I’ve had teachers tell me during teacher training (both my first two years of undergrad studies, when I was an education major, and during my more recent TEFL training) that your rules are inviolable in the classroom. In the words of one educator, you are God’s direct envoy of teaching to this classroom, and what you say goes. But what if you can’t make your wishes understood?

Today I experienced an unsettling situation that I feel compelled to write about, primarily because I’m a little surprised that this hasn’t happened to me already, but also because it brought home to be just how much of a guest I am in classrooms.

It underlined my relative newness to teaching, my lack of cultural knowledge, and my entire understanding of discipline in HCMC’s public schools, and in this school in particular (disciplinary measures vary widely between schools in the city).

My TA didn’t show up today. It’s very unlike her, and it forced me to realize exactly how little I can communicate with very young kids – they want to tell me things but are unable to do so, and I can’t communicate with them what I want and need – every day we have Vietnamese instructions spoken in the room, sometimes translating what I say, and sometimes reinforcing discipline and classroom behavior. Without either, the class and I were left with a shared lexicon that basically included the numbers 1-10, some colors, some animals (although animals are shaky at best), and some basic classroom commands (sit down, sit up, and put away did get lots of use today, though).

In short: I couldn’t threaten, except through example. I couldn’t chastise. I couldn’t communicate anything I needed to, and I had almost no real control. There were kids that wanted to learn, but couldn’t, and there were kids that couldn’t stop giggling or talking, and nothing I said could curtail it – just more infuriating smiles. With 40 kids whose pronunciation I needed to pay attention to, it was inevitable that I’m not looking at some kids all the time.

I did my best, and it was not good enough. I pray to god my TA is back tomorrow – now I know how indispensable they truly are for very young, very large classes.

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The following is a short horror story. Happy October.

Waiting For TA

SETTING: A first grade classroom
CHARACTERS: 40 first graders, Teacher Ben, TA
TIME: The final 75 minutes before the end of the schoolday, on a weekday in October

Teacher Ben arrives 5 minutes before class, at 2:55pm, and picks up his magnets, seating chart, and flashcards (animals!). No sign of his TA (also the school’s regular English grammar, spelling, and writing teacher), but this is not unusual – since Teacher Ben knows how to wrangle the classes, get them seated, and begin class, sometimes the TA is running around doing other things in the building. She has come in up to 10 minutes late before while Teacher Ben has successfully begun class.

This class has no problem with the date today (sometimes it’s a hard one – if it ends in “st” or “th” they struggle) and they breeze through the repetitious task of learning a new number and reciting the full date. Animal flashcard review begins.

At 15 minutes past it is clear to Teacher Ben that something is holding up the TA.

At 20 minutes past it is clear to the class that they’re going to be able to get squirmy, talkative, and naughty as hell today (the division of labor that usually applies to these classes is that Teacher Ben does team/individual drilling and runs games while the TA keeps score on the board and disciplines appropriately, in Vietnamese). Teacher Ben needs to be able to hear individual students in a sea of chattering, and, inexplicably, students handing him tiny pieces of garbage. There is no garbage can in the room. This excites them to no end.

It is during this time that Teacher Ben learns that the seating chart has changed again, but, lacking the ability to ask “what is your name?” and get a response, he must settle for vague hand waving to indicate about 15 of the students. Ineffective and embarrassing.


Teacher Ben begins disciplining in the way that he has learned these classes respond to – “Sit up! 1! 2! 3!” “Hong Huy, stand up! Arms folded!” “Ka Loc! Quiet! Turn around!” Points were erased. Fingers were wagged. Death glares were directed. Children were moved with their chairs to the front of the room.

Nothing works.

3:25: After a child stands on his chair and falls off onto a desk, the class sits in silence with arms folded for 3 minutes. This seems to impress upon them that Teacher Ben is pretty exasperated. With an “Are you ready?” and an affirmative murmur, class resumes.

3:32: Review resumes. We’re almost done reviewing the pronunciation of 10 different animals.

Backpacks are taken away. Kids are told to stand up and fold their arms, as if this were an effective thing.

Discipline continues. Little to no effect. The class is naughtier than Teacher Ben has ever seen them. Teacher Ben is just praying to god that he can get through the review, and that perhaps the allure of a game will convince them that behaving is a good enough trade off to play. If they’re naughty there’s always the nuclear card – sitting in silence, straight up, for the last minutes of class. He has only seen the TA do it once, but it was super effective, and that class was a whole HELL of a lot calmer than this one.

The game is a disaster. Kids jumping up and down, falling over, pushing, shoving, shrieking, pointing, playing with toys, and more. The class gets through 10 kids before NUCLEAR CARD PLAYED. The class and Teacher Ben sit in silence for 15 minutes. Teacher Ben is understandably ticked (he loves games!), but barking out individual student names to be quiet or sit up straight makes the time pass, and, honestly, makes him feel a little better.

Finally, the class lines up and heads out to their parents. No one has come to tell Teacher Ben where the TA is. She does not respond to text messages. It’s very unlike her, so he hopes she’s ok. At the same time, he’s pretty irked.

To be fair, Teacher Ben did not employ slaps on the palm with a ruler, as TA normally does. It made him uncomfortable. Imagining them all on fire, however, was therapeutic.