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.
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.