I spent this weekend in Suzhou, in the East of China, teaching five volunteers (from four different countries) on what is likely to be the last Lattitude in-country training course. It involved me taking a 6am taxi to Kunming airport for a three hour flight to Shanghai and a 3 hour bus trip to the College. The course had originally been an 8-day affair, later cut to 7 days but now crammed into a weekend. As such, a lot of important elements have had to be jettisoned such as language lessons, outings and teaching practice. It was rushed, to say the least.
My hotel was very pleasant [see above] and we enjoyed some good food. But all too soon, I was on my way home - taxi to the railway station, bullet train to the airport and ....seven hour delay on the plane! I arrived back home in Kunming just two hours before my first University class of the week, after 36 hours without sleep. Not good.
The 17th and latest Lattitude training course was something of a mess. Whereas we used to get 15-20 volunteers, this time there were only 4. One arrived a day late to get a cheaper flight and two had their visa applications rejected and arrived a week late after resubmitting them.
The usual 8-day course was therefore squeezed into 6 days for the first pair and 4 days for the second. Locked classrooms, misplaced resources, botched photocopying and having key personnel missing led to some very patchy training and more than once I was quite embarrassed about the low quality and lack of professionalism. All in all, I think this may be my last course - possibly one more by way of a handover - the timing has always been frustrating (coinciding with JD's first week at school, my first week at University and one of Ava's busiest fashion periods), the pay is fairly trivial and the volunteer numbers are dropping off fast. I've enjoyed the 10-year run very much, but I feel the end is in sight.
This week is crazy busy. Its my first week back at University, teaching Writing this term. JD returns to Kindergarten amidst tears. We also have two guests staying in the house, plus I'm training 8 teenage volunteers to be English teachers in Chinese Colleges as part of their gap year. It's a lot of teaching and an awful lot of driving around Kunming on my e-bike to get where I need to be for all the lessons. The volunteers' arrival flight was delayed on the first day. so we postponed their Welcome Banquet until today. We went to a restaurant with a Song and Dance show thrown in. At the end, the volunteers were persuaded to take to the stage and join in one of the dances, much to the crowd's delight [see photo].
The latest week of Lattitude training course is over and six volunteers flew to their projects today to become Oral English teachers for 5 months. They were a good bunch and managed a 100% atendance rate until the last day, which fell victim to some excessive partying the night before! The picture shows some of their Teaching Practice preparation.
As the Lattitude training course draws to a close, the volunteers are asked to demonstrate what they've learned by giving a 50 minute lesson to real Chinese students at Robert's School. They did really well on the whole which bodes well for their projects where they will work for 4 months. They fly off tomorrow.
Today is my first day at my new job at the Yunnan University of Finance and Economics (YUFE) - a week earlier than I though due to the University forgetting to tell me of a calendar change. It's just a 20-30 minute e-bike ride to get there, depending on traffic.
It's going to be a really busy few weeks for me with this new job, plus 11 Lattitude volunteers to be trained over 8 days, normal weekend lessons at Robert's School (soon to be handed over) and JD starting Kindergarten. Thankfully, the University have managed to arrange my classes so that I start avoid the first and last lessons of the day, allowing me to drop JD off at Kidergarten and pick him up at the end of the day (once he starts doing full days in two weeks time).
I spent a few hours yesterday with three Lattitude volunteers from the last intake, visiting Kunming over the May Day holiday. I took JD and we met them at Green Lake Park on a warm, sunny day. One area was plastered with photocopied signs and photos. It turns out they were all advertising for a girlfriend/boyfriend, something I'd not seen in Kunming before. There were, as you'd expect, some surprising and amusing things; firstly, almost equal numbers of men and women, secondly all the pictures had been photoshopped with candidates standing by Big Ben, on Bondai Beach, in front of huge butterflies, hovering above the Great Wall, etc! Thirdly, I was initially amazed to see adverts for people aged 86, 89 and 92, until I later realised that these were birth years, not their age! And lastly, it seems your height is the one factor that is vital to include. Most signs had no photo, but all had their height displayed prominently. But not their weight. Odd.
In conversation with our new nanny, Molly, last Friday she mentioned that she was from a town called Eshan. I told her that I had visited the Minorities Middle School there a few times to check on the Lattitude volunteers I had trained. "No way!" she exclaimed, "I was taught to speak English by Lattitude volunteers ten years ago". Small world.
Yesterday was the last day and the Farewell Banquet for the latest Lattitude group of volunteers. They have been amongst the best, if not the best, intake we have ever had - nearly 100% attendance record, no "incidents" and particularly thoughtful and accurate answers in class.
Maybe the combination of five different coutries helped. We normally have Brits and Aussies, but this year an American, two Canadians and five New Zealanders joined the mix. The Kiwis' pronunciation became the running joke of the week, as it happens. For example, they pronounce "win" as "when" and "pen" as "pin" - all quite confusing. So they enjoyed their "check-in soup" yesterday and today they head for the "airport chicken desks"! Their students are going to have fun.
The Lattitude volunteers started today with 1½ hours of Chinese language study, ending with a visit to a local fruit shop to use what they had learned [see photo]. Then I taught them for two hours before we headed to a XinJiang restaurant for lunch. Back for a birthday cake and a video of a previous volunteer teaching a class of 60. Two more hours of training from me after that took us to 6pm. At 7pm we met in their hotel lobby for a half hour walk to Kunming's English Corner by the Green Lake, where locals gather to practice their English [see photo]. I left them immersed in conversations by 8.30pm and got home by 9.30pm for JD's "going to bed" routine. A long day for all of us.
The three Lattitude volunteers did their Teaching Practices yesterday and flew off to their placements today. Their lessons went well, though they had to be felixble as the usual 12-14 student numbers unexpectedly dropped to 3-5 (many local schools had insisted that their students turn up - on a Saturday afternoon - to hand in their holiday homework!?). Now starts the real challenge for the volunteers as they face classes of 50-60 students on a daily basis. Good luck!
Tomorrow is the last day of my Lattitude training course. It's been a week of ups and downs. The volunteers' class attendance has been better than usual, but then so was their attendance at local nightclubs, until the knifing incident. They enjoyed a relaxing half-day in the sun at the Golden Temple last week, but showed signs of stress during their first Teaching Practices this weekend. There are mixed feelings too about leaving "dangerous" Kunming (surrounded by friends) and heading off to their various projects around China (surrounded by strangers).
No sooner had I told the Lattitude volunteers, at their Health and Safety briefing, just what a safe city Kunming is, than news starts filtering though of a gang of masked terrorists bursting into Kunming Train Station this evening and, in an obviously coordinated attack, knifing 29 people to death and injuring 130 others. It came totally out-of-the-blue and seems utterly senseless. Latest news is pointing the finger firmly at "Uighurs" from XinJiang Province, Muslims who claim to be a persecuted minority there. Kunming is a soft target for them and innocent train passengers clearly have no way to protect themselves. The police here shot 4 of the terrorists dead and captured another, but we hear 5 or more are still on the run. There is now an unofficial curfew in the city with businesses (including my school) being "asked" to close down after dark until further notice. All very unnerving.
Our 6-monthly influx of foreign teenagers is here once again (where does the time go?) and so I am busy running an 8-day training course for 18 Lattitude volunteers from Australia, UK and Canada. The usual stress was turned up a notch on the first day, too, by us being visited by the new Australian Consul-General, Nancy Gordon, and her retinue on a fact-finding mission. Despite being delayed by traffic, she managed to fit in a tour of our school, observation of some training and an informal chat with the Australian volunteers before a quick bite to eat and a hasty departure to other commitments. I shared a table with her over the buffet lunch and found her to be a really pleasant and down-to-earth person, despite being a rather important dignitary in China - one of only two female "Ambassadors" here!
The volunteers themselves have made a good start to the course with, as yet, no lost passports, upset stomachs or drunken stupors! But then we do have another 5 days to go...
My good friend and colleague Kelly [right, in photo above], got a nice little write-up on Lattitude's blog recently [click here] and rightly so. She is Lattitude's Country Coordinator for China, which means she sets up projects for the volunteers, liaises with the schools and Universities concerned and visits the volunteers once they are at their placement. That, plus coping with lots of admin and hassles (it's a role I myself once managed to "nearly" do for 6 months, and I wouldn't wish it on anyone!). She does a magnificent job though and we enjoy working together during the 8-day "Teaching Skills Course" which I run twice a year. She's also a part-time teacher at Robert's School, where I work, and a regular reader of this blog. So, she's diligent, unflappable AND blessed with great literary taste!! Great combination!
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