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The pupils' republic

In spite of pollution and bare wires in class, Sue Kilpatrick relished the Chinese respect for education.So, how did I find myself on a flight to Jinan in Shandong Province, China, to begin a 12-month contract teaching English at a franchised English First school?

Well, following a divorce and after teaching English for 16 years in Scotland, I was facing an uncertain future of intermittent supply work. I wanted to teach committed pupils, and not the disaffected youth I encountered in the UK.

I found a TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) course in Prague, and after four weeks of intensive study, jetted off to the People's Republic.

I was met off the plane by the director of studies and taken to my shared accommodation yards from the school. We were a teaching staff of eight, and most other staff were in their 20s, enjoying a gap year. My flatmates were Slovakian and Australian.

The flat, on the sixth floor of a concrete tenement block, was shabby, but after a few weeks I got used to the unreliable water supply, smelly drains and the coal dust that settled on everything.

The school building wasn't much better. Before leaving, I had been told there were "state of the art" facilities in China. But there was a constant battle for tape players that worked, one temperamental computer and a patchy internet connection.

Light switches were held together with sticky tape and wall sockets dangled on their wires. Often you felt you were taking your life in your hands just by flicking a switch.

Jinan, a town of 5.3 million people, was a mix of the old and the new. Housing was either concrete blocks of flats behind high metal gates, or rundown narrow closes, full of brick shacks with tiled roofs. Bikes and mopeds, carrier bags of hot food swinging from their handlebars, jostled through the crowds.

The air was heavy with the smell of diesel fumes, coal dust and the ubiquitous tasty street food. Markets were everywhere. Chickens and pigeons waited in cages to be sold and slaughtered, and fish and shellfish drifted in tanks of water.

Women repaired clothing by hand or with old sewing machines, and men repaired punctures, shone shoes and banged out dents in cooking pots. But the centre of Jinan had been redeveloped, with smart shops on tree-lined marble pavements. Disco music blared from boutiques selling international brands of clothing and electrical equipment. Gleaming banks were everywhere, and relaxing music played over the loudspeakersamid the fountains in the beautiful People's Square.

But over the town lay a pall of pollution. Things got black very quickly. I could not believe the colour of my facecloth after washing my face, and my clothes never seemed to rinse clean.

Jinan is an "open" city, open to foreign development and trade. Upwardly mobile young women and businessmen drank expensive Italian coffee and mixed with foreigners in Western-style restaurants.

Meanwhile an older generation worked very hard to earn a basic living. There was no welfare state, and limbless beggars, toddlers and old women harassed passers-by for money.

Older people stood and stared at a white face. But they are generally kind, friendly and helpful. Speaking no Chinese, I could have been easy pickings for the unscrupulous, but I never felt unsafe or threatened. If I needed anything, the Chinese support staff at school arranged it. On our salaries (pound;360 a month - very good by local standards) we could afford health and dental treatment, and ate out when we wanted.

The bulk of our teaching took place in the evenings and weekends. Most teachers taught six or seven two-hour classes at the weekend and four sessions during the week. Class sizes were 18 at most - in Chinese state schools they can be more than 70. Compared to an English school, the workload was light, and it felt like working part-time.

As a private school, we taught the children of the well-off, professionals who believed learning English would guarantee a golden future. We taught pupils aged four and upwards and midway through each course we were required to give a presentation so parents could see how their child had progressed. Pupils were encouraged to speak, and there was little emphasis on the written word. The children could be competitive. Their dream was riches and success.

We also taught some businessmen, and students leaving for English universities.

As well as teaching, we were expected to take part in marketing, and were sent to state schools to give demonstration lessons. Wherever we went we were greeted like celebrities.

On one occasion we were packed off in a taxi to a neighbouring primary school. After being videoed, receiving origami gifts from the children, and throwing our all into giving a demonstration lesson, we discovered that the school wasn't interested in hiring our services at all. They just wanted to photograph us for the prospectus, so they could pretend they offered pupils English lessons with native speakers. Such wheeling and dealing seemed to be the norm in China.

Soon after I arrived, I was called on to be a judge in the Shandong heats of a televised English speaking competition. Young people from six to 21 years old old took part. The youngsters sang or recited a story in a very stylised way with exaggerated facial expressions that I found sickly sweet.

The university students delivered deep talks about the meaning of happiness, friendship and other philosophical issues. Their language was poetic and full of imagery from nature and the wisdom of Confucius. I was impressed by their maturity and ideas, but felt they lacked originality.

This was, in my view, typical of the children I met.

There was a lot of free time during the day, and for us everything was incredibly cheap. We had Wal-Mart and Carrefour, although clothes were a problem - Chinese women are a completely different shape.

We were given paid annual leave and national holidays and I took every opportunity to travel. I walked the Great Wall and saw the Terracotta Army, the Forbidden City and the Bund in Shanghai.

More surprisingly, I felt valued and respected as a teacher and, at 53, as an older person. I was served and toasted first at school banquets, and when I left, parents were offering me lifts home and meals out.

Pupils were polite, ambitious and very hardworking. I felt as if they valued everything they had: their country, family life, friends and, above all, their education.

Sue Kilpatrick worked in China from spring 2006-2007. She is now resident housemistress at Howell's School in Denbigh, north Wales

How I did it

- Most English language schools ask for a degree and a TESOL qualification. Some schools in China will offer on-the-job TESOL training.

- The internet advertises TESOL courses worldwide. Choose one that is accredited. I chose the Trinity Certificate course in Prague, which took four weeks and cost about pound;1,200.

- There is a huge demand for English, particularly in China. Google "TESOL teaching abroad" to find vacancies. I contacted English First in Manchester, which has schools all over the world and will locate vacancies, arrange phone interviews and offers an excellent package.

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