Getting International Schools Back to Work

Coping with a crisis is hard enough when it affects a family or a community, but now that we’re dealing with one on a global scale, there are unique challenges to the international school community.  It’s common for international curriculum schools (including local private schools like mine) to employ teachers from 15+ nations making it difficult to navigate relationships when we are each tied to different corners of the earth- some celebrating their nations’ achievements and others still weeks from improvement. Since January, I’ve noticed some trends in educators around the world as they process the situation.

Excitement- a change to normal routine can be exciting! Finding out that you don’t have to get dressed, sit in traffic, and trudge through a workday routine is worthy of celebrating in any circumstance.

Harsh reality- when you realize that nothing you’ve learned about classroom teaching applies to online settings and you start from scratch to design instructional activities that achieve your goals in new ways. All you want is to reverse the clock and be back in your old routine. You worry about how the kids are doing All. The. Time.

Equilibrium- students know their new routine and expectations. You have settled in for the long haul. A new normal is achieved and work/life balance restored. You’ve heard from enough families to know who is stable/thriving/struggling.

Transition- you finally have a good thing going and you know that kids have to go back to school, but regulations have changed, and you are reinventing normal yet again. It’s time to grieve the end of school as you have known it and adjust to new requirements for maintaining health and hygiene which fundamentally change your approach to education.

Normal- I’m hoping there’s a 5th step where new regulations are internalized, and education returns to the forefront. I’ll let you know when we’re there.

My school has been given the order to resume some classes on Monday. We are locally licensed which makes this a non-negotiable. For me, this means I’ll be back on campus for normal work hours even though my grade level is not slated to begin until April 13th. We’re returning to normal with the speed of a Chinese bullet train as the country seeks to prove that it is “business as normal” here. However, in the eyes of our 65+ international staff, the crisis hasn’t peaked for our family and friends. I have been spending my free time checking on friends and acquaintances- Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, China, Germany, Italy, UAE, Canada, USA- I’m blessed to know lots of wonderful educators. Some are well-off, and just starting distance learning. Others are in complete lockdown. Some lost jobs, some are holding down households while spouses are away serving as essential workers. I spend a lot of brain power trying to find ways to help ease the burden from 8,000 miles away.

We haven’t been on campus in 10 weeks and I’m already drained by each added task for Monday’s return.  Our leadership have embraced the celebration of Chinese triumph and supremacy, but it is important to celebrate local accomplishments while demonstrating kindness to your international school community who are still dealing with sick or dying loved ones, lost jobs, and all from somewhere too far away to be tangibly helpful. If the special event, special timetable, after school programs, clubs, committees, staff meetings, observations, training sessions, and whatnot aren’t critical to the health and wellbeing of students, let it go for now. No one wants to be planning their after school class “to save time in case it’s maybe allowed to take place” when our hearts ache for those who aren’t over the hump of this crisis yet. The situation is also changing mindsets locally. The only time I’ve left my apartment since my monitored quarantine ended, a neighbor yanked her 2-year old closer to her and said, “don’t stand close to the foreigner.” It’s hard to take when you have invested a lot of effort to return “home” and this is your first interaction.

It feels like we’re the first region in the world to recover and return to school, but school will never be the same. This is not the educational experience that 3-year olds should have. When school begins:

  • Everyone on campus must wear a mask, changed every 4 hours.
  • Everyone must eat on the same side of the table, not facing each other; this doubles the number of tables in my room, reducing floor space.
  • Parents are never permitted on campus, affecting morning drop-off routines and no opportunities to scaffold this change for families who struggle to say goodbye.
  • Classes may not share spaces; only one classroom on a playground at a time. We’re getting 20 minutes a day, 4 days a week to share with all the other classes.
  • Logging every cough and sneeze in student health journals.
  • 3 health checks from the nurse per day, for students and staff.
  • Additional disinfection routines for my assistant teacher, eliminating her ability to assist with small group activities.

I’m hopeful that Monday will be a successful transition back to work and that leadership will be sensitive to the ongoing condition of our staff’s home communities. Celebrate local achievements but recognize the difficulties of being an expat in a crisis. Focusing on the essentials in April, rather than ‘business as normal’ would go a long way to reestablishing a healthy school community. Wherever you are in the process of teaching through a crisis, know that it will get better, but it will be different. Scaling back to essentials can help keep the school community functioning optimally in the months ahead.

Photo by Emma Matthews Digital Content Production on Unsplash

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