much longer than that, both in good ways and bad. It seems like it has been longer because it feels good here, man. Feels like this could be home. On the other hand, I think it feels like more time has gone by because we’ve been so busy trying to get settled and find decent work.

I’ve been asked a few times what finding work here is like. And I always answer the same way: Easy, bro. SO EASY. And it is. But I should really be telling people that whilst finding work might be easy, finding good work has been a little tougher.

First, a bit about me if you don’t already know, because my experience and shiz has a lot to do with the work-search situation, if you know what I mean. I am Canadian. Female. I am Caucasian. I have a BA in English Literature and Theatre. I have 5 years experience teaching in Korea. I have a cheesy 150 hour online TEFL course.

That’s me. And yes, all those details ~especially the colour of my skin~ matters. It matters here just like it did when I was in Korea. I’m not just a teacher here, I’m a walking advert for the school. And they all want a particular look, namely white skin preferred. I’d only be better off if I was slimmer, younger, blonder, prettier, and more blue-eyeder. Seriously.

Because of what I look like, my education, and my experience, I’m a highly sought-after commodity. However, it also means that I reserve the right to be a bit more picky about the places I choose to work.

If you don’t have the superficial “qualifications” that I do going on, you can still be alright as long as you have the BA, TEFL (preferably a CELTA), and are a native English speaker. Bonus points for experience. These are the goods you need in order to get a proper work permit and resident card from the government. And the major centers here that are doing thing above the board (Schools/Language Link, E-Connect, APAX, Apollo, ILA, others) will want you to have those papers so you can be legit.

There is a lot of work if you aren’t legit though. There are loads of people running “schools” out of their apartments that are much less picky about your paperwork and more than happy to pay you cash in hand after each lesson. Some of these places end up being pretty good. Some of them are nasty. I’ve experienced both.

While I wait for my REALLY REAL job to kick off in August, I’ve been picking up side work to keep the coffers full. I’ve had two good experiences, and one bad.

The first was good. I teach a group of adults for 2 hours three days a week. The pay is average for Hanoi, but the work is light and easy, and the class is fun. They are eager to learn and have a good level already, so we are mostly building confidence and working on making their written and spoken English more natural sounding and ready for international business. I really enjoy this class a lot.

The second is also very good. Even though it is in an apartment building, this owner has completely transformed the area into a great learning space. Proper desks and classrooms, whiteboards, photocopier, CCTV, the works. She has books ready and the space is clean and bright. I’m teaching one writing class for her, with another starting next week. I haven’t been paid yet, but as long as there is no problem with my pay (which I agreed to once a month), then I will continue to work with this place too. I also really enjoy the class of middle-school Korean kids I’m teaching for her.

Now. The third place. *shudder*

Looking back, there were warning signs. But I had been lucky so far, so I had ignored them. Woe to me, I ignored them. May you learn from my idiocy.

It was meant to be just a cover situation while her teacher was on holidays, but even over our initial text messages she kept repeating how she would love a teacher to work long term with. The two stories didn’t quite match, and it should have been a red flag. The current teacher was on holidays and leaving in the spring, so I chalked it up to that. Now I’m not so sure.

She sent me the address of where I would be teaching. It was just over the arbitrary boundary I had set that I was willing to commute to, but as it was just off a major roadway, Google Maps was telling me that it would take 30 minutes. This is my cut-off for how long I will commute, and coupled with it being for 3 hours of class at a time, I thought it would be okay. When I told the owner that I would be okay with 30 minutes, but that was my limit, she said she understood. Keep this in mind – she said she understood that 30 minutes was the furthest I was willing to travel.

The day before we were going to meet, she asked if we could meet at a coffee shop in the Old Quarter instead of at the school. Now, I thought she was either a) going to be in that area anyway and it would be easier for both of us or b) she just wanted to make it a quicker journey for me. Now, it should have also been a red flag… but I was thinking positively, not that she might be trying to hide something. So I agreed to meet her at the coffee shop.

::SIDE NOTE::

Here is a red flag for y’all that Dan has experienced: Unless it is literally covering one class, that day, pay on completion, do NOT agree to teach without meeting the people you are going to be teaching for. If they don’t care to meet you (aka “interview ya”) before you work for them, they aren’t serious enough about what they are doing.

::END SIDE NOTE::

So I met her. And she was very nice and spoke English well. Both good signs. She’d been in business about a year and had a good number of students. Also good signs. Which probably distracted me from the bad signs.

She couldn’t tell me what they had been doing up until the day we met. As in, we met on Monday and she has Sunday classes, yet couldn’t explain to me what they had just covered. And she said she was the TA. What? That doesn’t even make sense. They also had no textbooks, they did songs and stories from YouTube and played games. This should have also been a red flag, but I don’t know how Vietnam works yet so it may have been alright. It wasn’t.

In addition to her not being able to tell me where the students were at in terms of their overall studies, she couldn’t describe their level. Sure, she could rank against each other (sort of), but she couldn’t actually tell me what their levels were in terms of what they had learned or what they knew. She also had no lesson plans for what I was going to cover, nor did she have any from the past few months as her current teacher didn’t use them. Even though the teacher “prepared everything”, lesson plans were apparently not part of that preparation.

Now, again: Learn from my mistakes. Unless you are hella desperate, do NOT accept a cover position that doesn’t have lesson plans in place and materials prepared. It simply is not worth your time to do a load of planning and prepping for a couple of classes. I know this now. Never again.

At the end of our “interview”, she said that she would send me more information. She also kept pushing that she would like a long-term teacher, and I kept responding that I couldn’t promise anything past July 15. She was really keen to talk more about putting more of a program in place for her school, as she thought I could help her. Later, I found out why.

The information she sent me told me nothing. A lesson plan from eight months ago for one of the four classes. A list of “expressions”. A list of “vocabulary”… except it wasn’t. That list said things like “fruit” and “occupations”… but not which ones they had actually learned. I had no idea which they had done and which they needed to do. I didn’t know if they were learning to read these words or just speak them. Did they know how to answer in sentences?

I called the owner to clarify, and it basically told me that they had been doing whatever. The expressions and vocabulary didn’t match up. There was no plan. So I suggested I just review for the two weeks I would be there and I’d send her my plan. She was thrilled. I sent her my plan. She was overjoyed and said it would be perfect. Remember that – she loved the plan.

This is becoming a long-ass story. So let me cut it short. This was after the first two classes, taught on a Wednesday:

  1. The “school” was her living room with the furniture moved out of the way.
  2. Her mom was cooking dinner while we had class.
  3. There was a small whiteboard just leaning against the wall.
  4. There was her tv and computer.
  5. There was a handful of flashcards, mostly manky.
  6. There were no posters, no alphabet, nothing on the walls that made you think that was a place to learn.
  7. The students came in as they felt like it, making it difficult to know when to start.
  8. There were no desks or mats or anything – they just sat on the floor.
  9. There were no books. Not just textbooks, storybooks. Or rather, there were two storybooks. One of them had no words. The other had all the pages ripped out and there were some pages missing.
  10. Her toddler ran around the entire time I was trying to teach.
  11. My “TA” (the owner, remember) sat on her phone the entire time and was disconnected from the class entirely.
  12. Partway through the class the owner says, “you should have given them a break, let them have one now”. Maybe it would have been great to bring that up before I started, eh?
  13. The second class was only 2 girls (the others were absent) so she said “do whatever you want”. But she also said that I couldn’t teach them the way I did the first class because they would be bored. Even though she had previously said they were the same level. Wut?

If you don’t wanna click in and look at my captions… those are the pictures of the classroom. Between the two whiteboards was her food-smelly kitchen. This is literally all there was. No colors, no joy, no indication that there was a class about to happen.

That was the first night. I’m sure you are wondering why I went back. Well, we needed the money. And it was just two weeks. So I thought I could just suck it up and get through it. But then Friday happened.

  1. An hour or so before class is to start, she texts me to tell me to not be late. I was early to meet her. I was early to the Wednesday classes. So WTF? I text back to say “I’m actually leaving now.” Which I was… because I hate being late. But it is a 30 minute ride… right? So I was going to be about 30 minutes early. Yah, not so much. It took AN HOUR to get there because of the traffic. And worse – she knew it was an hour. When I mentioned it at the end of class, she just said, “yes, traffic can be bad”. Remember before when she agreed with me about the 30 minute commute limit? Yah. That asshole. It is probably also why she didn’t want me to meet her there for our first meeting. Because she knew that an hour was the actual travel time.
  2. More of her mom cooking, her 2 year old running around, and the smell of food everywhere.
  3. These students were some of the worst behaved students I have ever tried to teach, and I’ve had some real bad apples in my classes. Found out at the end that the very worst of them was the owner’s son.
  4. Partway through the second class, without looking up from her phone she says, “Yah, they’re bored because they know this already. You’ll have to do something else next class.” This was after she had pre-approved my lesson plans for the two weeks I’d been teaching, explaining that I was going to review because I had NO idea what they had learned. The lesson plans she had been sooooo happy with.
  5. As I left the apartment, there was the world’s largest cockroach trying to get on the elevator with me.

By the end of the second night, I had had enough. First, I told her that although her feedback was welcome, telling me that I wasn’t teaching what she wanted me to after approving my lesson plans and DURING THE LESSON was not appropriate. I also said that if she wanted me to teach something different for the next classes that it was fine, but she’d have to get over to me that night or the next morning (the next class was on Sunday) what she wanted so I could plan. She agreed.

Now, in while all this bullshit is happening, I also come down with the plague. Combination of grubby kids and stress. So I’m sick sick sick by Saturday. And guess what? By 5pm on the Saturday I still had no idea what she wanted the next day. So I texted her and quit. To be honest, I probably would have quit anyway. On Friday night I had nightmares – legit nightmares – about teaching in her apartment again.

I’ve never quit anything like that before, but I honestly couldn’t even imagine going back for one more minute. She seemed to be waiting for it though, as she didn’t seem too concerned that I wouldn’t be there the next morning. It may have helped that I said I didn’t even want the money she already owed me. She did ask if there was anything wrong with her school. HA! I promise I was very diplomatic and just responded, “That’s not my place to say.”

I haven’t heard from her since.

So. Finding work in Vietnam is easy. Finding decent work can be a lot trickier. Definitely be on the lookout for certain red flags:

  1. They don’t give a lot of detail (school name, location, etc) in the advert.
  2. They respond to EVERY teacher that posts looking for a job.
  3. They don’t care to meet you before you will teach.
  4. They want to meet you AND have you do a “demo” lesson that is a) longer than 20-30 minutes and b) not paid. (I had one person ask me to do a 3 hour “demo”. HA!)
  5. They don’t want to meet you where you will be teaching.*
  6. There isn’t a set plan in place for what the students have been learning.
  7. You can’t contact the current or previous teacher.
  8. If it is just covering for a few classes, there is no lesson plan or materials.

There are probably more signs, but this will do for a start. As well, note that some of these should be taken with a grain of salt, as there are different circumstances. Such as number 4 – my adult class met me in a coffee shop, as I was going to be teaching them in their offices and we couldn’t go in there during the day. It worked out fine. Just listen to your instincts.

As well, this doesn’t encompass the more legit, permanent places. They have processes in place and you should, at least, do a Skype interview (APAX), just an interview (Apollo), a very thorough and difficult interview (Schools Link), or an interview and demo (E-Connect). Your experience may even differ with these big companies.

Again, mostly listen to your instincts. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. And if even the cockroaches are trying to run away, you probably should as well.

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