The School

I am writing this post fresh from my first lesson as a TEFL teacher. I’ve been intending to write this for a while but I have been preoccupied with that lesson. Last night I nearly broke down with frustration when my useless mac crashed every time I attempted to load a picture onto powerpoint. It was only today I found a way round the problem and the afternoon lesson was not ready until about half an hour before teaching. It was about then I learnt that normal pictures taken from the internet and resized cannot be transferred to PC, the only device compatible with the schools projectors. Only as I made my way to the classroom did I decide that my only solution was to use a powerpoint presentation on a similar subject that Amy had made for her grade 5 class that she had sent me.
It was not the greatest success by any stretch of the imagination, but there were signs of encouragement. The class I taught today were grade 6 (equivalent to our years in age). The prevailing theme detected from the lesson was the need for clear practice with pronunciation of new words. They dared not attempt to sound out new words without the guidance of the teacher. They are clearly well drilled on what they have covered but, understandably, their learning of spoken English is so heavily reliant on their aural skills. They lack the ability to use what they already know to go on and learn new things, since they hear nothing more than the specific words and phrases spoken by their language teacher, as part of their syllabuses. If you heard these children speaking what they know in English, you’d think they’d have no trouble speaking the language to a very high standard by the time they were 18, but the problem identified above is a problem that persists to beyond university level, as evidenced by the general level of the spoken English in China.
I realise as I type this that there are gaps to fill in. I’ve barely told you anything about the school! So far, you only know that this is a very big, weekly-boarding school I need to tell you about day to day life in the school.
The day is composed of 7 lessons (40 mins for the first three and 30 for the rest), but, for the children, the day begins before the first lesson at 8 and way, way after their last lesson at 4:40. The children get up at 6. What they do at this time I haven’t a clue and don’t ever intend to witness such an hour first hand! At 6:30-7 (I’m not sure exactly when) they troop up to the canteen in their respective classes. The classes do everything together. They must be very close since, in a school of 3000, you’re doing well if you know half your year group! Occasionally we hear a class break into one of their educational (probably) songs or chants while in transit.
We have the option of joining them at 7, but have only taken up the offer once. This is not, as you are entitled to think, due to the time but rather to the appeal of a Chinese breakfast to the English palate. A breakfast consists of a filled, sweet, squidgy dough-ball, the consistency of one of those mattresses that maintains its shape after you get off it. (The one I had this morning had some sort of meat in it – a very odd combination which I finished despite what my body told me) Along with that you get a big square of cake (a low highlight of the breakfast) and a slimy bowl of what is referred to in these parts as porridge. Thankfully there is an alternative: Sat atop the school building on the eighth floor (just to the right of that green and red logo you can see on the photo of the school in ‘Not Long Now’) is a blessed refuge for the teachers who are lucky enough to have a free period. Between 8:30 and 10:30 (I think), they serve there ‘morning tea’ where we get a varying selection of dumplings, cake, vegetables, and most importantly, coffee! The past week, Amy and I have been observing lessons, basically filling the role of ‘useless lumps at the back of the classroom that attract more attention than they’re really worth’, but normally our school day would begin with the first lesson at eight – provided the lesson is fully prepared the night before!
The good thing about teaching in such a large school is that a single lesson plan goes a long way. During this year, we will only be required to plan two lessons a week. I’ve heard some do as little as one every two weeks. If only! The poor 607 class that I taught today will always get my first, unrehearsed version of a lesson. That said, a tired 13th rendition of the lesson probably won’t be much fun either! The downside to having such a large school is we only see each class once a week and, as a result, the progress we make will seem almost negligible.
The reason the day stretches so long is there is at least a 10-minute break between each lesson and a full three hours between the last lesson of the morning and the afternoon’s first. The first such break (lasting about 35 minutes) contains an exercise that would leave the observer dumbstruck if they were ever to see such a sight in an English school. With a musical accompaniment (there is little done without a musical accompaniment in this school. And before say ‘Oh, that sounds lovely’ or ‘What a delightful idea’, it’s not. Hearing the same chirpy tunes over and over and over again every single weekday is not lovely or delightful in the slightest! One of the tunes is actually ‘It’s a small world after all’ – a tune that is seemingly designed to tip the suicidal over the edge. Literally! Thank goodness for the weekends!), the children slowly, steadily and systematically organise themselves into dead straight lines in a display of regimental formation that is awe-inspiring in children so young.

To be continued…
– I will finish this post later. It’s too late now. But I don’t want to go another day without having posted anything on the blog. Night night!


The First of Many Trips to Guangzhou (Canton)

Guangzhou, along with Beijing, Tianjin, Chonqing and Shanghai, is one of China’s ‘National Central Cities’. It is one of the most prosperous and populous cities in China as evidenced by the fact it has the largest GDP per capita of any city in China besides Hong Kong and a city proper population in excess of 12 million. This is due to it’s advantageous trade position on the Pearl river (wikipedia’s great, isn’t it!).

We’re due west of Guangzhou, about the same distance as Foshan

It was on our return from football that we decided to go to Guangzhou, seeing as we had a free day and Austin offered to drive. The only downside is that we were to meet at 9, which doesn’t sound too bad until you consider our bodies were telling us it was around 2am!

Austin drove us to the metro station, which was probably as close as one could get to the centre by car. We bought the equivalent of an Oyster card which allowed us to travel for about 3 yuan (roughly 30p) a journey – take note, London Transport! While travelling on the metro, we got stares, but not nearly the same level as the area around the school. Nonetheless, we still had to wait until late in the day to see another westerner. From the metro station we negotiated the bustling shopping streets, impressed by the sheer scale of the place. Along one small street they were selling whole scorpions and fried octopus tentacles. Our lunch wasn’t quite so exciting. Austin ordered us some traditional dumplings for lunch. They were stuffed with prawns or another unidentified meat. They were pretty tasty! And after an excellent coffee somewhere else, we hopped back on the metro.

We went to a Martyr’s park, which contained a memorial to the lives lost during the revolution (which one, I couldn’t be sure). It also contained a boating lake, people sitting around playing chinese instruments and a practising choir. It also contained a museum which we looked around. The vague English translations flew in the face of what I had been reading in a biography of Chairman Mao before I left (though Mao wasn’t mentioned throughout the museum as far as I could tell – very strange. It would have been unwise to bring this book to China, as it reveals heavily suppressed truths about the foundations of communism in China). Before we left we caught another lunch (the first was very early!). On all restaurant tables sits a pot of a chilli concoction. The one in this restaurant, in all that I have tried, can only be rivalled by ‘insanity sauce’, which has to be tasted to be believed! I was told, as my mouth steamed, that Indians buy Chinese chillies because of their superior potency.

Utterly exhausted by our day and a lack of sleep the night before, we headed back to our apartments in Shimen school.  Our return wasn’t particularly well timed. It coincided with the two-hour slot in which the children (who live at the school from Sunday to Friday) could be dropped off back at school. Just as with sports events, the arrival of thousands (this is a school of 3,000 children) of people in one place in a short space of time had a major effect on the traffic in the surrounding area. We took it easy for the remainder of the day, trying to block out the noise of excitable children.

p.s. I should have mentioned earlier in this blog that it is easy to receive e-mail updates if you would like. Just click on ‘Follow’ in the bottom right hand corner and enter your e-mail address. It also does a world of good for my self-esteem to have lots of followers!

Apartment & first day

Amy and I were expecting to share a flat so it came as a surprise when we were hurriedly shown round our two apartments. The flats are almost identical but for the mess in my one! They consist of a bedrooms equipped with mosquito nets, another room which apparently served no purpose into which I moved the desk that was in my bedroom. There’s a main room with a sofa, TV, fridge and water dispenser. All rooms are adjacent to this main room. The space has mostly been saved in the kitchen and bathroom department. The kitchen can barely fit anyone into it when you take into account the sink and cooker. The shower is the bathroom, and you just have to try not to trip over the sink and toilet as you use it! We also each have a balcony, which will mostly be used for washing and drying clothes. These apartments hadn’t been used since the last English teachers left and by gum you could tell! The whole place was inundated with dust. In case I was in any doubt that the previous occupant was English, I found a Jenny’s menu left atop the TV. A constant reminder of the delicious all-day breakfasts I won’t be able to eat again until we return. On the night of our arrival I had neither the energy nor the willpower to deal with the state of the apartment so I just put up with it. I could do it tomorrow.

The next day I didn’t nearly have the time to clean my bedroom I thought I would because I woke up at 1:30 in the afternoon having agreed to get up at 10:30! We set out for the shops in search of cleaning products. This shopping trip was our first real exposure to the general public. This particular part of the world sees very little of anyone other than Chinese and those Chinese have no aversion to staring. Our conspicuousness was exacerbated when I had to carry around the mop I had just purchased! The Chinese I had learnt wasn’t nearly enough to deal with our situation. We had a mare trying to act out sim card, plug adaptor and charger; the language issue arose again when we went to get a late lunch. We had to settle for pointing at the menu at random. What we ended up with was actually delicious (for the record, it was noodle soup with a fried-egg on it). The meal cost us roughly the equivalent of 70p each.

That evening I was to go with Simon to play football with the members of Crocodilian Castle. I spent a solid two hours scrubbing, sweeping and mopping away at the dust that had consumed my apartment, which was all the time I had before it was time to go to football. Anyone who has seen my previous flats will be well aware that I’m no ‘clean-freak’, so my eagerness to clean everything serves to show how needed it was!

We were driven to the football pitch by Austin, a P.E, teacher at the school with very good English. To say his driving is erratic would be an understatement! The ‘highlight’ was when we crossed at least four lanes just after a road toll to make a turning. The scariest thing of all is I think this manic manoeuvre was legal! The football consisted of a fair amount of waiting around. I sat out the first few minutes and kicked about with Austin, with them completely unaware of my ability. When I came on I almost made exactly the right impression smashing a pearler of a shot from outside the area against the crossbar. I came similarly close in the second half. I guess I’m saving up my luck for a real game!

The Journey

20th October 2011 is a day that will live long in the memory. A victory was won against the regime. Yes! That’s right, folks. We finally broke through the appropriately red tape that had so far thwarted our progress to China! On this momentous day, we finally set off for China.

We left at around 9 on Thursday morning for our 1:30 flight, diligently obeying our instruction to arrive at the airport with 3-hours to spare. Goodbyes were aided by Amy’s presence (no way was I going cry in front of her!), but it was mostly the surreality of the journey on which we were about to embark made it somehow easier to deal with. Even now, it is difficult to comprehend that I won’t be seeing the streets of North London again for almost a year. It’s true I’ve known about this trip for a long time but that doesn’t make it any more real.

Our first mode of transport was the London underground, which can be unpleasant at the best of times. But in the morning of a working day with two large suitcases in tow it wasn’t a great deal of fun. Thank goodness for the Metro! It turned out there was no need to arrive at the airport quite so early, as we got to the Costa in the departure lounge almost completely hassle-free. ‘Almost’ because I did lose a pair of scissors in the process. D’uh! It was on having sauntered leisurely to the gate that we heard unconfirmed reports that Colonel Gaddafi had been captured or killed – another notable event that day.

Sri Lankan airways cannot be faulted for their service. The flights both arrived on time the food was as good as can be expected and the stewardesses displayed admirable tolerance of wretched passengers. The impeccably soft landings also deserve a mention. The only hitch was that, due to our late booking we had an aisle between our seats – a small complaint indeed (there was also the fact that my TV screen didn’t work, but I don’t know what they were supposed to do about that 39,000 feet up in the air). It meant that I was instead sat next to an adorable six-year-old. I was reminded of the primary school we would soon be teaching at. We arrived at Colombo airport, Sri Lanka at around 4am having managed barely a wink of sleep between us. The first thing that struck us as we disembarked was the rainforest-like humidity. After exploring as much of Sri Lanka as we were legally permitted to, we sat at the gate waiting for our second flight to board. We watched in a daze as our next plane landed from its previous flight, unloaded its passengers, luggage and rubbish, and took on a new planeload of catering and luggage. I remember little of the flight from Colombo to Guangzhou via Bangkok apart from the film X –men: First Class because I finally got some much-needed sleep.

Sri Lankan territory


We were met in Guangzhou airport after a lengthy wait for the passport check by Jacky (a man, who is head of English at our school), Steven (who works in the office), and Simon (whom I introduced in the previous post). By then it was dark, so all we saw of the suburbs, as we headed to a restaurant for dinner, were the bright neon lights that lit up the numerous large buildings. Jacky and Steven treated us to a very encouraging start to our stay in China. At the restaurant we had our own private where our own waitress presented at regular intervals more food than we could possibly have managed between us. Anyone who knows me well will know that I am usually happy when I am well fed! Things were looking up.

‘Please stretch out your hands anear the induction hole’

Not long now!

Here is a taster of what’s to come courtesy of Simon Webb – one third of the our English teaching trio. He has been there for a month and a half now and, from the sound of it, is completely loving it out there:

The man behind the camera!

This is Simon. I’ve met him just once before, a couple of days before he set off. Simon’s had to brave the classrooms of Shimen school on his own thanks to our delay. Amy and I are so lucky to have someone who has been spending over a month making mistakes and learning from them so we don’t have to!




Here’s where it will all take place. Our workplace until July. I think our school buildings would benefit from a colour scheme like this one! This unusual-looking building will soon be all too familiar.




…and this is what really counts –  what (and who) is inside the  school.






I don’t think our pupils will lack enthusiasm…









…or discipline…









…but we’ve certainly got our work cut out for us!

The last picture is the badge of the football team Simon has just joined. I think we’ve got it all wrong with the names of our football teams! Why not change ‘Fulham’ to ‘Feline Fort’ or ‘Man united’ to ‘Meerkat-ish Moat’?

Simon scored on debut. I fully intend on joining him on the score-sheet!

So here’s what I have to look forward to. I get more and more excited day by day, and these pictures are an indication of why.

Good news!

The last month or so has been disheartening to say the least, but yesterday I got the news I’ve been waiting for! The new (and hopefully correct!) documents have finally arrived at the school in China and I’m speculatively looking at 20th October as a potential departure date. Due to the difficulty of finding a job when my availability is ‘until I bugger off to China’, I’ve been volunteering at my old infant school helping out Mrs. Ross (who was Miss Partridge when she taught me at the age of 5!). The silver lining to my wait here is that I have set up a job for myself there next year, if all goes to plan. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed working at the infant school and my experience working there has everything to do with my decision to go back after my year in China.

The knowledge that my China escapade is back on track has forced me to relive the inevitable mixture of anxiety, excitement and optimism that I felt over a month ago. Anxiety because of the length of time I’ll be away, the uncertainty of what I’ll make of a completely different environment and new-job nerves. Excitement about meeting the new class I get to teach and the opportunity to learn a new language. Optimism for the lasting positive impact I hope this experience will have on the rest of my life.

I intended to keep up this blog regardless of my location but the motivation really wasn’t there. Readers, you have my word that this blog will be updated weekly (at least) henceforth!