Ellen Thompson is an American who has lived in Ho Chi Minh City for close on 14 years. She came to teach English originally, and liked Vietnam and the people so much that she stayed. Saigon Star International School opened its doors in 2006. Ellen joined two years later as Headteacher. The school is in a particularly lush part of Saigon’s District 2. The location was chosen for its open space, clean air and green environment. An added bonus is the regular encounter with the local wildlife. Not many commuters get a traffic jam caused by a herd of buffalo! Having studied and worked in several different countries around the globe has given her a broad outlook on life and a keen interest in creating a supportive international school community.
Ellen Thompson - Saigon Star Internation School Principal
I sat down with Ellen to discuss life at an international school for her, her staff and of course, the pupils.
What changes have you seen both in education in HCMC and the city in general?
As far as Vietnam is concerned, there has been a huge increase in bilingual schools. They often split the days with the Vietnamese curriculum in the mornings and English in the afternoons. The popularity of these schools is due primarily to the Vietnamese wanting to give their children a head start learning English so as to give them more choices for higher education and better job opportunities. Many state schools are also incorporating programmes like the Cambridge curriculum to deliver a more diverse programme.
As for changes to the city, it is immense. You can’t miss all the new construction happening around. The skyline and suburbs are almost unrecognisable from when I first arrived.
How do you think education at an International School in HCMC compares to schools back home?
I think an international school education is equivalent to a private school education back home. The international schools in HCMC offer a very high standard of instruction and quality facilities. This is, of course, expected when a parent or company is paying such a large annual school fee.
From a private school perspective, it certainly holds its own against an equivalent school in America or the UK. The content is the same but the main advantage is the teacher-pupil ratios, which are much better here. Statistically, children that have been with us for more than three years are working well above their contemporaries from their home countries.
What are the greatest benefits and negative aspects of expat life for children in HCMC?
The greatest benefit, I think, is the huge broadening of a child’s attitude to cultural differences. They are growing up surrounded by different cultures and languages. They get to travel and experience things that many people only dream of. Also, our lifestyles are very different from back home, where most families wouldn’t even be able to consider having a housekeeper, driver or nanny.
The main negative is the limited number and range of extracurricular activities for children in the city. Things are improving, but very slowly. Apart from a few sports, music, art and drama programs, there are no community-organised leagues for children, like a YMCA. On a positive note, at least we now have an ice-rink in District 2.
How do teachers’ experiences here in HCMC compare to their home countries?
One of the reasons teachers often choose to teach internationally is that they feel overworked in their home countries. Since we don’t have the same level of bureaucracy, teachers are able to spend less time doing paperwork and benefit from a much better work-life balance.
Furthermore, teachers have much smaller class sizes, which means they feel capable of doing a much better job and making a much bigger difference.
Overall, their experience here is overwhelmingly positive and it is very rare for teachers to return to teaching in their home country after working here. When teachers do move on, it is often to another country, for another adventure.
How does an international school education differ from a Vietnamese one?
Again, the main difference is the size of the classes. Vietnamese schools generally have classes of up to 40-50 students and the delivery is usually lecture based with little practical work. Teaching strategies in international schools are more diverse, taking account of children’s different learning styles and differing levels of ability. There is also greater focus on developing a child’s creativity, with students studying art, music and drama to a far greater degree.
I know teachers are impressed by National Teachers’ Day, is this a big thing in Vietnam?
Teacher’s Day comes as a nice surprise for our teachers each year who, generally, have never experienced anything like it before. Without a doubt, teachers in this part of the world are respected far more than in the West so it is really nice for our teachers to feel appreciated for all their hard work and dedication. Whilst Teachers’ Day at international schools isn’t celebrated to the same extent as Vietnamese state schools, many teachers do receive flowers and other gifts from children, particularly from our Vietnamese families.
I know school costs in HCMC raise eyebrows among some parents. Why is it so expensive?
Providing the high-quality facilities and professional, well-qualified, native teachers that parents expect costs a significant amount of money. Having said that, at Saigon Star we do try so hard to keep our costs down in other areas and pass those benefits onto parents, because we understand that education is a huge financial commitment lasting many years. However, in modern society, people often see the most expensive schooling as the best, although that is not always the case. I firmly believe at Saigon Star we deliver the same high-quality education for much less.
What is your opinion on so-called unconventional teaching methods? Do you stick to a rigid formula or are you more open to accepting new ideas?
There is no correct formula for teaching. As a school we do try to adopt the best methods that we have seen from around the world, for example, by incorporating Montessori as part of our early years programme, but teaching is more of an art than a science. There are many ways to achieve the desired result, and each teacher will approach it in a different way. Part of building a good team is finding teachers with different personalities and skill sets from which pupils will benefit during their time at school.
Rote* learning still has its place when learning knowledge, but knowledge, skills and understanding are all taught, learned and assessed differently and therefore require different approaches. Our teachers know this and plan each lesson depending on what it is that is being taught. What we know about how children learn is changing all the time, which means we also need to ensure we keep up to date and continue to support our teachers with new ideas. Even as educators, we never stop learning.
Does having children of different nationalities affect discipline?
At Saigon Star behavioural issues are practically non-existent and I’m sure it is the same for other international schools. Our students tend to come from supportive families, which makes a big difference, so it is not really a question of nationality. I’d say as well that children here are not exposed to the same societal problems that we have back in our countries. Having students learn alongside children from other parts of the world actually creates cultural harmony rather than the other way around.
*Rote learning is learning through repetition and memory, i.e. multiplication tables.