Editor’s Note: This is written by guest author Henrike Doornbos, a Dutch national who’s been living and working in Saigon since 2017. Henry is a teacher, and also a certified life coach for expat teachers who are “about to burn out”. Hopefully, reading this survival guide for foreign teachers in Vietnam helps you not burn out.
Embarking on the journey of being an expat teacher is an exciting endeavor, but it comes with its fair share of challenges. From navigating different management styles to dealing with limited resources and cultural differences, it’s crucial to have a survival guide to stay afloat. Additionally, prioritizing your emotional and mental well-being while building a supportive community of fellow teachers can make a significant difference in your experience abroad.
For some it’s an amazing experience, for many it’s quite a ride and could easily turn into one of those nightmare where you’re drowning – so here’s a life vest to stay afloat.
Moving to Vietnam? Read this first and thank us laterPractical Things to Know Before Moving to Vietnam
Management and Support
I’ve heard of (and have personally experienced working with) amazing managers and supportive staff who try their best to create a very pleasant work environment. They’ve set high expectations I couldn’t help but want to meet.
Just as a simple example, one friend was advised not to work past 5 pm and when asked why she was behind with her tasks, was actually given appropriate support.
When management is good, work is great. When management is bad, I recommend an attitude of: let them be bad.
These situations can get exhausting if you fight against it. Getting outraged at every turn will deplete you over time. Byron Katie said: ‘ When you argue with reality, you lose, but only 100% of the time’
Assume they stay bad at their job, save your energy to step up your own game to safeguard your sanity.
I often suggest accepting the situation for what it is. Accept them to be ‘bad at their jobs’. However, that doesn’t mean to condone their behaviour or to be indifferent to it. It means to stay out of victimhood, to not be at their mercy.
If they’re not supporting you or any of the teachers, you may as well not continue to ask it from them. Break down exactly what it is you need (or even go the extra mile and provide suggested solutions), and see if you can provide it for yourself or seek it elsewhere.
We can’t pluck feathers from a bald chicken.
Materials and Student Centric Mindset
We (teachers) all have had to deal with this issue.
Old books, bad books, books with spelling errors. Not enough printers, broken printers and just when you’re about to head over to class the printer jams. Cue: teacher tantrum.
You’re the one providing the service in the time you meet the students, naturally you want to give it your best. Not being able to do so can make us feel as if we’re letting the students down.
What has always helped me get rid of that frustration is to imagine me as a student in my class. Put yourself in the shoes of the ones you teach. They don’t know how an activity was intended. They don’t see the alternate versions. All they experience is the energy of the teacher when they walk in and the ‘vibe’ of the classroom.
Whatever has hit the fan before class, work with what you do have and reset your energy when you get in front of the students.
By adopting a student-centered mindset, making the most of what we have, and resetting our energy, we can continue to provide a quality education despite resource limitations. Let’s focus on what truly matters: creating a positive learning environment for our students.
Culture and Conflict Resolution
It’s both a joy and a challenge to work in a multicultural environment.
In my opinion, the more different cultures the merrier, especially when colleagues and students bring cultural or religious celebrations into school. (Mid-autumn festival, Eid al-Fitr etc)
Every now and then we bump into issues, both big and small, that are caused by differences in culture. In my first year here I was told ‘The Vietnamese care a lot about saving face’. I’m from the Netherlands, and apparently we’re perceived as ‘very direct’.
True or not, does it matter when you’re in the middle of a ‘conflict’? Looking back at the path doesn’t make the road ahead any clearer. Besides, chalking it up to culture might lead to stereotyping and prejudice. I myself have been guilty of this, deliberately trying to stay away from engaging in conversation with Americans. (this was in 2016-2017).
When we think in terms of ‘our’ culture is different from ‘theirs’, we only highlight the gap. Instead, what if we drop all that and take each person as they are?
Each situation, each conflict and every single person on this earth is unique anyway. We get to marvel at how different people can be, and yet how incredibly similar we all are.
Emotional and Mental Wellbeing
Mental health has become a hot topic in the last few years and I’m so glad it is.
Finally there’s awareness of the impact of mental wellbeing, especially in education. I come from a family of teachers, most have been burned out at some point in their life. Then, as a student I remember many of my teachers being absent for months.
Interestingly enough, there’s not much help for teachers. Sure, most schools offer courses and training, but they’re all focused on ‘becoming a better teacher’.
There’s little support when you’re in a conflict with management. And when you’re dealing with personal issues, and struggling to keep a teacher’s tantrum at bay it’s not often we feel comfortable sharing that with either management or colleagues.
It’s become my mission to provide support for teachers, so that work doesn’t take over their personal lives. Fortunately, taking care of your emotional and mental wellbeing is a skill, something you can get good at over time.
One of the simplest changes that has the biggest impact is to tell yourself the truth about how you feel and why. Without judgement, without reprimand and self hatred.
The why doesn’t have to make sense, it doesn’t have to be ‘reasonable’. The option to share it with people around you may sound scary, but there’s a lot of connection and support available when you do.
Once that truth is in front of you, there’s a way to accept the current situation. It doesn’t mean you like it, or you agree with it. It just means you mentally come to the point of acceptance, come to terms with it; yes, this happened and yes this is how you feel… alright, here we are. Now what?
Looking for additional resources on mental health and support in Saigon?Mental Health Professionals and Therapists in Saigon
Community and Career Development
Lastly, one of the more undervalued aspects of this profession is building a community. If people in IT, engineering, and marketing can do it, why can’t teachers?
Being an expat teacher comes with its unique set of challenges and experiences. One of the most valuable resources you can have in navigating this journey is finding a supportive community.
Connecting with a community of expat teachers allows you to find support and understanding from others who are going through or have gone through similar experiences. They understand the ups and downs, the triumphs and frustrations, and can offer valuable empathy and advice.
Being part of a community provides opportunities for collaboration and professional growth. Engaging with colleagues who come from diverse backgrounds and bring a range of teaching experiences can broaden your perspective and enhance your teaching skills.
A supportive community offers a space to share your joys, frustrations, and concerns with like-minded individuals who genuinely understand and can provide emotional support. Connecting with others who are on a similar path can help alleviate stress, boost morale, and promote your overall wellbeing.
And most importantly, expanding your professional network can lead to potential job prospects, career advancement, and the chance to collaborate on projects or initiatives beyond your current scope. Connections within the community may also provide insights into professional development opportunities, workshops, or conferences that can further enrich your teaching practice.
There’s a monthly Teachers’ Mixer for both local and expat teachers. Here you’ll get to meet some new faces, hear about the best and the worst schools and laugh about the wild ride some of us are having. Hope to see you there!
- Embarking on the journey of being an expat teacher comes with challenges that require a survival guide and prioritization of emotional and mental well-being.
- Navigating different management styles necessitates acceptance and focusing on personal growth rather than fighting against it.
- Dealing with limited resources can be overcome by adopting a student-centered mindset and making the most of available materials.
- Working in a multicultural environment requires embracing diversity and avoiding stereotypes to foster understanding and connection.
- Prioritizing emotional and mental well-being is essential due to the lack of support for teachers in conflicts with management and personal issues.
- Building a supportive community of fellow teachers provides understanding, collaboration, and professional growth opportunities.
Hope this has helped you. Feel free to reach out and send a message to firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to hear from you.