Taking Students to the Park

Children’s day is celebrated on the first of June in China, and all primary schools have a one day holiday when students get the opportunity to take part in extra curricular activities such as camping and free movies. I teach at a private English school so the one-day holiday doesn’t apply to us, but in honour of children’s day, Kitty, the Chinese teaching assistant for my class of four year olds decided that we should take them to the park for a lesson instead of being cooped up in a hot stuffy classroom for an hour. As she said that I wouldn’t have to organise anything I said it sounded like a great idea!
Normally I teach the class on Monday evening and Kitty teaches it on a Saturday afternoon, but going to the park in the dark on a Monday evening didn’t sound as fun, so we managed to find time in my teaching schedule for me to go on Saturday. It helped that the only class I have on a Saturday afternoon is a 1-to-1, to the older brother of a student in my class going to the park, so he cancelled his class and came along as well.

I was a little bit apprehensive. Normally in the class it’s me, Kitty, and 12 students. If I mess up Kitty doesn’t care and the kids, who are four, probably won’t even realise. Every couple of months we do a demo class where the parents watch for half an hour and that’s fine. But it was going to be a whole new experience to have 12 students in the park and more excitable than usual, loads of parents watching for the full hour (and the time at each end getting to and from the park), two new teaching assistants along to watch, and anyone in the park who happened to come along and watch.

Kitty had arranged for the mum of one of the students to give us a lift, which itself was hard work. Typically the doting parent who has paid lots of money to send her child to an English school now expects her child and the western teacher to talk fluently during the 15 minute car journey. Stretching out “How are you, I’m happy, what’s this, it’s a pen, how many pens are there, there are three pens.” for so long is pretty difficult.

Eventually we arrived at the park and our entourage grew even more. There were three guys with quite a bit of luggage. One of them had a television-camera sized box and a large professional looking tripod, and when I asked who they were Kitty said “the news people”. “The what!” No one told me about this. It turns out they were from the school’s marketing department, it wasn’t a TV camera, and I still don’t know why they had a tripod. They were just there to set up a stand to try and sell some classes.

Our group, now of at least 30 people, took two electric buses to a nice part of the park. It was a nice spot, on a deck jutting out onto the lake, and fortunately quite secluded from too many people passing by. The marketing guys looked a bit miffed but I was quite happy!

Kitty had prepared all the materials, including two loudspeaker systems that tour guides usually wear around their waists. I took one look at them and decided that no way was I wearing one of those, I was going to shout instead. We started the lesson and instantly about 15 camera phones and various massive SLR cameras started recording my every move. Well, perhaps not my every move, but the every move of the parent’s darling little children.

The lesson went well though, the kids didn’t have too much energy: it was hot and mostly they just wanted to sit down quietly and drink water. We tried to involve the parents in some of the activities to make it fun for everyone, but sometimes it didn’t go according to plan. In one activity we spread loads of mini flashcards out and had plastic rings to throw over the cards. Two at a time, the parents had to throw the rings and their child say the word and pick up the card. The student with the most cards at the end of each round was the winner and got some sweets. The problem came from the tantrums of losing children whose parents weren’t very good shots and missed the cards with the rings. Oh well.

Getting to the park, setting up, teaching the lesson, packing up and then waiting for the electric buses to take us back to the park entrance all took longer than we expected. I had another class at school at 7pm and by the time we were getting on the buses it was 6:15pm. I said to Kitty that I needed to get back to the school ASAP, and she asked all the parents if someone could help me out. One of them said they’d give me a lift straight away so off we went in the awkward silence of two people who don’t have a common language. We got to the car park and walked towards a shiny black Mercedes S-Class. I was instructed to sit in the back, and so I was effectively chauffeur driven back to school. Sweet.

While Kitty put a lot of effort into arranging to class, I dread to think how much more effort would be required to do a similar thing in the UK. I guess we’d have needed about three different risk assessments, legally binding parental consent forms, permission from the local education authority and the park authorities and a part of the park actually cordoned off, not to mention some kind of insurance package “just in case”. In China, an authoritarian one-party state, you just get on and do things.

I didn’t take my camera, but, as I mentioned, everyone else was documenting the day so I’ll see if I can get some photos for the blog.

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