Illustration by Trịnh Lập
by Nguyễn Mỹ Hà
The weather is turning cooler and white daisies are appearing along the streets of Hà Nội, which means that November 20, Teachers Day, is on its way.
A popular saying has it that “Không thày đố mày làm nên” (“Without teachers, you won’t succeed”). I’m certain that everyone has at least one teacher who has stayed in their heart over the years.
For me, it was my first grade teacher we all called “Mama”. She was kind and patient, beautiful, and she loved us all. In the post war years in the late 1970s, everything was scarce and each family was rationed to just two bars of soap a month. Every kid had either lice or scabies. But Mama brushed our hair every day with a specific bamboo comb, to get rid of the lice, and put some dermatitis cream on the scabies.
She also taught us poems and songs, and choreographed a dance for the class.
I’ve forgotten the songs and the poems, and even the dance, but I’ll remember Mama for the rest of my days.
I believe a special relationship between a teacher and students can always be fostered after some trial and error. Teachers, except for those doing well at private schools, work for a meagre income and must take on side jobs to make ends meet. And yet there they are, still in the classroom.
Teaching today is also much harder. In a class of 50 or 60 students are some with learning difficulties and some who have other specific needs but whose parents can’t afford a specific education for them.
Many teachers who spent years in big public schools now suffer from chronic throat and lung problems. To teach a class of 50 or 60 students, teachers need at least a loud hailer if not a PA system to get the job done properly.
Still, forging connections with young kids and discovering their wisdom or lack thereof continues to attract new generations of young teachers.
Việt Nam’s massive public education system has been cutting classes and schools for gifted students, who are nurtured so they may serve the country in the future. This system does indeed still function, with entrance exams as hard as climbing a ladder to catch a star. Classes, and so opportunities, are smaller as a result.
Mid-range public schools, meanwhile, must suffer their problems in silence and receive little attention from the media.
And only students who have won international prizes in maths, English, or music, or those who are accepted into famous international colleges, get any sort of media attention.
Though occasionally a story somehow breaks through. Just last month, the heart-warming tale of two bright young students who won entry into Hà Nội’s prestigious University of Technology and Thái Bình’s Medical University made headlines around the country. The bright, kind-hearted youngsters were simply leading their lives but became an enormous source of inspiration for young and old alike.
Nurturing talent can be a difficult task, and it’s impossible to even discover young talent if he or she isn’t given enough opportunities to prove themselves.
I spoke with a young primary school teacher recently, who has a number of students in her class with specific needs: one child with mild symptoms of autism, and another who recently lost her mother and now lives with her grandmother.
She’s a young teacher with not much experience and teaching in a public school in a city 30 km from Hà Nội. The kids need tutoring in maths and reading, so she brought them home to study with her father. He’s now retired but used to teach third grade maths and reading, and he’s made them feel more comfortable in their studies.
The kids are making slow but gradual progress. They have become more confident and their marks are getting better. The most important thing, though, is that they are happier and smile a lot more. Their families are so grateful, thanking the young teacher, and her father, with all their heart.
If all teachers could have enough time to help kids that need assistance and space to grow, we’d have a lot more happy kids among us. And when kids are happier, they study better and become more able to absorb new knowledge and skills. It’s good for everyone, and for the future.
At one Hà Nội school, the principal took a specific education approach to teach bright kids. His point was to help students learn reading and basic maths under an unconventional approach. For 40 years now, the school has had two programmes -- one conducted in the conventional way of learning, and the other unconventional until the fourth grade, when they come together. There’s no divide apparent, and the kids like to learn and are happy.
One thing that has received attention in the media is the issue of irrelevant subjects and studies. Vietnamese society has long been obsessed with studying to get a better job, better pay, and better life. But for all that to happen, kids must pick up fundamental skills in primary school and be ready and willing to learn more. If you jam a child’s head full of too much irrelevant information, there’s not much room for exploration.
Meanwhile, those who help kids who used to sit down the back and learn nothing are the very definition of “teacher”, as their care and attention gives struggling kids some success and much-needed confidence. Their dedication and hard work need to be recognised.
So thank you, all you teachers out there. I hope you find the time to recharge your constantly draining batteries.
Teachers inspire and change lives -- a noble deed we can all respect and admire. VNS