The thirst of young people in Vietnam for the universal language that is English has inevitably created a market for schools. Big schools, little schools. Good schools, bad schools. Schools with accreditation, schools without accreditation. The debates go on and on. For the wandering but honest ESL teacher, it can be a real jungle.
Breaking down the kinds of school in Saigon is probably unwise, but not impossible, so I'm going to try it.
First we have two different sectors. We have students who attend International Schools and preparatory schools (much the same thing). Secondly, we have Language Centers, whose classes are based outside of school hours (in other words, evenings and weekends). I will start with the latter.
The language center is where you will find journeymen ESL teachers and also younger non-career teachers (by that I mean those who are TEFL certified but are only teaching as a means of living abroad for a few years). There are two kinds of language center. The 'heavyweights' have been established for a long time and have a good reputation, essential in attracting good quality teachers. ILA is the biggest of them all, with international recruitment campaigns for teachers. Every Saturday and Sunday the school causes chaos at kicking out time, with hundreds of kids needing to be picked up from this narrow entrance on busy Nguyen Thi Minh Khai.
VUS is another monster with a number of campuses across the city.
CleverLearn or long established Apollo set up and managed by my fellow Saigon Raider Khalid Mahmood. For students, these places offer 90 or 120 hour courses in General English and exam preparation courses like TOEIC, TOEFL and IELTS.
With the hugely increasing number of Vietnamese studying overseas, their scores in standard tests become insanely important, as a particular mark is required for university courses in western countries, and of course for the C.V as well. The trouble is that these tests neglect to examine real fluency in a language - take a look at some of the questions as a native speaker and you'll be reaching for the answer book saying 'WTF' as well. Hence, they require training. Hence, exam prep is now big business for language centers. ACET is another good school that does massive business with exam prep courses.
For teachers, each school has its own rep. ILA is known to be cliquey. You can work without meeting many other teachers at VUS. Smaller schools tend to be more personal, possibly a nicer environment to work in. Pay ranges from $13-$15 per hour at most of these language centers. In the heavyweights, you really have to do some hard time before getting a good schedule and good classes. You will be started in the kiddies Saturday/Sunday morning, where wee and poo line the floor, and your whole concept of self respect is called into question (I turned down a job at ILA when I arrived in Nam because that is what they offered me). Respect to those who are qualified to and love to teach the early learners. My limit is Grade 3.....
After the heavyweights, you have the minnows. These schools are about as subtle as a brick falling on your head. They may be chains across the outlying city districts or just a one off school that has to change the name on its front three times in a month. If your school is called 'Outerspace Language Center' or 'Phuc and Vu's excellent English Language Adventures' (ok I made the last one up) then you're in trouble.
as spoken about before, there are some troubled characters on the teaching circuit, and it's not hard for them to eek out a weeks beer money from some language center somewhere or other. Salary from $8-$13, and mostly NOT reliable when it comes to payday.
The website Saigon ESL lists language centers by district (here) and also gives them a rating based on experience of previous teachers. I take it all with a pinch of salt having met my fair share of potential 'contributors' The only thing some of these people should be contributing is a piece of nonsensical graffiti to the inside of their padded cells. Generally however, if you see a school marked TOTAL HELL HOLE STAY AWAY on the site, then it's a good indicator to,errr, stay away.
The language centers recent focus on exam prep is either a lucky coincidence for them, or some good predictions about the market. They have a cash cow they can rely on, but their old banker, the kids programs, may be set to suffer. Affluent families can now also afford to send their kids to an International School (IS) or a prep school. First there are the fully accredited IB International Schools.
IS (International School of HCMC), BIS (British International School), SSIS (Saigon South International School), AIS (Australian International School) and ABC, with two more coming this September, AIS (American International School, going through accreditation process) and RIS (Renaissance International School). There's also the Singapore International School. These schools are full of expat kids, including an awful lot of Koreans.
APU is one such school, as is Asian High School.
For ESL teachers, there are plenty of other options out there such as Vietnamese universities, corporate teaching and horrific kindergartens, but for now that is the end of my definitely non-exhaustive list and summary of teaching English in Saigon. For me, it's a case of finding the right environment to work in, and also the right conditions to let me enjoy my life, in other words, no evenings and weekends. I haven't worked at a language center for nearly two years, and I'd like to keep it that way. The opportunities are only set to increase in the coming years, with most if not all the above IS schools having plans for expansion. Parents are pulling kids out of public schools, and don't forget the 1000 odd students at the Korean School, half of whom are probably on the waiting lists..... all good news for teachers of English!