Mene, Mene, Tekel u-Pharsin. Or, Dammit, Jim, I’m a Teacher, Not a Clown!

"Attn. Jeff Chappell: give it up already ... So, I think the writing is on the wall – hence the post title – with regard to my nascent teaching career. After leaving a Thai public school one month ahead of the end of a semester-long contract to come back to Viet Nam to teach at a private language school, said school has handed me my walking papers after less than two months. D’oh! Apparently I’m just not cut out for teaching young learners – which seasoned TEFL teachers both here and in Thailand tell me means entertaining – as well as adults who are new to English study (damn n00bs). In fact the only students that didn’t complain about the difficulty of my classes were advanced learners; from them I even managed to garner praise, I’m told.

One might be inclined to say that I shouldn’t throw in the towel just yet – the Thai school didn’t want me to leave, and I had established a good rapport with my first graders (I miss the little buggers). But I felt relief more than anything else when I got news of the termination – via email at 11 p.m. after no prior indication that there was any problems (would have hoped for a little more class from a fellow Yank; alas, no), but that’s another story. That feeling of being awash in relief, I believe, is the impetus for the metaphorical hand writing that appeared on my Bien Hoa hotel room wall that night, rather than my abilities – or lack thereof – as a nubert teacher.

I had every intention of trying on teaching as a career change and not just a means to an end when I first came to Southeast Asia at the beginning of the year. But I think it’s clear now that teaching young learners – to use the vernacular of the industry – and new students is clearly not my thing. Furthermore, I don’t think I have the inclination to make it my thing; I just don’t want to do it. I made things work with my Thai first graders, but it was grueling and hard work to establish that rapport and figure out how to teach them in a meaningful way, and I don’t want to make a career out of that – Hell no. I left Thailand to get away from that. When I had my first class of Vietnamese kids – granted much smaller than a Thai public school class, but just as unruly – I realized I was in for more of the same, and in retrospect my heart wasn’t in it. Granted I didn’t have as many contact hours with kids as I did in Thailand, and I had adult classes that I actually did enjoy, but I think deep down I was rather dismayed – but didn’t want to admit it.

Dammit Jim, I'm a teacher, not a clown!I was grimly determined to make things work here this time; I enjoy being in Viet Nam much more than I did Thailand (more on that in a later post, as previously promised), and really wanted to do well at the private language school. I really wanted things to be a success on all fronts this time around. But I’m sure this feeling of dismay was affecting my attitude in the classroom; I know it was out of it. I used to dread going into school on evenings and Saturdays when I had kids’ classes. Didn’t want to prepare lessons for them – hell, I didn’t want to think about them. And those hour-and-a-half classes used to drag on seemingly for hours sometimes. What the hell am I supposed to do with these kids? How am I supposed to get them to settle down so I can teach them? It took me a couple of months to figure it out in Thailand; in a for-profit private language school, you don’t get that luxury of time.

Dammit, Jim, I’m a teacher, not a clown!

WTF Do I Do Now? Slink Back to the 4th Estate

Dammed if I know. My plan, insofar as I (ever) have one – I’m rather Southeast Asian, in this respect, heh – is to try and get some part-time telecommuting work back in ye olde field of journalism and couple this with income from private lessons; yet again I go slinking back to my professional mistress and beg her to take me back. Perchance all of the mad InterWebs skillz I’ve garnered over the past several years will come in handy.

I briefly toyed with the idea of going back to America and picking up where I left off – being an unemployed slacker half-assedly looking for work. But I quickly dismissed this idea; while I haven’t set Southeast Asia ablaze as a teacher, I have enjoyed my time outside of school both here and in Thailand. I figure I can be marginally employed here even more easily than I can back home in America – the cost of living is much cheaper here, after all. Besides, goofing off in coffee shops is a national pastime here in Viet Nam.

So the dream continues. I may eventually seek a university teaching position either here or in China; one long-time expat teacher here in Bien Hoa has suggested I seek a position with a university in Sai Gon. The fact that I have a journalism degree and many years of experience would make me a valuable commodity, he says, since most foreigners who come here don’t have a degree/experience in a field related to English. I think teaching at the university level would be fun and rewarding; in fact I’ve long had a hazy-long term goal to go to graduate school – always “someday,” and we know what that probably means, eh Dad? – and get a masters so I could teach journalism or English at the college level.

If Only I Could be a Full-time Slacker. Oh, Wait …

On the other hand, just doing part-time work to feed myself and pay the bills while I have leisure time to explore Asia further, while also pursuing my own writing and photography work, sounds ideal. When I ask myself, “Self, in your heart of hearts, if money were no object, what would you be doing?” The answer has three parts:

  • traveling/living abroad
  • writing – blogging and creatively
  • photography/art (as in 3D rendering)

Well, I got the first part down, at least for now. I fiddle with the other two, but not nearly as much as I would like. I’ve often thought about how I can make money with photography; I already know how to make money at writing from a non-fiction/journalism standpoint, but haven’t attempted to publish anything creatively in years. What’s more, when I read on the blogs of some of my favorite authors about all the trials and tribulations they go through, and talk with pro photographers about what they do to pay the bills, I think “meh.” I want to write and I want to make images, but I don’t want to do that.

I don’t want either one to become a job. I used to be passionate about journalism; I still am to some degree. I can still enjoy doing it, if the story I’m working on is a subject I find particularly interesting. But at some point over the years it became a job, and not a passion. And I get bored with jobs quite easily. I don’t want writing creatively or photography to ever become just a job. I don’t want to take pictures of weddings or products or CEOs – I want to take photos of things I want to shoot; of things that I find visually appealing/arresting. I want to make images of things and ideas that I’m passionate about. As cliché as it sounds, “I wanna make art.”

I could get into photojournalism, but again, having worked as journalist so long, I know it would more than likely become a job very quickly, except when I was working on a story that I personally cared about. It’s the same with writing creatively. I’m vain enough/confident enough in my ability to believe that I could write fiction and eventually get published enough to make a bit of dough at it, but again – to hear established authors tell it, it sounds like a job. Even after they have put years into their craft, they don’t necessarily get to write what they want, and even when they do, it often has to be tailored for a market in order to be salable/publishable. And how many of our favorite authors have we read that clearly “phoned it in” on subsequent novels published after a brilliant one, in order to fulfill a three-book contract? Screw that. It sounds too much like work – like a job. So why even try?

I think at the end of the day I can only be happy doing what I want to do – can anyone be truly happy doing anything other than something they truly want to be doing?

So now whut? That’s why I like having my own website – it’s nothing but me being self indulgent. Show me someone who edits his own copy and I’ll show you someone that has a fool for an editor. I firmly believe this. Nevertheless, I enjoy having my own site and populating it with my epistles and expostulations merely because I have no editor other than my own muse. I write what I want, post what I want, put up whatever pictures/images I want – no copy editors telling me that my em dash or semicolon should be replaced by a period and a new sentence begun. No managing editor telling me to dumb down the language or to cut 200 words to make a dogleg fit. No editor-in-chief or publisher telling me we can’t print that because it will piss off an advertiser. I do what I want, and when I don’t feel like it, I don’t. After years of working in journalism, it’s a wonderfully liberating feeling.

It’s funny, but I don’t even care that my site has so little traffic, in spite of the hours I spend on it. I could do more on various fronts to increase said trafic – but then it becomes work; at that stage, it’s a job. It’s here to make me happy, and it does (I’m quite pleased with this latest theme). Now if only I could find something that makes me as happy as my own writing and photography make me, and also puts food in my mouth. But then I suppose that’s what every human being has been trying to figure out ever since we started planting crops and invented leisure time.

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