Student Life (Middle and High School)

I have been working with students in middle school, high school and college for about a month now.  I’m still amazed by the amount of work they are required to do, as well as their diligence and persistence.  Almost every day, I have an informal interview with students who are eager to tell me about their lives.  Here are some things I’ve learned about the middle/high school.

Students at Nguyễn Tất Thành middle and high school start their first class at 7:20.  They have five periods in the morning and five in the afternoon, finishing after 5:00 p.m.  

There is a 90-minute break at lunch.  Some students stay at school, some take a nap in their classroom, some go home and many go to one of the hundreds of cafes on the campus or nearby.  

Classes are 45 minutes long, with a five-fifteen minute break in between each period.  During the break times, students either sit in their room (they stay in one room for most of the classes while the teachers move from room to room), hang out in the hallway, or go down to the courtyard from some soccer or ping pong.

There is no formal supervision of students during the breaks.  Teachers are usually in one of the teacher’s rooms (There are five floors with a teachers’ room on each floor.)

Due to the grueling schedule, students are always working on something related to school.  I often see some students doing assignments from other classes and passing notebooks between each other during my class!  I understand that they are just overwhelmed with the amount of work they are doing.

Most of the classes have about 45 students, sitting in pairs facing the front of the room.  There is very little room to move between the rows.

Photo by SơnTrung, Grade 11

Whenever I ask what students do during their free time, the number one answer is “Study.”

Students just finished mid-term exams.  For three mornings (Thursday – Saturday) they took hours-long exams.  They were stressed out, and the more I talked with them, the more I realized why.  Each grade has about five classes.  I have been told that they are not leveled by ability by some, but that they are by others.  The classes stay together throughout the day while the teachers change rooms.  Students form strong friendships with their classmates.  A low exam score could mean that a student would be immediately moved to the next lower class.  They would no longer have any classes with the group they had been with for years.  As one student, said, “We have to earn our seat in this class.  If we do poorly, someone else will take our seat.”

School clubs are also very competitive.  Every Monday, there are assemblies sponsored by each club to recruit new members.  The candidates must fill out an application and have an interview in order to join.  The “English for Everyone” club had 200 applicants but accepted just 10 new members this year.  

Ho Chi Minh’s portrait is everywhere, and always the highest item hanging in each classroom.
Students wear uniforms, and complain about them.
Heeeere’s Tim Photo by SơnTrung, Grade 11
Students always stand when addressing the teacher. (I think I’m bringing this custom home with me!) Photo by SơnTrung, Grade 11
The grueling schedule
Rules and quotes from Ho Chi Minh are hung in classrooms across the country.
At the end of class, a student always cleans the board to get ready for the next teacher.
Students set up for an assembly.
Assemblies happen every Monday at 7:20am (for middle school) and 4:30pm (for high school).
The students are responsible for setting up and putting everything back afterwards. They sit in rows with their class.
Students lead the assembly.
This assembly included a traditional dance taught by student teachers from Indonesia.
A student performs at the assembly.
Banners and t-shirts are made for almost every event and club.

Comments (22):

  1. Lori

    October 21, 2016 at 06:37

    WOW! Can’t wait to share this post with your former students!!!!

    • Tim Flanagan

      October 22, 2016 at 04:29

      Yes, they need to know how lucky they are!

  2. Diane Weisman

    October 21, 2016 at 07:12

    What a long day for those students! Do they get to play any sports after 5:00? How much homework is given each night? It doesn’t seem like they have much personal time during the day. I’m sure they must have to do work at home. Tim, you must be exhausted after teaching all day.

    • Tim Flanagan

      October 22, 2016 at 04:32

      Good questions! They have told me they don’t have time for sports, but some play in soccer leagues or other sports on the weekends. I don’t think there are school teams here. They do have homework. High school students will stay up till 11 or later doing homework. I’m not following the student schedule, thankfully. I teach three classes on Mondays and two on Wednesdays. The rest of my time is spent working on other parts of my project. I don’t think I’d have the stamina to do what they’re doing.

  3. Marina

    October 21, 2016 at 07:19

    The building, the schedule, the exams, and the general school environment you are describing remind me so much of the school I went to as a child in Calcutta, India and how most schools in India still are !

    • Tim Flanagan

      October 22, 2016 at 04:40

      Hi Marina. Yes, it reminded me of schools I’ve seen in Nepal. I think students in the US have no idea what school is like for many others around the world. Hope you’re enjoying the fall in Bloomington!

  4. Monica Schnee

    October 21, 2016 at 09:48

    I guess it is mid-term week in South East Asia! Our students in Korea all have mid-terms too, from middle school to university. I can relate to your story since students here are also extra-demanded, they sleep on the subway, bus or in class. Days are incredibly long with tutoring sometimes until 1:00 am. I think our kids have an easier life in every way. Students call me Monica Teacher and when you ask something they reply, Yes, teacher! So different from what we know, right? On the other hand, I just spent the day at a kindergarten – check my blog- It is the opposite of what our kids do – play is the name of the game here. Looking forward to your next post.

    • Tim Flanagan

      October 22, 2016 at 04:43

      I loved your post about Kindergarten! I wonder why play is so important at that age, but then it changes so quickly to competition and exams. You’re really learning a lot about where your students in New Jersey are coming from.

  5. Pat Pabich

    October 21, 2016 at 18:51

    Timmy, what a wonderful journey you are on. Your dear mother would be so proud. Pat Pabich. Jimmy’s Mom

    • Tim Flanagan

      October 22, 2016 at 04:46

      Hello “Mrs. Pabich!” Your comment brought back so many memories of sleepovers at your house – going all the way back to first grade. I still remember the spiral staircase and your great meals! Thanks for reading and commenting. Say hi to Jimmy and the family.

  6. LInda Wight

    October 21, 2016 at 19:04

    Incredible days for the students- can u imagine students here doing that . We had large classes when I was in grammar school. There is much more to Learn today. IT is a difficult job being a teacher. I wonder how I would do as a student today. As always, Tim very enlightening. You must be exhausted.

    • Tim Flanagan

      October 22, 2016 at 04:49

      Thankfully, I’m not teaching a full schedule. I just have a few classes on Mondays and Wednesdays. The rest of my time is spent learning Vietnamese (or trying to), researching, writing and working on other parts of my project. Hard work seems to be a part of the culture here. The students complain a little, but they always do what they are told.

  7. Deidre Toole

    October 24, 2016 at 19:17

    Wow! I loved this post, as it gave me such insight into your world. The photos are beautiful!
    I love the way the students take responsibility for so much of their day and extend common courtesy to all by cleaning up and setting up etc. It seems like common courtesy is the norm where you are and I can’t say that is always the case here. Do the students seem to be more “stressed” than your typical students at home? Do they have much time for creative arts (creative writing, poetry etc.)? Do they have counselors to talk to if they are feeling under pressure? How much English is spoken by the students and by you? Are you speaking more and more Vietnamese each day? Sorry for all the questions!
    I love that they stand when they speak! This will be so great to share when you return. We miss you!

    • Tim Flanagan

      October 25, 2016 at 10:03

      So many great questions! The students say they are under a lot of stress, but they seem very resigned to it. The hard work and long hours are just what is expected. The clubs provide an outlet for creativity. Every club puts on performances that involve singing and dancing for assemblies and special events. The students plan all of this on their own during lunch or at night. Every day I see groups of high school and university students rehearsing for some presentation – they’re in every courtyard around campus practicing during their free time. I just found out today that there is a school psychologist. I’ll see if I can meet him/her and learn more. Finally, I think my brain has decided it cannot take another language. I spend many hours studying and remember very little. I can say a few phrases but speak English nearly all the time. Future blog post coming about language learning.

  8. Anne cylkowski

    October 25, 2016 at 07:37

    Incredible Tim what is very disciplined culture about education wish we had more of that here. Pictures are beautiful as always and the students look so happy and respectful. can’t wait to see how much of the language and the culture you have mastered when you get back.

    • Tim Flanagan

      October 25, 2016 at 10:06

      Don’t get your hopes up about me speaking Vietnamese!

  9. Cindy Cassidy

    October 25, 2016 at 20:27

    I was exhausted just reading about their schedule, never mind being active in it! So my question to you is…how/does all this work/little play pay off for them? Are their good employment opportunities? Preparedness for college? Do they feel like the hard work that they’re putting in is going to get them somewhere better? While the Love Boat post was a definite Top 5 favorite, this one has pushed ahead – I always like to know what school is like for students around the world, and wow…our kids should feel lucky!!

    • Tim Flanagan

      October 28, 2016 at 06:07

      You’re always asking great questions! From what I’ve heard, there aren’t a lot of good employment opportunities. It seems like everyone has a job here, but they are very low-paying jobs. Getting into college is very competitive (post about college coming soon), so the hard work in high school can pay off. Still, it all comes down to the exams, and I’ve heard that cheating is pretty common. Fun fact: Vietnam sends more college students to the US than any other country in the region. Parents are relentless about getting their kids a good education. Thanks for the questions. Keep sending them.


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