Teacher Development: A Real Need for English Departments in Vietnam Pham...
Teacher Development: A Real Need
for English Departments in Vietnam
Pham Hoa Hiep, M.A.
To develop as teachers, we must overcome obstacles, think outside
the box, and most of all, want to grow.
Although teacher development has been a familiar
by giving teachers opportunities to reflect on class-
notion in the ELT profession for the last few decades, it
room practice, gain insight into teaching experiences,
is relatively new and receives insufficient attention in
view education as a long-term process, and deal with
Vietnam. This article will examine teacher training and
change and divergence.
teacher development in Vietnam. It will also suggest
ways to promote professional development amongst
Problems in Teacher Education in Vietnam
EFL teachers there, which may be applicable to similar
situations in other countries.
Inadequate Teacher Training
What Is Teacher Development?
In 1986,Vietnam decided to open its doors to catch
up with the economic boom in other Southeast Asian
Brown optimistically remarks: “One of the most
countries. This policy caused a tremendous growth in
interesting things about teaching is that you never stop
the number of English as a foreign language classes and
learning” (p. 425). Put simply, teacher development is
a severe shortage of teachers of English. To meet the
the process of lifelong learning in the teaching profes-
great demand for English teaching, a considerable num-
sion; it involves any activities aiming to achieve person-
ber of young teachers of English have been recruited in
al and professional growth for teachers. Development
haste, without undergoing careful consideration of their
activities can range from observing colleagues’ classes,
skills or abilities. It is a universal problem at most insti-
reading academic journals and books, and attending con-
tutions in Vietnam that university graduates become
ferences, to collaborating with other teachers in class-
teachers overnight without adequate preparation in
room research or other professional projects (Brown;
TEFL methodology. Many young, unqualified teachers
Crandall; Diaz-Rico).
are given demanding teaching schedules and do not
have much opportunity to get involved in any activity
Why Is Teacher Development Necessary?
for professional development. Many lack confidence in
teaching methodology. This problem is understandable
because their undergraduate courses were often based
The need for teacher development arises from the
on linguistics and literature and dealt very little with
inadequacy of training courses, which alone cannot fully
teaching practice. In general, Vietnamese teachers of
enable teachers to be dynamic and competent in their
job. Any training course, either pre-service or in-service,
English have little opportunity to obtain further training
long-term or short-term, can be criticized for shortcom-
in teaching methodology after graduation (Pham).
ings. Training courses, even the lengthy ones, such as
Older and more experienced teachers are not much
those needed for a graduate degree in TESOL, cannot sat-
better qualified than their younger counterparts, nor are
isfy all trainees’ needs, nor can they solve most of the
they well-trained in teaching methodology. Many of the
problems occurring at the trainees’ home institutions.
older teachers undertook training in the past, when
The course itself is not the end of a career; after the
modern approaches and methods had not reached the
course there is still life and trainees must face reality at
country yet, and were deprived of the knowledge of
home (Spratt). Therefore, along with teacher training,
modern teaching methods. Due to the political changes
teacher development must be a vital component in
in 1975, Le points out, in the 1970s and 1980s, English
teacher education. Development fills the gap in training
was not considered an important language in Vietnam.
Teacher’s Edition
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September 2002

As a result, little attention was paid to teaching and
probably gives them more prestige, but limits the oppor-
learning English until 1986. For the teachers who were
tunities for helping less experienced colleagues develop
trained before 1986, their preferred method is grammar-
their professional skills.
translation because they are most confident using it.
Although the opportunity for Vietnamese teachers
It should also be noted that most of the former
to learn about new teaching methods has increased over
teachers of Russian are now working as teachers of
the past few years, this has often brought about negative
English in Vietnam. Before 1986, Russian was a compul-
effects. Due to time constraints, the short-term work-
sory language at universities, and at many institutions
shops (lasting from a day to a week) organized by aid
the teachers of Russian far outnumbered the teachers of
agencies have not given teachers a complete knowledge
English. The collapse of the Soviet Union made thou-
of communicative methodology. It is often the case that
sands of teachers of Russian redundant. These teachers
teachers, after having obtained their knowledge of com-
were retrained, usually for a two-year period, to become
municative language teaching through a short-term
teachers of English. They started the retraining pro-
workshop or training course, attempt to use the method-
grams as beginners or false beginners in English. A few
ology in their classes. However, their attempts are for-
made fast progress in learning English and have become
mulaic in that they strictly adhere to the processes that
confident in their new positions. The majority of them,
they have recently learnt at the workshop. When they
however, despite their background in language teaching
realize that not all of the ideas of the new methodology
and learning, have reported that they barely benefited
can work for their students, they lose confidence and
from the two years of retraining in terms of English lan-
decide not to use any of it. As a result, many teachers
guage skills and new teaching methodology. Many for-
develop a belief that communicative methods are only
mer teachers of Russian lack confidence and consider
applicable in other countries, where the teaching and
themselves not qualified to teach English (Pham).
learning contexts are different. In other words, the con-
cept of a flexible, empirical approach to teaching has yet
Inadequate Teacher Development
to be grasped by many Vietnamese teachers.
The concept of teacher development is quite new in
A Teacher’s Life and Career Hinder
Vietnam. Many teachers express their wish to go abroad
to study for a degree or attend training workshops
organized by foreign aid agencies. Not many mention
The heavy workload of many teachers of English is
the possibility of autonomous learning or learning from
a challenge to the improvement of teaching quality.
their own colleagues. The notion of organizing in-serv-
While the official workload required by the Ministry of
ice development in the form of class observations, sem-
Education and Training is only 10 to 12 hours a week,
inars, workshops or even informal talks, which would
everyone does more work to supplement the modest
give colleagues from the same working context the
state salary. This situation can be easily understood: a
opportunity to exchange ideas and share experiences
teacher’s salary in Vietnam is extremely low in compari-
and innovations, seems uncommon in Vietnam. One
son to other occupations. After the mandated teaching
teacher commented, “The staff of our English depart-
hours to maintain their positions at the university, many
ment meets a couple of times a semester. We just meet
teachers use the rest of their time for additional teaching
for administrative work but rarely for professional devel-
at other institutions, where their work is paid by the
opment purposes” (Pham).
hour. Consequently, the teacher of English works like a
In most English departments, there are several staff
“teaching machine.” It is not uncommon to find a
members fortunate enough to have obtained a firm
grounding in ESOL teaching though graduate training
teacher who teaches five classes in the morning, five
abroad. Unfortunately, these qualified lecturers seem
others in the afternoon, and two others in the evening.
not to be very efficient in training their younger and less
Many teachers even give private classes on Sunday. With
experienced colleagues. Upon returning home from
an overload of teaching hours, many have no time to
successful graduate TESOL courses, such fortunate indi-
plan their lessons before class. They usually bring to
viduals are often assigned to teach the high-level, chal-
class a course book, such as Headway or Streamline,
lenging academic content courses, such as American
along with the teacher’s book. They try to follow the
civilization, English literature, or linguistics.
teacher’s book and finish a unit in the textbook by the
Teacher’s Edition
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September 2002

end of the lesson. For many teachers, any alteration to
Examples of Teachers Making a Difference
these “instant lessons” is considered risky.
(1) Nguyen taught speaking to pre-intermediate stu-
What Is the Solution?
dents. He was very busy and felt that he did not have
enough time to develop good speaking tasks for his stu-
Given these unfavorable conditions, many teachers
dents. Nguyen realized that his colleagues had the same
in Vietnam believe that change will not take place in
problem. When Nguyen and other teachers met during
their lives and careers until there are major changes in
tea breaks, Nguyen suggested that they organize a
the national educational system. It is true that the gov-
shared teaching folder. They decided that after each one
ernment needs to invest more in education, plus the cur-
developed a task sheet for use in class, a copy would be
rent examination system and curriculum need revision.
put in a folder that would always be available in the
However, teachers and their institutions still can
department office. Nguyen’s idea worked well. The fold-
improve the situation while they wait for change.
er got thicker and thicker week by week. All of the
It has been my experience doing teacher training at
teachers were happy because they could not only save
the Vietnam-Australia Training Project in Hanoi that
time preparing task sheets, but also share ideas with
there are two kinds of teachers. The first kind of teacher
each other for teaching speaking.
always believes that the new methods and techniques
(2) Ly had a problem getting students to do group work
introduced at a training course will not work at all in
in her class. Every time she asked students to sit in
their home institutions. These teachers tend to immedi-
groups, the students were not willing to move. They
ately reject new ideas suggested by colleagues or train-
wanted to stick with their classmates who were friends
ers. They make excuses such as “This technique is
and talk in Vietnamese. She mentioned the problem to
impossible because I have impassive students” or “My
a more experienced teacher, Tam, who suggested that
class is too large”or “I lack materials.” They always attrib-
instead of simply saying “Now work in groups” and
ute the impracticability of a new technique to various
pointing at the students, Ly should give each group a
socio-cultural conditions at home. They assume that
name of an animal, then assign individual students to
nothing can be done to improve their teaching situation,
groups. For example, she could say,“Students in the first
so they are reluctant to try anything.
row: you are a cat, you are a dog, you are a rooster, and
The second kind of teacher is different. Like the
you are a monkey. Now the second row, you are a cat,
first kind, they are aware of the unfavorable factors at
you are a dog, you are a rooster...” Then she would ask
their institutions, but unlike the first kind, these teachers
all the “cats” to sit together, all the “dogs” to sit together,
want to try new ideas. Rather than letting themselves be
and so on. Ly decided to try this technique in her class
and learnt that it worked quite well. “The students had
totally shaped by the context in which they work, they
fun. Now they are willing to move anywhere in the
try to change it, even though the change they can make
class,” Ly commented. Ly developed another version of
is small.
the same technique. Because some students do not
What follows are six examples of the second kind of
want to have animal labels, she gives students numbers
teacher among my trainees at a teacher in-service edu-
or nationalities, such as French, English, and Chinese. At
cation program. After their course, many teachers often
the end of the semester, Ly published her ideas in the
wrote to me and told me what happened at their home
department newsletter.
institutions. These are only small events in their English
departments, but I believe they have helped a great deal
(3) Nhan was just back from her three-month in-service
to improve the teaching in many English classes. (The
course in Hanoi. She was full of new ideas and eager to
names given here are not the teachers’ real names.)
share them with her colleagues. Encouraged by the
The heavy workload of many teachers of English
is a challenge to the improvement of teaching quality.
Teacher’s Edition
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September 2002

department head, she decided to run a monthly work-
good idea, but mentioned she was afraid she would run
shop, hoping to transfer these ideas to the less experi-
out of ideas soon. Hearing that, another teacher sug-
enced teachers. After several meetings, she realized that
gested that the teacher do warm-up activities for a week,
not all of the classroom techniques she learnt in Hanoi
then ask each student to plan a warm-up activity at
were welcomed by her colleagues, and some ideas were
home to lead in class. One teacher had done this before
even considered weird, though she assured her col-
in his class and the students were quite happy. Thanh
leagues that she herself had tried them successfully in
entered her class happily, knowing that she had found a
her own classes. Nhan decided to do a research project
possible solution.
on the applicability of the new “foreign” ideas to
Vietnamese classrooms. She found out that her col-
leagues’ English language skills were not as good as hers.
Instead of giving workshops on teaching methodology,
If the purpose of teaching a language is to enable
she held workshops on language skills development.
learners to establish good human relationships with
Then her workshops attracted more of her colleagues.
each other and the world, then it is ironic that many lan-
(4) Lien Huong was assigned to teach English and
guage teachers have little or insufficient communication
American literature for third-year students. She had to
among themselves. How can English language teachers
follow a course book compiled many years earlier by a
encourage students to communicate with each other,
foreign expert in literature. She soon found out that the
when we rarely communicate with our colleagues? The
students were not very interested in the course, so she
six examples above suggest that action research and col-
designed a questionnaire and gave it to them. She learnt
laboration amongst teachers are two important ways to
that the two main reasons they did not like the class
promote teacher development. It is important for teach-
were that the language in the course book was too diffi-
ers to reflect on their current teaching practice to iden-
cult and academic, and the authors and the literary
tify problems. Then they need to think what they would
works in the book were too unfamiliar in Vietnam. Lien
like to change and what can realistically be changed.
Huong then talked about this issue with her colleagues
Once these two steps have been taken, teachers may
in the Division of Culture and Literature. As a result, the
confidently work out possible solutions.
head of the division was convinced that the course book
Furthermore, in the increasing professionalization of
needed to be rewritten by the teachers themselves, pay-
ELT, it is easy to feel isolated from changes in theory and
ing attention to the students’ linguistic level and the
practice unless a conscious effort is undertaken to keep
inclusion of British and American writers whose works
up-to-date. As Perren suggests, teachers need always to
had been translated into Vietnamese. Her colleagues
ask questions, such as: What will my colleagues think of
also agreed that language skills improvement should be
my lessons and activities? Am I ready to share my ideas
another objective of the literature course.
with others? How are they going to scrutinize my teach-
ing? What do I have to offer another teacher? Can that
(5) Ha had been a teacher of Russian. She had to teach
teacher learn from me? How should we communicate
English now and always felt unqualified. She was very
with each other? What is effective teaching? How can I
self-conscious of her speaking. Then Ha decided to be a
make my teaching more effective? These questions
regular observer of Nguyen’s class. By the end of the
would be most useful for designing institutional profes-
semester, Ha said she was more confident in her lan-
sional development.
guage skills.
She said that she had benefited from
Finally, I would like to address the question of time.
Nguyen’s class not only in language skills but also in
How can a teacher find enough time for professional
teaching methodology.
development? This seems to be a dilemma very often
(6) Thanh realized that most students in her afternoon
associated with money, and therefore, I leave this issue
class, which started at one p.m., felt tired and unwilling
to each individual teacher to resolve. However, I believe
to study because they could not take a midday nap—a
that all teachers can find some time in their busy sched-
cultural habit in Vietnam. Thanh mentioned this to some
ules to engage in professional improvement activities.
teachers in the staff room. A colleague suggested that a
No improvement can be made unless teachers want to
15-minute interesting warm-up activity should be given
change, and as the old saying goes, where there is a will,
at the beginning of each class. Thanh thought it was a
there is a way.
Teacher’s Edition
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September 2002

Pham, H.H. “The Key Socio-Cultural Factors That Work
Against Success in Tertiary English Language Training
Brown, H.D. Teaching By Principles: An Interactive
Programs in Vietnam.” In Partnership and Interaction:
Approach to Language Pedagogy.
Prentice Hall
Proceedings of the Fourth International Conference on
Regents, 1994.
Language and Development (Hanoi,Vietnam,, October
Crandall, J. “Keeping Up to Date as an ESL Professional.”
13-15, 1999). Ed. J. Shaw, D. Lubelska, and M. Noullet.
In Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language.
2nd ed. Ed. M. Celce-Murcia. Heinle and Heinle, 1991.
Spratt, M. English for the Teacher. Cambridge University
Diaz-Rico, L.T. “Ethics and Expertise in TESL Professional
Press, 1994.
Development.” Paper presented at the 32nd Annual
TESOL Convention, Seattle,Washington, March 1998.
This article is reprinted with permission from English
Teaching Forum, Vol. 39, No. 4, October 2001.
Le, V.
“Day va hoc ngoai ngu—Nhung nghich ly.”
(“Teaching and Learning Foreign Languages—The
Paradoxes.”) Giao Duc va Thoi Dai Chu Nhat, p. 6.
Pham Hoa Hiep (M.A., Bilingual/ESL Studies, University
(The Education and Time Newspaper, Sunday edition.)
of Massachusetts-Boston) teaches at Hue University and
5 November 1997.
is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Education at the
Perren, J. “Lifelong Learning, Reflective Practice, and
University of Melbourne. He has contributed two previ-
Teacher Development.” Paper presented at the Fourth
ous articles to Teacher’s Edition.
International Conference on Language and
Development, Hanoi, October 1999.
Ideas on the Go
thinking. What are some things you can do with this?
• Require each student in a group to be able to ask a
What’s the Question?
different question. This will give the better students
in a group the responsibility of helping prepare the
Tim Hunsberger
poorer speakers to talk.
• If the students are all pretty good, you could do this
Goal: Students develop skills in associating and
as a race. The first group to be ready and complete
the task correctly wins.
I think teachers are usually great at asking questions,
• Let one group ask a list of questions in front of the
and students at giving answers. I suppose this is
class, and the rest of the students must guess what the
because teachers know what they want to talk about,
single answer is.
and they want to know if students can give back the
• As a class, try to get 10, 20, or even 100 questions
right information.
that all have the same answer. This might be a project
However, for the purpose of giving students
that takes more work or time. If you set your goal
another type of language to use, we can change it
as 100, this could take a couple of months, during
around: The teacher gives the answer, and asks stu-
which time you could keep a running list posted in
dents,“What’s the question?”. Here is an example of
the classroom.
how it works:
• Can you think of other angles for this activity?
Teacher: “Red”is the answer, now what’s the question?
Developing your own ways to get your students talk-
Student A: What color is meat?
ing is its own reward!
Student B: What is one color in a rainbow?
Student C: What is a word that has three letters?

Tim Hunsberger is the ELI Mongolia Country

This is a different way to get students talking and
Teacher’s Edition
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September 2002