If you missed Story Basket vol. 1, you can read that HERE. Welcome to the 2nd installment of the ESL Teaching “Story Basket.”
Make some popcorn / get nice and cozy / go to the bathroom now because this one is a bit longer than the last one.
4th Place 🙌
The “Get Out Jail Free” Card
Hanoi is not a modern city. Most of the buildings I teach in have clearly been in use since before the war between Vietnam and America. I like that about Hanoi – the city has a rare authenticity to it. How does this relate to the story? There are bars on the windows of all my classrooms in public schools.
Early one rainy Saturday morning I was teaching a boring class to a crowd of 40 sleepy high-schoolers. There was a girl sitting next to an open, barred window who was slyly playing with her phone. Now that I’ve been both the student and the teacher I don’t know how I ever thought my phone activities were possibly going unnoticed back in high school. It’s pretty easy to spot.
I didn’t care to call her out though. It was too early for me to muster the enthusiasm. The principal of the school felt differently however. And she just so happened to be walking down the hall from behind the girl as she texted. The principal saw the girl texting, and, without missing a beat, reached her arm through the bars of the window, took the phone out of her hand, and continued walking down the hall gracefully. The girl was startled and mortified. Those in the class that noticed this low-key interaction chuckled… as did I.
After class I was walking back out to my motorbike, ready to find some breakfast, when both my T.A. and the girl who had been texting ran me down and asked me to write a note to principal saying that I had specifically told her that it was okay to use her phone so that she might recover her phone. Students in Vietnam have a limited capacity to be afraid of me because they know that word of their tomfoolery is not likely ever to reach their parents. But with their Vietnamese teachers, and especially their principal, they are scared stiff. Their parents will find out, and God only knows what kind of shameful punishment they will face when they get home. Could it be that a student was about to get in actual trouble for what they did during my class, for once?
"Buttttttt I didn't tell her that...” I responded with tired indifference.
The girl whispered something to my T.A. “She says that she promises never to text in your class again if you write her this note” came the translation.
I was pretty unmoved by the whole thing. The only reason she needed a translator to have this conversation in the first place was because she always texts in my class. But I was getting serious puppy-dog eyes so, thoroughly annoyed, I wrote her the stupid note and went on my way. It was the path of least resistance at that point.
Now, I know you must be dying to know —did she keep her promise never to text in my class again?
3rd Place 🥉
Making A Teenage Boy Cry
I had a class full of 8th graders that I taught every Saturday morning for a long time. They were bad. I actually love teaching these kinds of classes at this age range though. These students can be a lot of fun if you can get them to engage. But that iseasier said than done. It requires some tact. And you have to be very loud and very interesting for any of them to listen. I like it when I can be the ‘cool’ teacher, but sometimes you’ve got to give out a little tough love.
One morning I was teaching this class and they were rowdier than usual. I don't know what got into them that morning but it was really loud, dude. I was less than 10 minutes into my lesson before I decided that, for the love of God, I had to do something to quell some of this noise.
I scanned the room. There was a cluster of girls and a cluster of boys. Most of the noise was coming from the girls’ side so I chose the girl who’s eyes I had seen the least so far in class (because she was always looking away to talk to somebody) and I decided to uproot her. I told Mrs. Popular to move to the middle of the boys’ side of the room. She gave an exasperated sigh but she stood up and moved. And the class was a bit quieter.
But 5 minutes later I was still not satisfied with the noise level in the classroom so I did the same thing to Mr. Popular on the boys’ side of the room.
“Get up and come sit over here” I told him, gesturing at Mrs. Popular’s recently vacated desk.
The boy shook his head.
“... Seriously, get up and move.”
The boy looked very serious. “No” he said flatly.
I took a step forward. Just then my T.A. ran up behind me and pulled my sleeve to whisper into my ear “That boy is a bit… special, so... maybe it doesn’t matter...”
“...you mean this kid is retarded?” I asked, irritated.
“Well… no…” she began.
“Okay.” I said loudly, turning back to the boy. “I’m not asking you, I’m telling you. Get up NOW.”
The boy’s eyes shot over to my T.A.
“Hey! Don’t look at her. She can't save you. Look at me. You need to get up right now!” I said loudly.
The class was almost silent now. The children whispered to each other. The boy stared at me, defiantly.
“Hookay, I’m going to give you 2 options. Either get up and change seats… or leave.”
There was a pause. Then the students around him began to turn against him. “Ooooooo!” they howled with their hands over their mouths. “Teacha! Kick him out teacha!!” somebody yelled. The boy’s face was turning red. “Look at him! He’s crying!” somebody else yelled with a pointed finger.
Is this kid really crying? … Yup, he is. Dammit.
There were big salty tears running down his face now. The class quickly began to devolve into a full-on meltdown of ridicule. I didn’t need to say anything further. I had already accomplished much more than what I set out to do. All I wanted was for the boy to move to a place where he wouldn’t be so distracted, but I ended up having to make an example out of him. The kid was asking for it though. I don’t need my classes to be absolutely silent; I like to think I run a pretty laid back class. You can get away with a lot in my class (if you didn't pick that up from the previous installment of this post) but I do need to be respected. I was actually starting to feel a bit bad about this boy's public shaming but I had to stick to my guns.
The boy got up slowly and began to walk. He walked past the seat where I told him to move to and out of the classroom with his head hung low. Cue the sad Charlie Brown music.
“Sooooo anyway” I began. The students laughed and we actually went on to have one of our best classes ever! The next week the boy didn’t say a word and I never had a student say no to me again.
2nd Place 🥈
Making Another Teenage Boy Cry
This story, unsurprisingly, goes a lot like the previous one. It was at a different school but with a similar class with the same age range. This class was one of my favorites I’ve ever taught actually. I loved those kids. But one day there was a new student: a chubby little kid with thick-frame glasses and a red baseball cap.
I started the class that day with a few questions for my students. To every question I asked he would raise his hand, stand up and give responses that were so nonsensical that it was hard to respond with anything other than “…Ehhhhkay? …Anybody else?” He clearly thought he was being very clever though. He stuck his pudgy little belly out proudly and curled his lips down into a comical frown, trying to get a few laughs.
You know, that’s fine. Whatever. He’s just another in a long line of little douchebags I’ve taught. On to the next! I can handle kids seeking out the attention they aren’t getting at home during my class. What I can’t handle though is what happened next.
Just then, the boy sitting behind this little hooligan swiped the red baseball cap off of his head. The boy swirled around and lunged for his stolen hat. The thief stood up to avoid him. Our now hat-less hooligan jumped up onto the table where he had been sitting and began to run – feet on the table – towards the hat thief. The thief turned to run away and the chase was on. The 2 of them circled the room 4 times. The thief took a fairly conservative route, keeping his feet on the ground, but the hat-less hooligan knocked over chairs and ran ON tables whenever he could. It was a spectacle. And it went on for way to long. It looked like they were trying to recreate a chase scene from one of the Bourne movies.
The rest of the class and I were in the same boat at this point, just silently watching this unfold in shock and awe. It was like a slow motion train wreck that you can't look away from. These kids are not a quiet bunch, but even they were at a bit of a loss for how to react to what was happening.
Finally the hat was recovered. The boy yelled a few things and then sat down chuckling and looking back and forth at his peers for some reassurance that he was cool.
Now there was a lull and the class was silent. I could feel all eyes turn to me. I walked over to the boy, who was trying to catch his breath and still looking around with a smile. I stopped in front of his desk and looked at him.
“Get out” I said quietly, pointing at the door.
The boy was taken aback. He looked at me with a furrowed brow and timidly responded “No.”
“You don’t understand! I’m not asking you, I’m telling you! Why would you think that’s okay to do in my class?? WHY?” I said in a loud voice, struggling to channel my feelings into words that had a good chance of actually being understood.
The boy was silent, like a terrified little frog.
I pointed at the door again. “GET. OUT. NOW.”
I could see tears but I didn’t feel bad this time. Not even a little bit. I mean really! Where does this little a-hole get off? He got up and trudged out the door sadly. I turned back to the other students and proceeded to get the class back on track. Like in the last case, we actually went on to have a really fun class that day! And also like in the last case, when the boy came into class the next time, he didn’t say a word. It took a few weeks of sulking before he started to move on but, after that, he turned into a normal student. And who knows! He might have even learned something.
So, back up – why didn’t I scold the other kid too? The hat thief, I mean. I did. But I didn’t want to kick him out. He was generally a good, respectful kid. He had been well behaved before the incident and once the chase began, he seemed to be pretty genuinely 'in over his head'. He was running for his life. In short, he wasn’t the one that needed to be put in his place.
1st Place 🥇
Taking A Stand Against Bullying
One quirk of Vietnamese culture that still baffles me is that when kids play with each other, they play rough. And when I say rough, I mean kids get choked out, body slammed, bitch-slapped, kicked in the stomach and there is always hair pulling. It goes across gender lines too, which baffles me even further. If that sort of thing ever happened in the West it wouldn’t be funny; it would a full-on fight, potentially followed by a lawsuit. But that’s just the way they say hello here... apparently.
Anyway, I am obligated to create and facilitate an extensive game for every lesson I teach here. I was teaching a class in – you guessed it – another middle school, and we were playing a game. Apparently the game I created that day was a winner because the kids were very into it. When team #1 scored a point, one of the boys went over to do a little dance in the faces of some of the girls on team #2. I didn’t mind that. If I can get my students that into a game it is generally a good thing. They had been good that day so now it was time for fun.
The boy was in the middle of his unsportsmanlike rendition of the hokey pokey when the girl gave him a little flick… right in family jewels. The boy stopped his dance abruptly, grabbing his poor little balls. He looked like he might throw up. Let's just pause here to say that, dude, no girl understands what it’s like for this to happen to a man (except maybe Caitlin Jenner). Men all around the world, including me, can empathize with this kid. But then again, this is Vietnam so… as far as I could tell this was a normal exchange of trash talk amongst 13-year-olds.
The boy limped back to his seat at the back of the class where he sat looking like an angry, wet cat for the next 10 minutes. The game went on and the students were still having fun.
Then, suddenly, the boy in the back jumped to his feet, stomped back up to the girl's seat towards the front of the room, and smacked her in the head really hard. I’m not an expert in Vietnamese play fighting, but it was immediately clear that this was not it. This was real – this kid was trying to hurt her. The girl’s hands were up to protect her face.
He yelled something at her in Vietnamese and managed to unload one or two more blows to her head before I pulled him back by the scruff of his neck.
“Are you kidding me, dude?! Get out.” I pointed at the door. The boy turned around and stomped out.
I immediately turned back to the girl. “Are you okay??" I demanded, my heart rate elevated.
"Umm… yeah?” she responded, as if that was the obvious answer.
The class was quiet. I looked up and all of my students were looking at me, with one eyebrow raised. At this point I realized that I might have misinterpreted what had just happened… I’m not sure how, I mean this seemed like a no-brainer, but my students were clearly surprised that I felt the urge to protect this girl.
Really? This is your “normal”? Whatever. I can't figure you guys out.
“Okayyy… soo… back to the game, huh?"
This post might have cast a negative light on my students as a whole, but these cases are standouts. For the most part my students are great. I’ve got a million heart-warming stories of cute little kids doing hilarious things... but I’m suspicious that they mostly fall into the “you just had to be there” category.