Three Years

A personal post, three years into Covid-19 in China, and three years in this role. Some highs, some lows, some “I don’t knows” and some “where to gos?”. I wish I’d written more of this down along the way, but it has been intense, and there will be plenty forgotten.

Three years ago, on a ski lift in Wanlong during an eerily-quiet Lunar New Year, I got the call. “We’re going online from Monday, and you need to start your new role tomorrow“.

Before the break, news of a novel coronavirus had been building in China, and was starting to get attention around the world. China was taking measures to contain it, and we were not sure what the post-break return to school would bring. It turned out we’d not be returning to school until late April for some students, and August for the rest: we were one of the earliest schools in the world going remote, on Feb 3 2020, when the rest of China was still on break and the rest of the planet was only just becoming aware of what was happening. Now, in 2023, it is still very much a part of our reality.

I was working as MYP Coordinator and teaching science, then suddenly had this new role (supposed to start the following August) to absorb and adapt to. Talk about a baptism of fire…

We decamped to Indonesia, expecting to be there a couple of weeks. Fortunately, we we were back in Beijing not too long after, on one of the very last flights to land in the city. I was sent to quarantine in a hotel, and the country fully closed the borders a couple of days later. I had my first covid test in March 2020, to be released from ‘observation’, and soon after, China adapted with high-tech (and high person-power) strategies for testing, health-kit apps and rolling lockdowns. There were moments in early summer 2020 when it felt normal was returning…

It was a rollercoaster time, as half of our faculty, staff and students were stuck outside China, and the other half were here. How would we adapt to becoming a global hybrid school? I remember April 2020, as we were able to bring some older students back to campus for the first time, filling-in on the ground for the high-school leadership team, with rows of students sitting outside with thermometers in their armpits. A surreal experience, but near the end of the year and with our flexible scheduling structures that were already part of the school, we made it work and had fun in the process.

Three years on, a lot has changed, including the world. For us, most of that change has happened since December 2022, when another wave of the virus spread through the country and eventually pretty much all restrictions were lifted, almost overnight. Just a couple of weeks before, it felt as though we were at a new low, with no end in sight, as we were back to daily testing and wondering how long it would keep going on.

This new year of the rabbit brings a new reality, and I’m sure will bring new challenges, but there is optimism for a return to a more normal life.

Some Highs

There is a lot to be proud of in our community over the last few years, with great colleagues, supportive parents and Board, adaptable students and a leadership team that has been cohesive and stable. Marta, our Head of School, has been brilliant throughout. Everyone was looked after as well as possible, and the school committed to keeping people safe, employed and supported; something to be thankful for as we started to hear some horror stories from other schools and instiutions.

As frequent new challenges, rules and developments arose, we rose also – again and again. From updating tech platforms and remote learning guidelines to holding the North Star of learning at the school, we did our best to ensure that the students received the best possible learning in all situations, without going backwards on our guiding statements and philosophies. Resisting the easy option of going to synchronous, traditional learning has paid off as we have adapted in each situation.

The innovative nature of the school, and the work done in previous years on thinking and acting on what school could be meant we could keep learning engaging and inspiring, and keep moving forwards. The situation accelerated some areas from ‘thinking about’ to ‘taking action’, and we have surely come through this last few years stronger educationally and as a community. WAB was awarded the ‘most innovative international school in China’ two years in a row, and our communications team did a fantastic job throughout of sharing stories of learning.

Over the last couple of years, we have been able to reflect as a community, through ‘Portraits of WAB Alumni’, a student-centred strategic planning process, focusing on where we were, where the world might be going and what we need to adapt to in order for our alumni to thrive in an uncertain future. The resulting Strategy 2022+ is very different to traditional time-bound strategic plans, and has given us the remit to dig deeper into our guiding statements, enhance work on wellbeing and innovation and work together on new areas of focus in I-DEAS (Inclusion through Diversity, Equity, Anti-Racism & Social Justice), and Sustainability. With inclusive steering committees, a supportive community and great lead teachers, this work is well underway and will adapt as we go. WAB = We All Belong.

We were super-stoked to win the ISC Research International Schools Award 2023 for Strategic Leadership for this work.

As the world has changed, so have our accrediting agencies, and we made the decision to be the first school globally to take on the two most innovative pathways to accreditation: the IB-NEASC Collaborative Learning Protocol, using the ACE 2.0 framework (for us focusing on innovation in learning & teaching), and the CIS Deep Dive Pathway 2 on Global Citizenship & Intercultural Learning (for us, supporting the work on I-DEAS and Sustainability). This has been intense learning for me, connecting it all up, but we are through the prep phase and into a focus on Impact and asking the questions and developing manageable projects to keep us moving forwards. I’m super thankful for a great leadership team, lead teachers and a volunteer group of accreditation-enthusiasts, as well as for being part of an international community that wants to walk the talk of change in international education.

Central to learning innovation is student agency, and some amazing projects have evolved over the last couple of years, from flexible maths learning communities to the student-led redesign of our Grade 6 units to make an interdisciplinary garden project (and much more), the work of our students and teachers has been nothing short of inspirational. We’ve had students take the lead in virtual international education conferences (including FOENN’21) and in our recruitment fairs. There is so much going on, the best place to look is on our podcast and news stories, and now that restrictions have been lifted, WAB is truly ‘back’, with so much more to come.

As a parent in challenging circumstances, I’m ever thankful that our kids are in such a great school, with teachers and support to meet their needs and keep learning positive.

In the moments of openness in China, we have been able to visit some places we wouldn’t normally have gone to in break, as we’d focus on return to family. Summer 2020 we were pleasantly surprised with Hainan and in 2021 visited beautiful Yunnan. Despite the lockdowns, Beijing offers a lot as a place to live, with great food, places to visit and the recent reopening has seen the return of live music, comedy and art. I hadn’t really grown to love the city before Covid but now there are elements of life here that I have become used to and really appreciate, including the way things mostly just work. In summer 2020, we moved to a nicer home and along the way we have made some great friends, bonded through our kids and the situation.

We bought a house! Feeling the need for some security, we bought a house in the seaside town of Maryport. It was relatively inexpensive, and we have never seen it, but my parents and the letting agent say it’s lovely, so that’ll do. We have had some nice tenants in, and some new ones on the way. Getting a mortgage was a bit of a headache, but worth it in the end to have a place that’s ‘ours’.

We try to capture the good moments and share the best bits, so when we look back, we realise there was lots of good to come from this.

Some Lows

It’s been an ‘interesting’ time, and I think the toughest few years I’ve faced since starting teaching in 2003. At times the load has felt unbearable in its uncertainty and the frequency at which some heavy surprises have been added and required immediate adaptation. Adding parenting and family life, as well as extended separation from our families back home has made it tougher, and as a pathological worrier, I have frequently felt that I was letting someone down, no matter how positive the outcome became. It has been a hard time to stay healthy, with a lot of stress, sleeplessness and far too much screen time. When I finally did catch covid it felt as bad as dengue, but it passed in a few days and so far seems to be OK.

I’m naturally introverted, which as a school leader can be challenging. I pay close attention, connect the dots and care about people and learning, though this can compound the ‘leadership loneliness’ that people write about. So much of the work in a role like this can feel invisible, until suddenly it’s not. I love to advocate for the work of our community and develop new ideas, yet still get nervous about presentations or large groups. I’m told I make it look easy, but my heart monitor on my watch would suggest otherwise. The whiplash of the last few years, from repeated shifts between crisis and strategy, documentation and presentation, can be exhausting, and I’m sure others will have felt the same. Constant uncertainty and decision-fatigue can take their toll, and staying resilient is a challenge to continuously work on, especially when others around you are feeling the same.

In twenty years overseas, I’d never felt homesickness until about June 2022. Hesty had to leave to look after her mum, we couldn’t leave and I had a summer here with the kids, just as new lockdowns were happening. We’d always justified being away with the fact that we were only really a day or two from family, and when that became impossible, and I felt another summer of their childhood slip past, I was a bit overwhelmed. The last time we were home was Christmas 2018, and they’ve really grown up in the four years since then.

The goodbyes are always hard, but the last couple of years have been harder. Your support network in international schools are key to thriving, and people have had to make hard decisions in the best interests of their families.

We wondered what to do after this year, and future planning seemed harder with the state of the UK and global politics. I was anxious about how to provide for them all, especially with one graduating in a couple of years, yet was missing most of what I loved to do, in the ocean. A quick trip back to Hainan, with a couple of lucky waves and some freediving, helped a little bit with rebalancing. Similarly in winter, some local snowboarding and ice-skating have been sanity-savers. Solo parenting again this last month has been challenging, and resurfaced some feelings, but this time we are looking forward to the summer and to getting back to family.

Some “I don’t knows”

At this point, can anyone really make any predictions about the future?

Although my work is in learning innovation, and I’ve been doing a lot about AI since the summer, I can’t predict what the future really holds for our kids. We can’t predict geopolitics or the global economy. I wish I could predict some better outcomes for the UK. We can’t predict how the situation in China will impact enrolment or external forces on the school, though we are seeing a trend back to the positive since the ‘great relaxing’.

But we can keep on doing what we do best, and trying to create a future that is sustainable, equitable and led with dignity.

Some “Where to gos?”

“What’s next?” is a question on everyone’s minds, and it carries a lot of weight in international education. We’ve committed to staying here until 2025, until our eldest graduates but after that? Maybe we’ll stay, maybe we’ll find another school or even relocate to the UK. It feels like two years will simultaneously pass in a heartbeat and yet too hard to predict.

Our most immediate ‘where to go’ is back home in the summer, for the first time in 4 1/2 years. To reconnect with family, sort out all kinds of life admin, and see some potential university cities. I’m sure it will be an odd feeling touching down in the UK again. It feels like we have lost time to make up for. We might even be able to visit that house. We’ll visit Indonesia again as well, and hopefully soon enough we’ll be able to revisit Japan for the first time since we left.

Before then, we’ll focus on making the most of here, and keeping the kids safe, learning and enjoying as much as possible. My work to-do list is busier than ever, and I’m hoping for a smooth run to summer, as we get ready for accreditations and the thirtieth anniversary of the school next year. One of the great things here is that we can attract and retain great people, and continuing to build in this community is a privilege.

As for my own “where to gos?” next, I’ve just started an EdD programme with Bath, and it has been enjoyable so far. I’m in no rush to complete, it, but recent study on Learning Diversity & Pedagogy has been super interesting. Having library access again is great. With a job that covers everything in learning such as this, finding focus is tough, but something will emerge, and I hope it can be of use beyond writing assignments. Having the support of an external mentor is really valuable, as well as an outstanding professional learning network of decent people online. I’m trying to like LinkedIN, but most of the people and organisations I connect with are still on Twitter.

And there are always ways to play and be distracted. I think we’re a new golden age of EDM, started mixing again and love playing with new toys and tools. The last few years have seen some wonderful, diverse and interesting new books, films and series come out. Sci-fi and dark academia are back!

I have definitely forgotten or missed out so much from this post, but this’ll do for now. The longest three years, in the blink of an eye, but always thankful for what we have and who we have around us. Jia-You!

The photo is from TeamLab’s installation here in Beijing, with my kids moving from one room to another, through a mirrored-prism tunnel. I like it as a visual metaphor for transitioning out of these three years.


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