Why Vietnam?

I was asked this question many (many) times when I found out I was moving to Vietnam for work and in the first year or so of living there. Admittedly, the majority of people who were asking me were loved ones and so the thought of a few thousand miles between me and them was probably at the forefront of their minds. It was, in fact, an uncle and aunt on my mother’s side who both said to me separately that they could ‘see’ me there. I know that they didn’t necessarily mean in Vietnam per se but just somewhere outside of the UK and probably Europe as well.

Close friends were also more in line with the view presented by my aunt and uncle, they knew that I had wanted to work abroad for some time, and some were, probably frankly sick of me talking about it but with no action (although I was living in Spain at the time). And for me, prior to seeing the job advertisement, I had never thought to myself, ‘I must simply go to Vietnam’. It seemed exotic and too far away to even comprehend. And if I am honest, all I knew about Vietnam was related to the war.

My previous knowledge of the war was extremely limited and focused primarily on the ‘American angle’, i.e., it was seen as a war that they had lost. One of the first museums that I visited upon arriving in Ho Chi Minh City was that of the War Remnants Museum located near the heart of the city. The museum had been previously called the ‘Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes’, so this gives you an indication that the curators wanted to provide the ‘Vietnamese angle’ to the effects of this devastating conflict, of which some effects are still evident. To illustrate this, the Vietnamese generally refer to the war as the American War rather than the Vietnam War, this not so subtle change of country indicates, at least to me, that the Vietnamese wanted to ‘own’ the war. Perhaps to act as a reminder that it was the Americans who invaded their country (in an act to prevent the spread of communism), and not the other way round.

Once I had visited the museum as well as explore much more that the city had to offer, I found myself understanding a great deal more about the country and a little about its people. And I found myself asking ‘Why not Vietnam?’

A Love Letter to Vietnam

There is an undeniable spirit about Vietnam, whether you are in one of the sprawling fast-paced cities, trekking in a rural wilderness or relaxing on one of the many stunning beaches that the country has to offer. In the three years I lived in Vietnam, I witnessed this spirit within its people and their approach to everyday life, but I would also argue that I only scratched the surface with what the country has to offer. To that end, it would be utterly impossible for me to condense three years of living in this remarkable country to one post, so, I have summarised a few of my experiences here and I hope to write more in the future.

If I had to describe Vietnam in a few words; aspiration, vitality and warmth (and not just in terms of the tropical climate) would be some of the words that first spring to my mind.

In contrast, it took me a few months to warm to Vietnam when I first moved to Ho Chi Minh City back in the summer of 2014. It wasn’t as though I hated my initial impressions by any means, but I had completely underestimated the culture shock I would experience. I had gone from living in the UK, then Spain and then upping sticks to move to the other side of the world. To a large extent, the culture shock stemmed from fear. When I initially moved to Spain, it felt ‘safe’, what with relatively quick and cheapish flights to and from the UK and additional comfort provided in that many locals (at least where I was living) and amenities provided assistance in English. I hasten to add here, it was a priority of mine to integrate into the local community and so I did take Spanish lessons both in the UK prior to the move and once I arrived.

In comparison, moving to Vietnam meant that I was required to stand on my own two feet and here I was, an early 30-something-year-old woman who had actively chosen to leave her then partner for a job pretty much on the other side of the world. Part of me wonders if perhaps consciously or not, many of my decisions up till this point had largely been based on what was deemed ‘safe’ or not.

For the first few months, I found myself conflicted about the move to Vietnam. Work was busy, having received a promotion early into my contract together with planning new courses. I was also struggling to establish and foster new friendships (partly because I was stressed from work), my then partner was based in another country and I was miles and miles away from family and friends. I was lonely and felt as though I had made a terrible decision.

However, much like my initial feelings about when I went to university where everything is SO BIG and SO SCARY at first (well, that might have just have been me), once I started getting out there and exploring, I began to find my feet. Thrown together through the same circumstances, I connected pretty quickly with another newbie at the school and we would regularly explore restaurants and coffee shops at weekends with her partner. Slowly, other new friendships formed and, although I enjoyed being able to investigate on my own, sharing these experiences helped provide me with the grounding that I needed to feel more at home.

It was only when I opened my eyes and started to look outside of the walls of the school and head into the metropolis that is Ho Chi Minh City, that I felt drawn in by the vitality and warmth of the Vietnamese people and its culture.

I have read in a few travel guidebooks that Thailand is known as the country of smiles, but I would argue that Vietnam is a strong contender for that crown. One of my lasting memories will be the kindness of the vast majority of people I met. Even if words failed both parties (I did learn some basic Vietnamese, but gave up after six weeks as I found it incredibly hard to get to grips with the different tones…), a smile, a brief nod together with various hand gestures and my basic Vietnamese, usually meant we could all be understood, plus a great deal of patience from my Vietnamese counterpart.

I recall thinking early on about how different my previous life had been in Spain to that of being in Vietnam (as if I thought they could in any way similar!). When I had first moved to Spain it was still suffering the effects of the economic crash in 2008; such as high unemployment rates and a high demand of people seeking social support. Another noticeable facet of this in the coastal area where I lived, were the countless abandoned building sites in which companies had either gone bust or had chosen to cut their loses. Concrete shells dotted the landscape that originally had been intended for residential use but now acted as a graffiti artist’s paradise.

In contrast, the building sites I saw in Vietnam were enormous and appeared never ending. High-rise luxury apartments cover swathes of land, and in the south, these are predominantly built on swampland. A concern certainly for the future if sea levels rise as they are expected to with climate change. And of course, with an average Vietnamese person receiving a salary of less than USD$7000 a year, I wonder who is going to be living in these luxury apartments… but despite this, I can’t shake the feeling that Vietnam has ambitions to ‘go somewhere’ after nearly a century marred by war and conflict, and this boom in construction is one way of illustrating this.

Transitions

Depression is a strange beast. It fascinates me as much as it frightens me with its ability to influence my life.

As my last post indicated, I have recently moved countries for work and to live with my partner, so you’d think that I would be over the moon. That’s inaccurate as I am over the moon; having gone from seeing one another every four to six weeks to every day is wonderful and I am truly happy with the move.

But the transition with moving countries, soon to be work and settling in generally has meant that somehow and somewhere along the line I managed to slip into a period of blackness that I cannot wholly understand or explain.

When I have gone through periods like this before there are rough indicators that have led me to recognise what I am experiencing, so I am able to put some things into perspective. For instance, if work is particularly stressful I will ask myself if deadlines need to be met at a particular time, and if there is some slack I make the most of them. Simply, I have some things in place for when/if shit hits the fan.

Although a part of me feels that this particular bout of melancholy has come from nowhere, the one thing I do realise now with experience is that this isn’t really the case. Depression seems to enjoy creeping up on you. I recently said goodbye to a country that I have lived in for three years and to people who I have formed strong bonds with. The final week or so of being there I had this almost constant nagging feeling that I had forgotten something, but I couldn’t pinpoint indeed what ‘it’ was that I was forgetting or why I was experiencing that sensation. It was only when I was literally leaving the country a little over a week ago when it dawned on me; I was leaving something behind, a part of me. I know that sounds terribly silly and even a little pretentious but recognising this caused me nearly to cry in front of the poor taxi driver as he drove me to the airport.

I know that my experiences of depression are nothing like those what some other people experience, where they require daily medication, regular therapy or in the more extreme cases, hospitalisation. But I would argue that, as much as depression exists on a spectrum, I am on the thin end of the wedge, i.e., depression in its ‘mild form’. I am not rendered debilitated by its grip, but when it does pass by and stop for a while I am a shadow of who I believe I really am. It is as though I am wearing glasses or better yet, contact lenses that are permanently smudged. I am observing life part squinting and part physically and emotionally drained from the energy trying to interpret the world around me. And no matter how much I try to clean them, the effort is pointless.

I am fortunate, for the next few weeks I am able to rest and recuperate until the term begins for my new position. At least for now, I am going to spend some time exploring my new home and rekindle the enjoyment I have with some of my hobbies such as photography, travel and writing. And just the mere thought of being able doing these things is stoking a fire in my belly to get started.

Where do I go from here?

I finished work last week after what has at least felt like a long term since Easter. So much so, that I sank into a period of what I can only describe as utter exhaustion once the final bell rang for the school day and for my career at the school.

The last few days of work were a whirlwind of events; including graduation and award ceremonies, talent shows and also farewell assemblies for those who were leaving this year. I was one of those members of staff leaving for pastures new.

I wrote in my previous post about some of the wonderful students who I have had the privilege of working with over the past three years. But I have also worked with some colleagues who have opened my eyes to new experiences and caused me to challenge some of my own preconceptions in the teaching bubble and outside of it.

So in my next post, I am going to explore some of those experiences, now that I have the energy and space to reflect on the ride that has been living and working in Vietnam for the past three years.

A Letter to my Students

Some years ago I recall watching the first series of Channel 4’s Educating Essex, and in one particular episode, the wonderful Mr Drew says whilst chatting to his GCSE History class, “You have no idea how much I like teaching you”.

The pleasure in how he expresses this remarkably simple statement of affection is tangible to see. The students kick back in their chairs laughing, but they are not laughing at Mr Drew, as you can see on their faces that they are thinking something similar, perhaps “But Mr Drew, you have no idea how much we like being taught by you!”

The scene has always stuck with me because I have felt the same about particular students in the past, but this year I am incredibly lucky to have an entire class that I feel that way about.

I know that it could be described as unprofessional to have a ‘favourite class’ and when I was training this was described as a definite no-no, but on a day-to-day basis, I firmly believe that this labelling does not interfere with my other classes, all of whom I equally enjoy teaching. But there is something about this class; it could be down to the expressive joy in how you approach your learning, your individual inquisitive natures, the camaraderie that you express to one another in the class, or all of the above. But I look forward to each and every single lesson. There is something truly magical about it.

Some of you have asked about my reasons for leaving the school at the end of this academic year; why couldn’t I stay? At least to see you through until you head off into the big, wide world next year. I can assure you that my decision has nothing to do with you or any of the students that I teach.

I have been teaching for nearly a decade and worked in a variety of schools and over the years I have seen so much change. In many respects I thought that I had evolved along with the changes rung in by successive governments and school leadership teams; I have always done what has been required and more in most cases, I have put in the hours and have been rewarded by receiving additional responsibilities.

As the years have rolled by, I have become more confident in my own value as a teacher and as an individual; I have always been keen to develop professionally and have supported my teams in doing the same. I also found my voice and will speak up when I have felt it necessary, occasionally ruffling a few management feathers as a result. I don’t speak up to deliberately throw things off balance, but to hopefully provide some healthy dialogue about the rationale behind the purpose and practicality of some school initiatives even if I am left dissatisfied with the end result.

But then I moved to our school and found that the management did not appreciate or even tolerate questions being asked. By anyone. To them, asking questions is a direct challenge to their authority.

Last year when I submitted a formal complaint about a member of the senior leadership team about how he had failed to deal with what should have been a simple department related issue, and his subsequent insulting manner in how he spoke to a colleague and myself, I had hoped that by following a formal process that I was protected to some extent from any backlash. I was wrong and naive. As well as being ‘encouraged’ to retract the complaint, otherwise ensuring a significant blemish on any future references, I was also reminded that my management responsibility could be taken away at any point. In the end, I backed down, I didn’t want to potentially ruin the years I had put into my career and I quickly learnt not to question the management again.

The irony of this, of course, is that we wish to encourage our students to do just that – to ask questions. As teachers we want students to develop skills of analysis and evaluation, yet as adults, if you question the legitimacy of certain actions you are vilified for it. Therefore, over a few short years of working at the school and with a drip-drip effect of what has felt like my actions and those of colleagues being constantly undermined that is also supported by a culture of blame, and in some cases blatant sexism and racism, it has meant that I have become another passive member of the teaching body. I don’t speak up even to protect my colleagues and students by what appears to be bullying tactics from some of the management team. I am not only angry at myself because of this but I have gradually lost the passion that I once had for teaching, at least in this school.

My decision to leave the school has not been an easy one. However, in the past year or so the periods of depression that I have experienced, I believe can be at least partly attributed to burnout from the job and I have slowly come to accept that my mental health is more important than attempting to please any manager who sees the staff as mere commodities and students just as figures on spreadsheets. None of the management has thought to reflect on the reasons why over a third of the teaching faculty are leaving this summer because surely, it can’t be anything to do with them.

You’ve also asked if I will cry on my last day – I most definitely will! You genuinely have no idea how much I have enjoyed teaching you and so I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Ps. Ask questions. Ask lots of them.

Moving On

Two years ago I wrote a post with the very same title as this one. Although the content between this post and that are vastly different, the theme, however, is the same – change. As over the next few weeks and months, things will change for me in a number of different ways. I am not only moving house, I am also moving for work and to be in the same country and city with my partner of 18 months.

As I sit and write this post I am sat on my sofa occasionally glancing up from the laptop screen to take stock of the four walls around me. Above the TV on the opposite wall, there used to be a large map where I had placed stickers of the various countries that I have visited. Around this I had stuck photos and postcards from some of these travel destinations; some were of landscapes, and many contained images of family and friends.

Looking at it now the bare wall reminds me that I the life I currently lead is, and always has been temporary.

As I write those words, I feel a wave of sadness wash over me as if to encourage me to hide away, to try and pretend that things aren’t changing around me. But if there is one thing that I have learnt over the past three years it is this, although we may not have control over a lot of things that may happen, we do have some power over how we respond to the change. And at least for now, I want to face this change that conjures anxiety and uncertainty and try to embrace it.

Reflect, Review, Repeat

As we near the end of the summer term and with exams nearly over, attention has turned to staff appraisals. Unlike previous schools that I have worked in, where these are completed twice a year (at the beginning and around now), my current school requires us to complete these each term, with five in total.

The senior management feel that these regular appraisals with a nickname of RAG (for red, amber, green) provides us with meaningful reflection, where our performance (for instance in terms of examination results) and personal conduct is scrutinised each term and then colour-coded with a few comments thrown in for extra padding.

But I wonder, aside from the additional paperwork that this fairly repetitive task creates for me as a Head of Department as well as for my peers, are these RAGs actually worth the paper that they are written on*?

This is a tricky question to answer in relation to teaching and education generally. The role is incredibly varied and although we receive a lot of instructions and directions from sources above us, with the idea of us obviously following these, on a day-to-day basis we generally have a large amount of autonomy, primarily in our classroom.

But this question came to my mind for a number of reasons recently, firstly because I am currently in the process of writing up appraisal reports for my team as well as receiving my own, and also when I hit publish on my previous post it forced me to reflect on some of the reasons why I am happy about stepping down from a management role.

In my current school’s system, in theory, nobody should receive a ‘red’ unless something serious has happened as staff should have been made aware of any concerns before it got to the stage of having it included on their appraisal. And conversely, no one should be awarded a ‘green’ unless they have done something exceptionally good.

But this is where the water gets murky for my current school’s appraisal system, as some of the categories on which we are judged are suspect at best and in some situations just bizarre; with things like ‘Behaviour as a role model’, ‘Appearance’ and ‘School ambassador’ included in the document alongside ‘Task completion’, ‘Attendance’ and ‘Relationships’.

In my first year, I was awarded amber for my ‘Appearance’ and I was fairly surprised. I have always thought that I dressed appropriately, comfortable and professional yet keeping within my own personal style. By my final appraisal and after receiving amber for the entire year, I queried this, how does one go about getting a green for appearance?

My line manager’s response was that he couldn’t give me many greens as it was only my first year and that ‘I needed something to work towards’. So I need to work towards wearing more professional clothes? But ultimately this told me that the rationale for the amber was less to do with my actual appearance and more to do with management not wanting the form to look too green, i.e., too positive!

Another example relates to a box entitled ‘Job fit’ where the same colour-coding system is used to establish whether you are effective as a worker, a manager and as a leader. The same line manager said that he felt that I was a good manager but ‘he couldn’t see me as a leader’. Again, I queried this, how would he identify a leader in an organisation? I was provided with a vague response about a leader having that special magical ingredient that sets them apart from just being a manager. His comment did make some sense, but in all honesty if that’s the case, I don’t see any of the management at the school as being leaders either.

Sigh…

In my current role, I have been required to issue a small number of reds on a couple of colleague’s RAGs. My line manager insists that these kinds of details are recorded on their appraisals and that it is discussed during our termly meetings. Sure, if something serious has happened then (if appropriate) immediate action may be required but in many incidences, the issues are rare and sometimes out of my colleague’s control (i.e., it’s not necessarily that they weren’t at fault, but other factors and other people were also involved).

It feels more like reflection just for the sake of reflection, without any clear guidance on genuine suggestions for improvements. The box can be ticked. Move on.

So it comes probably as no surprise but obviously with great sadness (!) that one of the aspects of my current role that I am not going to miss is related to what I feel is more like a pointless administrative task, which doesn’t actually provide sufficient support either to myself or to members of my team about their performance. I don’t know what to suggest as an alternative, but I know that colour-coding the negatives and positives doesn’t cut it.

* The short answer is no.

GOODBYE MIDDLE MANAGEMENT, AND GOOD RIDDANCE

Three years ago when I started working at my current school I was looking forward to stepping down from the ‘management plate’. I had had pretty much had my fill of working in the higher middle management echelons after working as Head of Key Stage 5 in my previous position. It hadn’t been all bad, I found that I was fairly effective at dealing with university applications and recruitment fairs as well as organising pastoral activities for tutors. And there were parts I thoroughly enjoyed and gained great satisfaction from, such as working with students to help them consider their options post school. But the shine had worn off quickly when I found myself repeatedly butting heads with a colleague working at a similar level to me over administrative tasks, she was constantly trying to pass additional work my way when this should have been shared evenly. Although the issues were minor in the grand scheme of things, it was like a drip-drip effect, somewhat like low-level disruption and it gradually wore me down.

Part of the appeal of the school I applied for three years ago (that is, my current school) was that I would return to being ‘just a teacher again’. I had been burnt in my previous position and aside from a desire to lick my wounds for a period of time, I was lacking confidence in my own ability. I was ready to focus on teaching again after putting this largely on the backburner for a little over a year. I had still been teaching whilst holding the Head of Key Stage 5 position, but in reality, the demands of the management role superseded my teaching and it had suffered as a result.

After a few days into my new role three years ago I was approached about taking on some additional responsibility as a Head of Department. Shocked and surprised didn’t even cut it. Gobsmacked more like. I had only been there a matter of days and was still feeling some of the effects of jetlag, and so I knew that I wasn’t thinking straight when the headteacher asked to speak to me in his office.

It transpired that a colleague was stepping down due to illness; it would only be for a year he said, there’d be plenty of support he said, and don’t worry he added. A people pleaser through and through and having my ego stroked (including the prospect of an additional monthly financial incentive) cemented my acceptance of the role with little real thought at the time of what the role would entail. I even glibly ignored the fact that the headteacher had said during this meeting that one of the reasons they were considering me was because I had no ‘ties’, i.e., no kids and having my then partner based in another country meant that I had no distractions. I would focus on the job at hand. Why the hell I didn’t walk out the door at that point I have no idea, but then that could have been the people pleaser in me. But then, he was right, I was in that position. However, knowing the headteacher as I know him now, I am well aware that the issue of ‘ties’ would never have been raised with a male colleague in a similar position.

Three years on and I am still in the role of Head of Department, although I will be stepping down once more when I leave in a few weeks time. To say that I am excited would be an understatement, I am ecstatic. And to illustrate how happy I am about relinquishing the role, when I was being interviewed for my new position the headteacher asked me for my feelings on this, i.e., would I be comfortable in going back to being ‘just a teacher?’

My response?

A huge smile lit up my face.

THE COMPARISON GAME

It’s that time of year again.

Study leave for examination students.

During this summer term I have been in the fortunate position of having a lighter teaching timetable and so it has meant that I have been able to get on with some planning for my new position that begins this summer, as well as have a general tidy up of existing planning and resources. Due to my management position also, I have been required to organise relevant documentation in order to pass onto ‘the new me’, so apart from a few slightly extended lunches since we returned to work after the Easter break I have been productive with my gained time.

However, not everyone in my school is happy with a section of the teaching body getting ‘all this free time’ with the majority of grumbles coming from the primary section. Unlike the schools, I worked at in the UK where primary and secondary schools are predominately separate in terms of geography, in the two international schools I have worked in so far their primary and secondary schools have been located on the same site.

A close friend made these familiar-sounding grumbles recently where, during dinner with a group after work, she proceeded to compare her working hours as a primary teacher to that of an ‘average secondary teacher’. I tried to maintain a cool and calm exterior whilst she berated the ‘average secondary teacher’, arguing that our work was easy in comparison, particularly at this time of year. Perhaps understandably I felt myself become defensive in response to some of her remarks. Of course whilst there will always be some teachers who kick back during this time, they are in the minority. It is in fact during this time when most secondary teachers are catching up on planning and resourcing for new courses or updating what currently exists, and that’s if they don’t still have a heavy teaching timetable (for instance with KS3) or, if they are working in a school that doesn’t offer their students study leave.

But at the time I didn’t say any of this out loud at the time, as we would have ended up going around in circles as well as probably ending the evening by falling out. Plus, I have heard it all before, from her in particular and when I have tried to provide some balance it has fallen on deaf ears. It’s like comparing apples and oranges I reminded myself and that there are some comparison games that are simply pointless in playing.

But what would be nice is that rather than working against one another and seeing ourselves in a perpetual state of competition over our hours, our tasks and even our status within teaching, couldn’t we try and be a little bit more supportive?

ONE WAY… OR ANOTHER?

Back in early April, Theresa May called for a ‘snap’ general election and today is voting day. It’s an interesting way of running what is a pretty important national event, being able to call for an election and set a date for within six weeks time. That’s my idea of stress! But then again, perhaps we should be grateful for these ‘snap’ elections, my partner who is American had two years of lead-up before the US presidential election finally came to a close.

I landed back in the UK for my Easter break not long after May’s announcement and the conversation quickly turned to politics, with my dad asking me for my thoughts on the drive back from the airport. I said that I was surprised, especially considering that May had declared a number of times during the first months of her leadership that there would be no general election. After all, it’s just shy of a year when we voted in the EU referendum. And only a year before that was the previous general election. You have to wonder if the general public is a bit ‘electioned out’.

My parents have always been relatively private about their voting intentions and have certainly not been particularly vocal about their political leanings. With the only exception being the 1997 general election where I know that both my parents voted for New Labour. At least for them back then, something had to change and that even included telling other people about their voting plans.

Fast forward twenty years and for this election, I feel a sense of energy that I haven’t felt for some time, perhaps since the first time I was able to cast a vote in 2001. I didn’t vote in the previous two general elections and although I cannot place my rationale for this squarely at the door of apathy, that certainly played a part. But I can’t help but wonder if this newfound energy (whether that’s in me or I am feeling the buzz within wider society) is the result of feeling that there is more of a choice this time around, compared to the past two elections where it felt like each political party was more of the same.  

So I had better get my vote in.

Oh, and I am voting Labour… just in case you might be interested.