Life Online

The title of this blog is odd. As someone who blogs on an infrequent basis about holidays and the initial settling in when we got to China, our life since leaving the UK in 2014 has been documented online on an ongoing basis for friends and family to keep in touch. But since COVID-19 started to wreak havoc in China and elsewhere, our lives are now fully online.

Speaking to my husband is via FaceTime or through WeChat video. The time difference is making it difficult. When I want to and can talk, it is the middle of the night for him, or when he wants to speak it is at the end of his working day but the beginning of the working day for me when I have a pile of things to be doing and so we are struggling with making time, instead making do with voice messages on wechat. We must do and should do better.

I seem now to be constantly online. Thankfully, I don’t teach an academic subject and therefore have not had to prepare as many lessons like other departments are doing. But this time has coincided with year 12 being introduced to the university application season. So material has been prepared on how to research different universities and majors, presentations have been prepared on various countries and regions (Australia, Canada, Europe, Hong Kong, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, United Kingdom and United States) and how to create a CV using the university research software on Maia Learning. I have taken the lead on this with support from colleagues completing some of the PowerPoints. I don’t know what the students think of it, but it has allowed us to differentiate. Instead of delivering classes about each country (though we probably wouldn’t have done it like this if we were doing face to face clases) it has given us a bank of resources on MS Teams and Moodle, our virtual learning environment, that can be dipped into by the students. They don’t have to watch each one but hopefully they can get a flavour of an area before doing their own research. The students are being surveyed but it isn’t the same as being in the classroom with the students and engage them in conversation.

Of course no university visits can take place either by Admissions Officers, so a school in Shanghai is co-ordinating talks online. Again an ingenious resource that students can access right at their fingertips from their bedroom, dining room table or sofa.

The counsellors were planning on taking over English for a couple of lessons after Chinese New Year. Had this actually taken place in school it was logistically going to be extremely difficult since we didn’t have enough counsellors available during the time as the English classes since they are timetabled concurrently. Now that it is online, all the students have access to the bank of the videos that have tasks at the end which they need to complete through an assignment on Microsoft Teams.

Teams has been easy to use to submit assignments so we can track engagement. While we can’t get the feel of a class that naturally happens when you are face to face teaching, it has been easy to recognise trends so that we can give feedback and address topics common to all the year group.

The counselling side of my job has also involved student meetings as well as parent meetings. Usually happening between 8.30 and 10.30am my time it has been the end of the day for the students. I “may” have still been in my pjs but have made sure I have a jumper on so that what I am wearing is not obvious. Speaking to the students and parents online gives parents a flavour of what their sons and daughters are going through which I think is helpful to them in understanding what an online life is like. That they can interact with a person half way round the world and have their questions answered. The students are still getting the personalised service and indeed it is more so because the parents aren’t needing to come into school and taking time off work etc.

The time consuming activity has been chasing the students up that haven’t engaged. My year 12s have been engaged and so it has been no so much of an issue. But the other part of my job that has continued is our lifeskills classes. Our department of 3 staff are being lauded as helping the students in developing routines and getting used to their life online.

We have had chat forums on how to deal with bad news, and the stress of disasters. In the main, students engaged with this. A chat forum in an educational context was new to our Year 11s as suddenly they aren’t talking in class in a face to face situation but on a chat forum and while some engaged with each other, it was mainly me asking leading questions and getting follow up answers. Our lifeskills classes are usually interactive and we have tried to keep that albeit on a different forum.

We have recognised that online learning is here to stay for the time being and so for the past two weeks we gave a choice of activities – either keeping a diary of two days to see how they have been spending their time and then reflecting on the revelations and changing (hopefully) or producing a timetable of everything they need to do over the course of the week and reflecting on the effectiveness of their timetable.

Answers on the forum were quite telling about the situation of covid-19. The students were isolating themselves to help China, they were equally as frustrated by the isolation in not going out but said that they were all spending time with their families playing games or cooking together, they also said that they were getting used to controlling what they could control and they mainly talked about their own hygiene levels and the ability not to go out. The journalling process revealed to many that they were spending far too much time online or in front of a screen. I didn’t need any journal to tell me that but it is then how we counter the screen time. Eleanor and I countered it with heading over the water to England and Wales last week but I appreciate not everyone has that option.

But I haven’t been as worried about the students who are engaging as I have about those students who haven’t bothered to submit anything. With just over half of the yr 11 body not engaged with lifeskills I have had to contact each one of them about the assignment. That has produced some further engagement and a lesson learnt but the week isn’t over yet and I have a long way to go.

We are getting used to how we communicate with our students too. Anything on Teams is fast for people outside China. This lulled me into a false sense of security. Our students can better access the material on Moodle but for us to upload to Moodle can and has taken hours so we are utilising colleagues in China to cross populate the materials.

Of course it is not just me whose life is online but Eleanor’s too. I haven’t got her into a routine (recommended by all our students on the online forum) but last week we had fun seeing a lot of friends in Basingstoke, Somerset, Cardiff and Llanelli. I enjoyed countless cups of tea at many kitchen tables while working and Eleanor had help from her friends on half term – that schoolwork included watching a film and a balancing routine. I have taken the view that for our wellbeing it was important to have a week of socialising but Eleanor was concerned that she would fall behind in her work. But now we are back in Northern Ireland with no social life she can go back to concentrating on her maths, English, art, music and PE.

Department meetings are still going ahead. Lifeskills was happening on a Friday evening at 9pm my time, 5pm in Canada for my head of department and 8am Saturday morning in Sydney. Now meetings happen at the same time on a Thursday. It has taken me back down memory lane to when I used to chair phone conferences for Young Women’s World Forum for WAGGGS and Innovate for Girlguiding. I did those phone conferences where no one could see me with a glass of wine in my pjs. Now where I can be seen I am just having a glass of wine! Sadly counselling meetings are in the middle of the day so a cup of tea it is, my colleagues remaining in China can have that glass of wine or beer instead.

As of 26th February we have no date of school starting. We had all been hoping that there would be a date yesterday but nothing. We are updated that things are positive in our city, but we know that whenever we go back we have to be put into quarantine for 2 weeks. But even if we went back early, I don’t know whether we could live with Martin, whether we could stay in the serviced apartments that he is in or when we could return to boarding.

So one month after we left for Thailand we still have no idea when we will be able to return to a normal life in China.

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