There were several emotions battling for my attention when I updated the calendar on my whiteboard last Wednesday for the FIRST time since January 22nd. There was excitement to see the kids, anxiety over how the day would go with so much unknown, exhaustion from the planning and endless emails and last-minute changes, pride that I had completed four months of high quality online distance teaching, pride for Hong Kong having abided by social distancing and health measures so well that we were able to return to nearly normal. 

It had been 120 days, but we were finally back at school.

starbucks set up. i’m happy to have this for life, yo.

Four months is a long time to do anything – longer than many relationships or diets I have tried – but four months of life in lockdown, of online learning, of feeling a general sense of fear at all times in my host country coupled with the absolute mortification I have felt watching my home country of the United States go completely nuts has been a lot to handle. My eyes have developed a twitch. I’m alone and often lonely. Been talking to spiders and plants. Bought a fish and named it Puppy. I only wear sweatpants now. Normal stuff. 

My flatmate moved out a few months ago, so I’ve just had to get rid of a two-person apartment full of things and move into a studio. Moving is always a massive project, but to do so alone, in a foreign country, during the hot and rainy season, amidst a pandemic, the day after we went back to school for the first time in four months, with a fractured foot, from a sixth floor apartment with no elevator, is . . . kind of exactly how I seem to do things, actually. Which is to say always ALWAYS the hard way.

In the midst of the personal challenges in life, the professional ones have been absolutely chaotic. We were somehow expected to instantaneously transfer from virtual learning to some version of in class learning, while beginning to write report cards, conduct online parent-teacher conferences, and STILL teaching online full time and remembering to eat and drink and use the toilet and I presume sleep at some point.

just missing the SF fog, I guess.

We’d been told we’d have three weeks notice before coming back, but since Hong Kong has done so well and had no new local cases in weeks, we were called back to work in an email over the weekend. We showed up Monday and had no idea when or if our school’s plan would be approved by the government, so that was a weird waiting game. 

Teachers thrive on clear plans and expectations and feeling productive, so until we knew we were approved, the atmosphere at school was strange. We were excited to see friends we hadn’t seen in four months, but we weren’t supposed to hug or do anything too close. To be honest (at least for me), there were feelings of resentment, a bit of “must have been nice . . .” because a lot of people had little to no work to do while homeroom teachers were completely overwhelmed. It was no one’s fault, but it’s important to acknowledge feelings and the way things worked out. (I’ve explained a bit about what my job looked like in my last post, if you want an idea, click here.)

I’ll spare you the suspense we lived through, but after we were FINALLY approved, we basically had a few days to set up what amounts to our third version of our class of the year. 

We had to rethink the following:

  • Arrival and dismissal policies and procedures
  • Entering and exiting the class
  • Toilet breaks (kids can no longer go alone, which means there needs to be two adults with children most of the time and we plan for strategic weeing)
  • Snack time. Lunch was ruled too dangerous.
  • Recess when they can’t touch each other and it’s honestly too hot in HK to be outside anyway.
  • How to reduce curriculum while maintaining rigor and meaning.
  • How to space the kids out one meter apart in already small rooms.
  • How to organize supplies and resources so each kid has their own and doesn’t have to share.
  • How to pass out and hand in assignments, how to mark assignments, how long do germs stay on assignments?
  • Mask wearing and hand hygiene
  • Temperature checks
  • How to help students if I can’t get near them.
  • How to isolate a student who feels unwell and get them to the nurse.
  • How to make sure both the morning and afternoon classes are taught the same things with the same energy and get the best of me.
  • How to not hug kids and staff and parents I REALLY missed.
  • How to re-socialize students who had regressed in four months.
  • How to reestablish classroom order with students who had become accustomed to staying in pajamas all day, getting full time attention from parents and helpers, or getting NO attention at all.
  • How to reestablish order for students who had done their own time management, which is to say, no time management.
  • How to get ESL kids back on track after four months without the language immersion they’d had before.
  • How to transition students away from all the screen time they’ve been doing for the last four months.
  • How to differentiate for special needs students who usually get one on one help which can no longer be provided.
  • How to still make the learning interesting and fun and collaborative when we can’t move from our desks, do partner or group work.
  • How to find time to plan when I only have one 45 minute reliable session a day at the same time as my other year teacher for us to collaborate. This is also our lunchtime. I will eat my lunch, thanks.
  • How to keep the day FUN and keep the kids engaged when they can’t see half my face, I can’t move around, can’t touch them or get too close, need to speak at the top of my voice at all times to be heard clearly through my mask (and consequently get worn out quite early in the day), and they’re really bummed they don’t get PE/library/music/art room stuff/assemblies/special days anymore.
  • How to remain connected with parents and keep them connected with what their kids are learning when I truly no longer have the time to do more than I am doing and don’t get to chat with them at the end of the day pick-up. 
  • How to adjust my expectations to fit reality.
  • How to fall asleep and stay asleep when I’m constantly stressed out.
  • How to wake up in the mornings and get going when I am emotionally and mentally exhausted.
  • How to fit back into clothes with zippers. (we’re just . . . we’re just all going to not, right?)

With all these fun sugarplums dancing in our heads, and following the massive list of guidelines provided by the government linked here, we came up with this:

my class – first day

In order to maintain social distancing, we split our classes into two sessions – a morning and an afternoon. The decisions were based around students who ride the bus (which could only be morning), learning support kids, and parent preferences if/when/how they could get a kid to work and back home on a shorter schedule. We all ride public transportation here and lots of people come from far away, so it’s a big ordeal. I had 27 kids, two have left since the virus, one decided to homeschool, so ended up with a 13 kid class in the morning and 11 in the afternoon.

I have friends with classes of anywhere from five to twelve kids, so it’s a gamble. I just happen to have the most kids on campus so bigger numbers. But if you’re doing the math and realizing I need to somehow keep 13 kid bodies plus two adult bodies one meter apart at all times in my class, and while transitioning through hallways and up and down stairs and at recess, you are correct, this is a logistical nightmare I get to live daily. 

To set the classroom, we made each kid a tray with their own set of supplies, labeled with their number, and put only the books and papers we’d use in them. My assistant and I clear and reset these twice a day. They can bring their own things from home if they like, including hand sanitizer, which is encouraged. They also bring a water bottle that’s full, or two if needed, because we can no longer let them refill during the day, as that’s always been a cesspool for germs. We also covered the class library and supplies sections with paper to keep temptations away, as they’re used to wandering over, grabbing a book, plopping down on a bean bag chair, and sharing with a friend or two.

disinfecting between sessions

Students have a health form mandated by the government where they check temperature at home, and they are checked again before entering school, and again before exiting. We send anything over 37.3 Celsius/99.1 F to the nurse to be super checked. Students must wear a mask at all times and bring two extra in case something happens. The government also provided all of us with special reusable masks made with something science-y that helps keep germs away.

To cover what’s most important for mental/emotional/social well-being and for academics, we decided to cut quite a bit of curriculum. We focus in the mornings on devotions,* which also allows the buffer time to get kids in, temperature checked, hands sanitized, one meter apart the whole time, and be late if it possibly takes longer to get to school. 

Then we have 45 minutes of English, and then a stretch break from behind their chairs where I make them do all kinds of weird brain break things, specifically contort their bodies into animal positions and play charades at high speeds. Then we do 45 minutes of math. They have 30 minutes of Chinese, followed by another 15 minutes of well-being, which is really me telling stories, leading games, the students debriefing the day, and me watching my Whatsapp for the always evolving instructions for dismissal.

what a friend’s first grade class looks like.

Unfortunately, a lot of the “normal fun” of school had to be cut. There is no PE for obvious reasons, Music has proven to be a huge germ spreader, can’t have Library, and can’t go use the shared resources of the art room lessons I loved so much. There’s no playground to touch, no soccer, no basketball at recess. All our special performance days have been canceled and there are no assemblies. We no longer interact with the other classes – the other year five class, our year one buddy class, the kids we shared recess time with. It’s a bit grim. 

Students now go to the toilet two by two with an adult, so we’re assigned an assistant to each room for the day. Luckily I really like both of mine. It’s nice to have another adult in the room to make “what did they just say?” and “do you smell that?” faces at each other. Or even just to chuckle me back on track when I start rambling about the plastic continent or social justice or one time use water bottles. They redirect me when I tangentialize with “that reminds me of this one time, I got in SO much trouble, because I – .” When I head down that path, I get a “Rachel NO” look from the back of the room that reminds me that the children take everything I say quite seriously and also remember it all word for word and hold it against me.

Snacktime is a whole process. I have them clear their desks, get their snacks out, I put a towel on the table, they get sanitized, then remove their mask to eat. The side towards your mouth goes face down on the clean towel. We reverse the process at the end, taking their rubbish back home with them to avoid them accidentally congregating at the trash can.

Usually during snack they would get to move and sit with friends, play chess, come talk to me, check in with the class plants, read on the bean bags, etc. To help keep them in their seats, I’ve been putting up videos of different things we’ve been studying or just things I think they need to know. For example, we’ve watched a lot of NASA videos as we’re studying space. Today we watched videos of blue whales because we’d been talking about comparing lengths. We also watched top 10 Disney songs, because I. Well. That’s just for my their wellbeing.

Because we don’t want to stress the kids out, we don’t have any of the usual end of the year assessments, which feels a bit strange and actually the kids have been asking for them. Professionally, I always want to collect and compare data (and conditionally color format the h*ck out of every spreadsheet for the sheer unadulterated JOY of it) and also be able to statistically celebrate all the progress my kids have made. 

Hong Kong weather looking wild as anyway.

We’re having to find lots of new/old ways to teach, keep them engaged, keep it meaningful, keep them on track. We don’t have a “make up for lost time” feeling because at my school, we only missed one day of teaching as we implemented online learning within hours of finding out we’d be going virtual. It could never make up for the dynamic and instant feedback of the classroom, but we still know we’ve covered most of the learning goals and content for the year, as best we could. 

The issue with the virtual home learning is that once we presented the lessons and did the Google meets and set up all the systems and expectations, the onus was placed on the parents and the students to make sure they followed along, read directions, listened to feedback, and managed their time well.

For some it was just too challenging and for some it was impractical because of life circumstances. But I’ve learned I have to let that part of me go that feels like I didn’t do enough or that I might have let anyone down. I’ve never worked so hard in my life. And no one has ever been through anything like this before. My kids saw me there everyday, they know they are loved and I was pushing them to do their best, maintaining my high expectations, and celebrating every small success. 

be water, friends.

We are only in week two back to school and this new normal has a new challenge presenting itself so kindly every five minutes. For example, yesterday we had a Red Rain warning, which meant that at the last minute, afternoon classes were canceled. Tomorrow, massive protests are scheduled again in Hong Kong, so we are on tenterhooks waiting for an early morning Whatsapp to inform us if it’s safe to come to campus or not. If not, we will provide online learning and meetups with the students. 

I know schools in the US have been canceled for the rest of the year and are in various states of virtual learning* or trying to plan reasonable returns that adhere to scientifically sound guidelines. I am so happy to help with this, and I think all educators are. Because we’re people people. And there’s no need to reinvent the wheel – I’ve been doing this since the first week of February, so I’m happy to be reluctant but helpful and cheerful cruise director for the dumpster fire of 2020 that you never expected and didn’t sign up for.

I can tell you that the hardest part has been how exhausting it is to teach longer days, to repeat your lessons and not get bored (but I do get better the second time), to speak loudly and clearly through a mask, to feel like you have to give 1000% all the time because the kids don’t get as much of you as they’re used to. To feel like management just doesn’t understand how hard it is, and they can’t, because they haven’t done this. 

I battle feeling like it’s not good enough, when really parents are probably just grateful we’re now able to do something. The hard part is to feel like you’re responsible for somehow providing all the good and normal and interesting in the world to a group of kids. I’ve learned they’re just happy to see me. They’re just happy to hear “oh my GOSH that is the COOLEST comic strip I’ve ever SEEN and you have incorporated ALL the rules about hand washing” and to air high-five them for a maths answer. They just want to hear stories of me getting in trouble as a kid, and to make up silly ways to remember how to find the missing angles of a triangle, and hear a poem read out loud, and laugh at how I forgot to pack toilet paper when I moved house because oh isn’t Miss Weight so weird. They just want a bit of human contact again.

That’s been the easiest part, saying “hey, you guys wanna play a game?” and teaching them 20 Questions and explaining why we ask “is it bigger than a breadbox?” because we don’t really do bread in Asia so how can we know about this box?

hiking the other weekend and oh it was good for my soul.

2020 has been the longest decade of my life. But that’s okay. I’ve learned a lot and grown a lot. The things that have gotten me through have been carbohydrates in all forms, walks, Tik Tok videos about (insert an animal, literally any animal), gorgeous late night weather, anytime a parent thanks me, random check ins from friends, Marco Polos from my mom, buying a pet fish, baking, having an awesome group of friends that would help me move in terrible circumstances. And just knowing that I’m being asked to do hard things, but it’s not the hardest thing. We’ll get through this. It will get better. It’s a test of character to be able to follow guidelines and science and things we might not understand for the good of the whole wide world. I can wear a mask for 12 hours a day if it means it helps us get closer back to normal. This is not a challenge to my rights. It’s something I’m doing so we can get back to rights.

feast thine eyes upon mine focaccia

Some days I can’t get out of bed, I cry, I scream, I have been in dark places. Some days are really hard for me, but I don’t want to be remembered as someone who made it all about me. So I’m happy to get up, push through, show resilience, make these tiny sacrifices adjustments (because they’re not actually that hard) to keep speeding up Hong Kong’s overall health trajectory and return to normal.

Hope you’ll join me.

Love you. Make good choices and send selfies. 

*reminder that I teach at a private international school in a generally affluent foreign country, so expectations are quite different than public schools in America.

Questions? Comments? Jokes? Shoot me a message via my facebook page :)