Learning to teach all over again

Schools in China were some of the first around to world to make a rapid and unexpected shift to teaching online. Dr Rehema Clarken, Academic Principal at the Beijing Foreign Studies University International Curriculum Centre, talks about the challenges her and her team faced and how students and staff are still learning.

When it became clear in late January that we would be unable to return to school in early February, we decided to launch an online learning platform to host all our required classes.

Transforming a bricks-and-mortar school into an online school without any time to plan was quite a challenge!

The most obvious challenge is communication – especially bilingual communication. I did not realise how dependant I was on face-to-face conversations when working with colleagues, nor did I realise how time consuming it can be to read and write so many emails and texts in a day — especially in a foreign language!

I have been in China for 13 of the past 25 years. Like my co-workers who have been studying English, I have been studying Chinese for many years and can speak and listen well enough, but my reading and writing skills are just not as fast and fluent, so I have had to work hard this last month to keep up with the onslaught of written messages.

I know my co-workers feel the same with the English emails and texts they read every day, so we are trying to translate to minimise misunderstandings, but this is time consuming.

We are extremely fortunate to have so many dedicated professionals in the school and our wider community network to help us launch such an ambitious programme of online learning with only a week or two of preparation time.

This was a heroic feat which could only be accomplished by dozens of people working hundreds of extra hours to ensure success. I’m very fortunate to work with such dedicated staff.

Learning how to teach all over again

One benefit of online teaching is that it has made teachers really focus on the nuts and bolts of education. It is almost as if they are learning how to teach all over again.

Time and energy are being invested in creating excellent course materials to communicate complicated ideas through a computer screen.

We have not yet cracked the problem of doing formative assessments online where we can ensure that students are doing their own work without help from textbooks, text messages, and internet searches.

However, each week teachers share new apps and new techniques they have discovered that have improved their teaching and helped students learn more. By the end of this, I’m sure we will have a few tried and tested solutions.

Small things can make a big difference

It is hard to motivate everyone during this time. To be honest, it is hard to motivate myself too. The situation is such that we are not just trying to keep everyone’s attention during class, but we are trying to keep everyone’s spirits up while they are home separated from everyone except their immediate family.

We have done some small things to keep people happy and engaged. Every day the school sends a motivational message to the staff and every day one student sends out a funny poster describing their study environment at home.

These small bits of encouragement are meant to bring joy and remind us that we are still a learning community despite the current distance between us. 

It is funny how we miss the simple things most. I’m looking forward to walking down the school hallway and seeing the students chatting in front of their lockers before running to their next class.

I’m looking forward to having a coffee with co-workers while we discuss changes to next year’s curriculum.

I’m looking forward to the first fieldtrip where students and teachers can go to a park and hike in the sunshine while enjoying good conversations.

It is very easy to see the difficulties of the current situation where we feel trapped by forces beyond our control.

With life going much more slowly, it has given me time to think and prioritise what is most important in life. For the school, it has done the same: education can be delivered in many forms with creative teachers and willing students.

I hope that everyone will value this time with their families, and I hope the schools will take the lessons of distance learning to heart.

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