A recent VnExpress article reported a young teenage Vietnamese girl sending a message to her parents across the internet: “Back off, or I’ll kill myself!” The pressure to succeed is taking its toll. Words by Paul Rowe
It is examination time for high school students across Vietnam and the children are under a lot of pressure. It is always the same here during exam time. The children go very quiet, appear pale, lose confidence and above all are physically exhausted.
Recently I asked one of my students the obligatory “How are you today?” question. His reply came through a veil of deep, sobbing tears. “Teacher, I am very, very, very terrible.”
His classmates went dead quiet.
I pulled my chair closer to the fourteen-year-old. “What’s wrong?” I coaxed.
“Today’s test was bad. My parents will be angry. This school is my third school today. I have four schools today. My parents will be so angry tonight.”
I found out that my student doesn’t usually get home before 9.30 pm, six nights a week. He then has dinner and must immediately commence his homework.
“And teacher, I am so tired.”
Expectations and Perceptions
I have come across student-tiredness and student stress-induced suicide before in Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Australia. Yes, that’s right, Australia. There was a time when teenage suicides in Brisbane matched teenage suicides in Japan. A few years ago I wrote an article on ‘student tiredness’ for the Taipei Times. Two years ago I wrote an article about ‘unrealistic parental expectations’ for a Malaysian newspaper. The common factor is always the students’ perceptions (fear) of parental expectations of their school results. The parental expectation is that their child will score high enough to be accepted into the better universities.
But the boy I talked to in class and the girl reported in VnExpress are only in grade 9. They are nowhere near completing high school yet, but they are already tired and super stressed. I fear for both of them. Educationalists and reporters refer to the exam period as ‘Suicide Season’. Suicide is a very real problem. Dat Tan Nguyen from the Can Tho University of Medicine, reported that suicide had been seriously considered by 26.3% of the students in one school in the Mekong area.
Wouldn’t it be great if at this point I could list Three Steps to Prevent Teenage Suicide or some other magical cure-all, and make the problem just disappear. Unfortunately, I can’t and nobody else can. It is a problem that is shared by parents, teachers, communities and the government.
From the Pedagogue
As both a parent and a teacher, I might be able to shed some light on this from my perspective. My wife and I have two teenagers in the Vietnam education system. We have spent many years pulling off a juggling act. On the one hand, we expect the kids to do their best (and heaven help you if you don’t!), while playing down the importance of exam results. Over the years this approach has paid off. Our daughter is in her final year. Her friends are stressed out. Our daughter isn’t. She is enjoying the experience. Her marks across all subjects are much higher than the average, and in some subjects she is topping the class.
Speaking now as an educationalist, this is exactly how humans function at their best. Humans are naturally inquisitive. We love to learn. It is something we do. We do it. Somebody else doesn’t do it to us. The basic tenet of modern education is that we must want to learn. Knowledge cannot be force-fed to us. To voluntarily want to learn we must be unstressed and willing. At the moment our daughter is relaxed, confident and very happy to learn. Of course she is going to do well.
And what of the young boy who was very, very, very terrible. Three times a week he comes to my one-and-a-half hour Project Work class. Eight primary school and high school children do a mash-up of English, general knowledge and art. It is self-directed and self-discovery learning (the diametrical opposite of what he gets elsewhere). Yesterday he spent a lot of time drawing Australian animals and chatting to his friends. By the end of the class he was very, very happy (and relaxed).
The Right Approach
But, back to the bigger picture. In the conclusion to his study, Dat Tan Nguyen states the problem and hints at a possible answer.
… suicidal ideation [is] common among Vietnamese secondary school students. There are strong associations with physical and emotional abuse in the family and high educational stress. Academic curricula and attitudes of parents and teachers need to be changed from a punitive to a more supportive approach …
This conclusion may be right; words are easily spoken, but actions prove more difficult. But I do notice an ‘in’ for us. Dat mentions the need for a ‘supportive approach’. Parents and teachers (and all those people who want to see an end to this problem) need only to offer support. That doesn’t sound too difficult. Each time we meet a teenager we offer them support. A bit of praise here, a bit of interest there. Some encouragement, a pat on the back. We can all do that.
And why wouldn’t we? Vietnamese teenagers are so well mannered, so polite, and so inspirational. Vietnam has a history of inspirational teenagers; Vo Thi Sau and teenage Emperor Ham Nghi to name just a couple.
So the next time you meet a Vietnamese teenager, remember, a little support here, a little support there. They are Vietnam’s rapidly approaching future.
Paul Rowe is a Master of Linguistics and a Bachelor of Education, and is presently living in “beautiful, historic Vung Tau”