On Teaching, I

If you only looked at my blog, you could easily get the idea that all I’m doing this year gallivanting around South East Asia and pondering mildly philosophical questions during my down time. While that’s somewhat accurate, it’s only half of the picture. The rest of my time I spend teaching; my grant this year is as an English Teaching Assistant (ETA).

In reality, ETA is a bit of a misnomer. I’m not really an assistant, considering I effectively am in charge of the entire curriculum and instruction for the classes I teach. It’s exciting having that level of responsibility but also a bit intimidating. I’m placed at one of the country’s nationally-run universities, Savannakhet University. It’s affiliated with the National University of Laos, where the Vientiane gang is teaching, kind of like branches of a large state school. When applying for Fulbright, I had assumed that most of the teaching positions were with primary schools and working with children. Though I was initially a bit relieved to find I’d have older students, looking back, I think working with children would have actually been pretty fun. Regardless, it’s pretty cool to be teaching at a university my first year out of undergrad.

The school has several faculties, from architecture to agriculture to food sciences to linguistics. The English Department is part of the Faculty of Linguistics, along with French, Vietnamese, and Japanese. Theresa, Mari, and I are all in the English Department, along with Brittnee and Christa – two teachers from a program called ELI – and about 15 Lao teachers. We’re all assigned classes and respective Lao co-teachers, but the co-teaching relationship isn’t really a 50-50 one. In actuality, we have control over our classes, for the most part. This is nice in being able to lesson plan independently and make autonomous decisions about the things we want to teach, but there are also downsides. Our co-teachers don’t really show up to class, even if they’ve promised to or it’s been otherwise discussed. Also, it doesn’t feel sustainable for us to be here for a year, teach, and just leave. If we at least could work closer with the Lao teachers, we could help them improve their teaching methods and affect change moving forward. Culturally, though, it’s been hard to insist on that. It’s considered rude to say no to anything, so usually if we ask for a meeting or ask them to come to class, our co-teachers will say yes enthusiastically and then just not show up. Furthermore, the English level of the teachers is pretty low itself, so when we do meet or discuss, it’s difficult to go in depth in to lesson plans or teaching methodology when the language barrier is so high. It doesn’t mean we haven’t tried, but ultimately, we’re mostly on our own when it comes to teaching.

First semester, I taught English for Presentations (PS) to Year 4 and English for Socializing (SO) and Asian Cultures (AC) to Year 3.  Each year is approximately 50 students, split into 2 sections. Initially, I was supposed to teach only PS and SO, but we heard from one of our students that no one had been teaching AC for the first month. Offering to be helpful and hoping to be each other’s co-teachers, Theresa and I suggested we teach the class. Unfortunately, this situation backfired a little and we ended up teaching different sections and were assigned Lao co-teachers. It was still amusing to tell people back home that I came from America to Laos to end up teaching Asian Cultures, but in the end it was actually a good fit because most of my students haven’t had the opportunity to leave the country and I could offer some perspectives on what different Asian cultures were like. PS and SO were also a good fit for me, topic-wise. I really enjoy public speaking and having classes focused on speaking skills let me focus on building student confidence in their speaking abilities, regardless of their level.

This semester, I’m teaching more of a variety of classes. Year 4 students are supposed to be working on their thesis, so I teach Year 3 exclusively, in English for Socializing (SO), Western Cultures (WC), and Intermediate Writing (IW). I’m excited to have such a diverse range of classes, focusing on a variety of language skills and am looking forward to hopefully having some in depth conversations about culture and cultural differences in my Western Cultures class.

There’s a lot more I want to say about what teaching has been like and the structure of education here, but so this doesn’t turn into a novel, I’ll save that for subsequent posts. I want to end this scattered look into my job here with an explanation for my silence on the topic thus far. As teaching has been the stated purpose of my grant, it’s felt odd that I haven’t blogged about it yet. It’s been a really challenging experience in many respects and I’ve struggled with how to discuss it in a way that both authentically represents my experience and balances both the negative and positive aspects of it. It’s been easy to rant to Theresa and Mari about the difficulties of our situation, but just posting a purely negative piece in order to vent doesn’t accurately convey what it’s been like any more than a first-world savior complex post gushing about how great and life-changing everything is would be. But I’m at a point where I really do want to talk about what this part of my life here has been like and so with this and subsequent posts on the topic, hopefully I can paint a relatively objective picture of how teaching in Laos has been.

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