Emma Slomkowski is a South African woman and graduate of the University of Pretoria—After studying law for a few years, she decided to try the life of an English teacher abroad and hasn’t looked back since!

Don’t mistake Emma’s light-hearted spirit as being ditzy (she’s a smart cookie and you can rarely pull a fast one on her!). Just ask her ESL students in Vietnam: Their language skills have improved leaps and bounds in Emma’s classroom because she takes her job seriously.

A picture of Emma posing by the water.

Tell us about yourself! We’d love to know about your background, what drew you to teaching abroad, and more.

Well, hello there! My name is Emma Slomkowski and I’m 23 years old. I was born and raised in South Africa, and lived here my whole life. I’m from a full family of Polish origin, which is fun when people try to pronounce my surname.

I studied a straight 4-year Bachelor of Laws (LLB) degree at the University of Pretoria, and proudly graduated in 2018. I was never really sure if I wanted to become a lawyer, or if I wanted to study further and do a masters in law. So I made the decision to take a gap year only knowing that I wanted to travel and work.

Of course, one option that always seem to pop up was teaching English overseas, which simply required you to complete a TEFL certification. At first, I didn’t really know if I wanted to teach, or if I would even be able to do it!

I heard so many wonderful stories about teaching abroad and the idea started to excite me. I was going to just take the plunge and do it. Which happened to be the best decision I could make.

A picture of Emma sitting off the edge of a cliff.

What were the best parts of your TEFL course experience? Do you feel like it prepared you for teaching in Vietnam?

The process of completing a TEFL course was simple, and clearly set out. I was nervous to start, and had so many questions running through my mind. Was it going to be difficult? What happens if I find I don’t want to do teaching? Could I actually even teach?

Starting something new and different is always challenging when you realise whether the decisions you have to make would be the right ones. But that’s part of the journey and growing up.

I found that I really enjoyed the course. The time in which I had to complete my 120-hour course was really sufficient. I liked that there was enough time to be able to work during the day, then do a few hours of the course at night.

There wasn’t any pressure in finishing the course as fast as you could. In the end, I wanted to finish because I enjoyed the material. The idea of becoming a foreign English teacher just became so exciting!

The course gave me access to a lot of teaching materials and videos I could watch, which really showed what role I would take on as a teacher. I gathered a clear platform from the course of what I would expect in the classroom, as well as what is expected from me as a teacher.

Nothing can prepare you enough when you walk into a class of 40 screaming and excited children. I would just have to prepare myself with the knowledge I gained through the course, which gives you scenarios you might encounter and solutions to deal with them.

A picture of Emma on a swing in the middle of a river.

You’ve just completed your Vietnam program (congrats!). Now that you’ve had a little time to process, what were the best parts of your experience—both inside and outside of the classroom?

I don’t feel like I really appreciated the small things I experienced in Vietnam until I left. Vietnamese people are incredibly welcoming and respectful. There is no way of fully justifying the beauty of teaching in Vietnam, but the best part of my experience inside and outside the classroom is feeling just so alive.

As a teacher, you receive so much love from the students. Being back at home, I miss getting 50 hugs a day from excited children who wanted you to teach them. During the semester, what became most inspiring is seeing the joy on the children’s faces when they finally understand something you’ve been trying to get across. There is nothing more satisfying in helping even my weakest students grow the confidence to speak and improve their English.

The DTLC company we were based with were very helpful and made the transition in becoming an English teacher very easy. They were very supportive in helping us to become the best teachers we could be. They also helped us by providing lesson plans just in case we needed them.

The internship in particular, was great because all the interns got to live in one big house together. In my particular internship group, I was very lucky to have unique relationships with the other interns. We were able to openly share ideas and help each other as we made the move away from our homes and live in such unfamiliar territory. I have made the most incredible friendships with people whom I consider family.

I really enjoyed living in Hai Phong, where we were welcomed with fascination and excitement from the locals. We would use our times on the weekends to explore Vietnam’s incredibly beautiful nature, sceneries, and spirituality.

Having this time on the weekends to explore Vietnam’s incredible nature and life was life changing. You gain a sense of complete freedom in exploring anything our surrounding areas had to offer.

Traveling around is important as you take your experiences into the classroom and gain a sense of familiarity with the relationship between Vietnam’s beautiful nature and the culture of the children.

I feel that being a good ESL teacher anywhere is to learn more about the country itself. I wanted to make the effort of being an English teacher in Vietnam, as being part of learning more about the country.

Emma taking a selfie with her students.

What were three things about your experience in Vietnam that you did not anticipate? (This helps future teachers preparing for a trip there to feel more ready!)

I had never been to Asia before, so it was definitely a huge culture shock at first. The differences between living at home and living in Vietnam was challenging in the beginning. But once you settle down, the differences become less of an issue. When I first arrived in Hanoi, the first thing you can never prepare for it the heat, humidity and rain. I understand now how important it is to wear clothes your skin can breathe in!

You have to learn to expect the unexpected and learn to be more flexible in situations. Which you will need both inside and outside the classroom. Although our schedule typically consisted of 20 hours of teaching per week, which may not sound like a lot, but it was a lot more tiring than you expect!

Teacher’s in Vietnam are highly respected members of society and you soon learn your role as an ESL teacher once you start teaching. No lesson will be the same, you may have great ones and you may have bad ones.

I learnt that I wasn’t always going to have control over everything I planned for in a lesson. Sometimes I felt like I wanted to give up, but I never did. I knew before I came to Vietnam that not everything was going to be easy, and this is so important as your progress as a teacher and learn so much about yourself.

The best trait to bring with you is patience; which is a trait you’ll need have both inside and outside the classroom. The language barrier was a bit of a problem sometimes. No matter where you are, try learn and pick up as much of the language as you can. This eventually makes it easier to order a simple dish of noodles without relying on Google translate. I found the locals really appreciate your effort in ordering food in Vietnamese.

I didn’t expect that my students would become my friends and I developed some very special relationships too. In the end, I did not anticipate through all the ups and downs, that I would fall in love with teaching in Vietnam (and in general) as much as I did.

Emma hanging out with her friend in the sea.

You were originally on a much different career-path. Tell us about your college study experiences and how/why you made the switch to teaching.

When I started studying law, I thought that I had chosen my ultimate and final career-path. University was exciting, I was independent and I definitely tried to make the best out of my university experience. I tried to not forget the importance of learning during my years at university. I learnt to take a more proactive role while I was studying, and outside of studying law. I was definitely driven to study and finish my degree, but made little progress in what I would inevitably do with my degree.

I had 3 important questions about my future in which I needed to make a decision.

  • Would I do my articles straight away?
  • Did I want to continue studying by doing a masters in law?
  • Did I enjoy law and was I happy with what I had chosen to be my future career?

I couldn’t answer these questions in confidence, so as such I decided to take a gap year to reflect. Even then I didn’t know what I would do in my gap year. I was drawn to the idea of being able to teach and travel abroad and eventually decided to do an internship and teach English in Vietnam.

How did I make the switch to teaching? I found a passion for teaching in Vietnam which I didn’t know I even had. As dramatic as it really is, I have decided to return to Vietnam and continue with teaching English.

I have many reasons why I switched to teaching. Firstly, I knew I could achieve so much more being an English teacher within myself and for my students. But I learnt the importance of a very simple question people would ask me. What will make me happy? And for me, that was the easiest to answer, I wanted to continue teaching and inspiring people.

It was inspirational, and emotional to have finally been able to know what I really wanted to do.

Emma taking a picture with one of the locals.

What advice do you have for someone on the fence about whether to teach abroad or not?

I found that a lot of people who decide to teach abroad have something in common, the want to be able to work while being able to travel and explore new things. I believe that ESL teachers are the best teachers and the best learners when it comes to teaching abroad.

Having been someone who was on the fence about whether I should do my TEFL course and teach, I’m confident enough to simply say to just go ahead and give it a try.

Giving it a try did not mean that it had to be a long term career. You get to meet so many wonderful people and experience new things.

There is such a high demand for foreign native English speaking teachers, and it is easy to find a teaching job suitable for that person’s needs. Be it a long term contract or for a short semester. In the end, your job as a foreign English teacher is appreciated, and you become an inspirational figure to so many people. I have aimed to inspire my students, as much as I want to inspire others in becoming an English teacher.

I found that starting something new and different is always challenging when you question whether the decisions you have to make would be the right ones. But that’s part of the journey and of growing up.

Teaching abroad may seem scary to some, but you are already one step ahead of everyone else being brave enough to do it. I have learnt so much about myself through this adventure. No matter who you are, where you are from, or what your situation is, you will learn so much about yourself. I have only just begun my journey deciding to return to teach.

Life can pass you by so fast and I was blind to teaching before I felt something real as a teacher and I’m only high on life and hope others can see the real value in teaching abroad.

Emma walking along the train tracks in the middle of town.

If you are interested in reading more stories about teaching in Vietnam, check out these inspirational stories: