Getting settled in Xi’an

Last time I blogged I’d been in Xi’an for only a few days, and I was just settling in to life here.
Since then I’ve had a busy week and a half at school, mainly observing lessons and learning about how things are done, and I’ve also seen a bit more of Xi’an. (While I won’t go into too much detail about the school so as not to bore you by talking about work, it’s inevitable that my experiences of China itself and of teaching will overlap, and I think that, coming from Western Europe, there are many interesting observations to be made about education in China.)

It’s been really fascinating observing both practising English teachers and Chinese students of all ages, and also visiting a Chinese state school for outside classes. Most of the students at my school are children, aged from 3 to 15, and classes range in size from 6 to 18. As the school is a private school offering English classes over and above those provided in state schools, the busiest times are in the evenings and weekends. My non-working days are now Tuesday and Wednesday.

One of my expectations prior-to arriving was of diligent children from single-child families and parents with high-hopes for their only child, but also of some children being spoilt rotten by excessively doting parents. To a large extent I haven’t been proved wrong.

In my school, for the most part the students want to learn; they’re here either of their own volition or at the behest of their parents, and recognise that English is an important skill in improving their employment potential. Consequently, they are largely well behaved and not disruptive. Any bad behaviour here comes from children who are unwillingly pressed into learning English by their parents and don’t want to be here on their day off from normal school. At the state school there are 40 students per class, differing greatly in their abilities. The children there are typically rambunctious, and any bad behaviour comes from the general boisterousness of any group of children.

My school is very modern; every classroom has interactive whiteboards and there are many computers available for students to use before and after class. The school itself is well maintained and colourful and feels new, and every class has a western teacher and Chinese teaching assistant. The state school is less well equipped, but on par with my own secondary school in the UK 10 to 15 years ago. Desks and chairs are old, but why replace them if they aren’t broken. The classrooms have chalk boards, but also digital projectors for powerpoint. The building reminded me a lot of the University of Miami where I studied for a semester, with 4-stories of classrooms opening onto open terrazzo walkways.

As the school is easing me in gradually, so far I’ve taught only three classes; two to a group of 4 and 5 year olds, and another to a group of 10 and 11 year olds. My first class, to the younger group, was a complete disaster. Luckily the teaching assistant, Kitty, is very experienced and has been with those students for a year as they’ve progressed. She rescued me repeatedly as I forgot activities I had planned, ran out of activities to do, and was thwarted by the interactive whiteboard (and so things like songs) not working at all. I think at one point I looked at Kitty and said “help!”. So a benchmark lesson to gauge all future lessons against!

The second lesson I taught, to the 10 and 11 year olds, was better, although still not great, but I did feel like I was indeed a teacher imparting knowledge to a group of students. I was still nervous, and some activities didn’t go as planned, but it gave me the confidence boost I needed to think that I may actually make it as a teacher. By my second lesson with the younger group I had a much better idea of how to teach them, what would work in a class of that age group, and of the classroom management required. As a result it went much more smoothly and I’m now looking forward to teaching them next week.

Outside of school, and the bits of Xi’an I have seen so far are mainly the inside of bars. I have a year to do all the touristy things, so there’s no rush, and I figure I may as well wait for when the weather is better and people visit me. The bars I’ve been to are all by the south gate. As the metro closes at 9:30pm, the only reasonable way there is by taxi, which is about 9km, takes about 20 minutes and costs about ¥20. The bars, The Belgian Bar and Park Qin, are the closest to European bars that Xi’an seems to offer, and there doesn’t seem to be much of an equivalent Chinese bar culture to participate in. Consequently, they are both places frequented mainly by westerners, which is partly relieving to be in relatively familiar surroundings where I can just relax, but also a little disappointing as I’d like to be engaging more in local Chinese culture.

A week ago my two new flatmates, Alistair and Rob, arrived. Since I’d been here a week by then and was therefore relatively a local expert, I’ve shown them around the local area, and we also explored the Muslim quarter in more depth (the photos from last week). Unfortunately, that day was the only time we’ve had good weather recently; on all other days it’s been raining and cold and far too miserable to do anything more than stay warm inside either at home or in a bar.

Talking of which, the radiators in my apartment are controlled centrally by the building management, and don’t seem to get very warm or come on at sensible times of day. As a result, we’ve been using the air-conditioning units to heat the apartment, consuming about 0.3 electricities a day. Tonight I’m going to try bleeding the radiators as other teachers have mentioned that the radiators in their apartments were full of air and need bleeding every couple of weeks or so.

Apart from a blip last week after teaching my first class, I’m feeling quite positive about the year ahead here in Xi’an.

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