Letter to the me of November 1st

Dear Mr. Mike, 

I hope this finds you well. Yes, it’s me, writing to you from the future. Again! Today is December 1st, 2020 and I am writing to the you (me) of November 1st, so I am just a month older (but frankly speaking much wiser) than you.

You asked students to do this letter writing activity so it’s only fair that you do the same. You might already suspect what I am writing about. Yes, your one month teaching Academic English to (pre?) uni students here in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.  

You sort of knew what you were getting into when you agreed to teach this class. It was actually much more intense than you expected. I know you have/had a lot going on and it will feel insurmountable at first but it will become manageable by Thanksgiving (just as the course ends, I know).

You might have noticed how I addressed you above. “Mr. Mike” might sound unusual to you but that is what most students called you. Some went with (what you’d consider more typical) “Mr. Griffin” and some went with your preference of “Mike” but you got used to “Mr. Mike” and in fact found it endearing in the end. 

It was an amazing experience and I think it would work out fine for you without any additional help but I still feel quite qualified and indeed compelled to offer you some advice to make things even smoother and better. Hindsight being 20:20 and all. This is not a pun on 2020. Honestly. 

This was, as you know as well as anybody, your first time teaching in Vietnam. It was also your first time teaching face-to-face in 16 months. It was your first time teaching this sort of course.

You went around 10 years teaching only courses that you designed so it was another learning steep curve to teach a course where the specifics were chosen by others. Just roll with it. Do your best. Make changes if you feel strongly enough. As is usually the case, it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.

As you know by now the schedule is intense and perhaps not 100% aligned to your concepts of what might be fair or most beneficial to students in the time allowed. Be flexible and try to help students do what they can in the time allotted.

There is actually a lot to learn about the course. Please be sure you read what students need to read well in advance because it will help you make connections from the reading to their work. Familiarize yourself with the final assignment students need to do and take it from there.

I should also tell you about the students. They are incredibly smart. They tend to be hard workers. If you give them a concrete task (try to avoid giving discussion questions!) they will do it and they will mostly do their best. They will learn from it and keep striving to do better. They will learn from their mistakes. They will shine when given chances to do so. Of course, like most students, they need lots of scaffolding and practice to get there. 

With that said, don’t be fooled by their great English and intelligence, and thus assume or expect too much. Most of them were in high school a mere 5 months ago. They are mostly between 18-20 years old. While some are very mature please remember they are so young. They might forget to bring in an assignment or a pen. They might be easily distracted by their phones or computers. They might forget to charge their phone or computer. They might be distracted by romantic (or similar) interest in classmates. All this academic stuff is new to them and it can be hard for them to maintain attention for a long period of time. Be accepting and forgiving but do keep in mind that part of your job (as you see it, at least) is to help prepare them for university life (in an English medium university). If students have a hard time listening to a 15 minute presentation a 3 hour lecture might be a tough task.

You might think that some students are shy or nervous to speak. Many will tell you that’s the case. I know you don’t like calling on random people to answer questions in front of the class but they will answer if called upon. Giving students time to think and prepare is of course a good strategy. What I am saying is that the more confident students will be the only ones to answer your questions to the whole class so if you want a wider variety of students speaking out you need to think about how to address this. 

You will be very impressed at the end of the course when students do poster presentations. Those you thought were shy are in fact super confident when they are talking about something they’ve researched and prepared. It will be great but be sure to encourage everyone to participate actively in those poster presentations so that classmates can benefit from the interactions. Interestingly, many students will point to the poster presentations as a highlight of their experience.

Try to find ways for these less confident students to shine earlier and throughout the course. This is so important.

What else? In their letters to themselves many students remarked that you were so kind. You will actually feel a bit guilty about this because you know that you could have been more kind and patient.

Students will be overwhelmed the first day. Try to help them see how things will in fact be manageable. Don’t talk so much in that first session! Keep that telling to a minimum in the first session. It’s a lot. The whole thing is overwhelming. You know lots of ways to get students to think about and find out what is coming.

Students are eager to make friends and talk to others. Make sure you give them plenty of chances for this. Quick discussions with rotating partners will be a great idea. 3-2-1 worked wonders. Do this as much as time allows. Students will appreciate the chances to meet others.

Some additional quick points:

  • Don’t allow yourself to get frustrated if some people don’t listen with complete attention. Did I mention many students are 18? 
  • To state the obvious, it’s actually not a big deal if a student who is not quite officially matriculated to university tunes you out for a few minutes. There are bigger problems in the world. 
  • It’s been quite a while since you taught 45 students at a time. Think this through and try to have systems and techniques in place. Remember and employ ways to gather attention while you are at it. 
  • Don’t feel pressured to wear long-sleeved shirts. The air-conditioning does not always work. Free yourself and wear those short-sleeved collared shorts (the “substitute teacher shirts” as you call them). 
  • Taking a Grab Bike to class is pretty fun. 
  • In this reality you shaved your beard about halfway through the course, to much fanfare, confusion and discussion.  
  • You know that thing to have a quiz at the start of class to ensure everyone comes on time? This works pretty well but if you have a day without a quiz you might be disappointed with the amount of tardy students. 
  • Resist the temptation to attempt to go paperless for the whole course. While admirable, this might lead to some inefficient moments. (To be specific, when you ask students to go over the “syllabus” instead of having questions on the screen it might be beneficial to have them fill out the answers with a pen on a worksheet that you provide.) 
  • It might not seem exactly related to the course but please keep in mind that lots of people voted in the US election by mail in Atlanta, Detroit and Philadelphia. Lots. Don’t forget this. It will help your general mood and disposition. 
  • Don’t insist on having 4 sessions on Zoom before you know exactly what you are insisting on. The idea is to have some sessions on Zoom but the rest face-to-face. Be sure that you’ve thoroughly considered if that 2nd to last class needs to be on Zoom or not. 
  • Don’t assume that students are all familiar with learning on Zoom. Be understanding about technical issues but also be clear on what your expectations are. Spending some time on this early on will be helpful. 
  • Students are going to be terrified of APA. Highlight examples slowly and consistently and give them chances to notice before having any expectations about actually using this.
    (Note: some students might think, even at the end, that APA is a type of essay or a genre of writing rather than a way of formatting a piece of writing).
  • Maybe sometimes students will make a request about changing a policy or procedure. Don’t take it personally. It’s just a request. You can feel very free to reject it.
  • I am sure you remember that sort of “quiz” where the last line is “Only follow instructions 1-4” and the first line is “Read all the instructions before you do anything.” You have been tempted to do this for ages. I finally did it and I think it worked well. We’ve always been apprehensive about this because it seems like it could be rude or some sort of power play or something. Well, I did it near the end of the course and gave a somewhat impassioned (and honest) speech about my concerns about students not following instructions going forward in their college careers.  I was worried they’d think of it as me complaining but I got the sense they could feel my sincere concern. You can probably make the speech shorter though! 
  • You really need to learn how to say students’ names properly. Get help from outside sources as needed.  
  • Try on all your clothes the night before you plan on wearing them. The mythconception that you didn’t gain weight this year might need some critical examination.
  • Spoiler: You will be very touched and impressed with students’ final video reflections and their letters to themselves. 
  • Don’t beat yourself up about small mistakes. It doesn’t help anything and only in made up letters like this can you actually go back in time. 
  • Be yourself.  

I think that’s all from here. I am sort of jealous that you get to experience it anew. It’s a very bittersweet feeling to be finished with the course. At least I have 45 final essays to look forward to!

Warm regards,

Mike in December 2020


  1. Pingback: Students’ letters to their former selves | ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections

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