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Silver Linings Prevail Over COVID-19

Beijing City International School, photo credit Alan Cox.

Debra Cota | @DebraCota11
March 22,  2020

LOCKDOWN. The term lockdown has, unfortunately, become widely known. A lockdown is usually done to prevent an outside intruder from entering a building and protect the people inside the premises. Today, however, the word LOCKDOWN, first within China, and then other parts of the world, has become known as a word to protect oneself from COVID-19 (Coronavirus). COVID-19 is in fact an intruder, an intruder that has touched everyone’s life in some manner. News, social media, conversations, and thoughts have been consumed by this intruder. Most have been trying to figure out a way to keep the intruder at bay. The information channels have been overloaded with data, graphs, facts, and opinions on the virus. The intention is to inform societies and to enable a better understanding on how to prepare and stay safe. I am not here to share any hard facts or data with you; I am not qualified to share that type of information. However, I want to share some stories with you: not just my story, but the stories that have woven into my story, shared with me by some of my colleagues, scattered over five continents, outside and inside of Beijing, China. I am the Principal of the Early Childhood Center at Beijing City International School and I have had the opportunity to speak with all my faculty over the past six weeks, listening to them share their stories with me; staying connected.

The beginning of the COVID-19 intrusion began a litany of stories: ones that made me laugh, others that made me cry, and some that awed me. Let me begin with my story, to enable some context to a deeper understanding. I moved to Beijing in July of 2019, after spending nine years living and working in Santiago, Chile, to begin a new chapter in my life. One can never anticipate the changes that present themselves during such a change. I certainly did not anticipate that during my island vacation in Vietnam, for the Chinese New Year, that COVID-19 would overtake the holiday. Coincidentally, this break placed most of my school’s leadership team in Vietnam, which helped us navigate the sudden shift in how we needed to begin schooling after break. Therefore, on a beautiful sunny day, in a hotel in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, the three divisional leads of our school were able to rendezvous to develop our online learning strategies while having direct communication with our Head of School, who happened to be on holiday visiting her family in the UK. What was not evident at that moment became evident later: this was the beginning of our new way to meet, virtually. Hours of work were completed on the Friday before school was to begin on Monday and alerted all of our teachers that online learning was to commence on Monday, February 3rd. After that meeting, we went in different directions with our family and friends, not returning to Beijing, as the uncertainty of the situation warranted as such. It was a wait-and-see what the situation revealed.

I moved to Beijing in July of 2019, after spending nine years living and working in Santiago, Chile, to begin a new chapter in my life.

Three weeks later, when I found myself back in my home in Beijing, China, the stories from my faculty began to weave into mine. These stories are about relationships, building new skill sets, feelings of isolation or separation, as well as the emotional ups and downs that people have unknowingly been forced to face, due to the COVID-19 intruder, and the strict regulations imposed.

Schools are social communities. Schools teach academics, obviously. However, what tends to be forgotten is that there is a sizable element of guiding students with learning socialization skills. Many teachers go into teaching as they enjoy the variety of exchanges that happen daily with numerous constituents within the school community. They have the intention to guide students to become better human beings through an assortment of learning domains. Suddenly, due to the necessity to embark into online learning, this component of socialization was put to an unexpected halt, at least with the face-to-face, real time contact. What would the impacts of losing these connections do for our learners?

There was no way around it. The online learning journey had to start, as COVID-19 gave us no other options. And so, it began. My faculty launched delivering their lessons, asynchronously, via videos for the youngest learners within the school, as many were strewn throughout different time zones. I created my new day to day routine of checking in with my teachers. I initiated video calls with each one to check in to see how they were doing, what support they might need, or suggestions on how to improve their lessons. I did not know that each conversation would provide me with greater insights of the impact COVID-19 was having on people.

I initiated video calls with each one to check in to see how they were doing, what support they might need, or suggestions on how to improve their lessons.

As I mentioned earlier, I have teachers in various locations throughout the world. At the beginning of this virus some teachers found themselves in places without any restrictions, living their lives to freely move about as usual. The others within China had very different narratives to share. Each situation was unique to their own location and restrictions, despite locations.

The thirst for conversation became evident upon the first video calls I did with my faculty. One teacher said, “It is so good to see a fresh face,” as her eyes welled up with tears, in turn causing me to mimic her emotions. This became the common theme amongst my teachers within China, many shut off from outside interactions, other than their immediate family or chats with friends via WeChat. I was the reminder of their lives outside their homes and what their lives were like before COVID-19. Our conversation led into their well-being, how they were coping, what they were doing, and if any support was needed. The aspects of schooling became secondary conversations to those within the borders of China. An entirely new need had surfaced, the human element of being able to connect with others.

I quickly realized I needed to stop asking, “Have you been outside yet?” when one of my teachers, in a province outside of Beijing, told me she could not get outside, as the door of her home had been taped shut to ensure no one from inside went out. When asked how she received her groceries she indicated they ordered what was needed and they were delivered. It was at this moment I decided I had to start asking different questions. I did not need to point out the obvious to them; they were living it firsthand. I needed to ask questions from a new perspective. I began to ask, “What have you been doing to keep yourself healthy?” “How have you been getting some exercise?” “Are you able to speak with others enough to keep you feeling connected?” This is where the true stories began to surface, the stories of how people displaced from their normal day to day routines were coping with the disruption of COVID-19.

One of my teachers outside of China, cohabiting with her Dad again at age 29, shared with me that she had come to realize that a parent always sees their child as just that – “their child.” She had to work through the guilt of her Dad giving up his one bedroom to her as he slept on the couch, adjusting to him asking her where she was going and when would she be back. She indicated she was developing a new sort of dependence within her independence, while fostering a stronger bond with her Dad. They were having daily lunches together, he would help her with her videos, and they had a variety of conversations which had not happened for quite some time.

Other teachers found creative ways to pass their time and develop new skills. “I am teaching myself calligraphy,” one teacher told me. “I have wanted to learn, so every day I practice. See what I have been doing.” She proudly held up her work for me to view. One teacher said, “Oh, I have always wanted to learn how to play ukulele. What a better time than now for me to learn? I ordered one and I am teaching myself how to play.” I have my own dusty ukulele in the corner, which I purchased while living in Chile and have yet to master. We made an agreement that when we were back on campus, she would become my ukulele teacher. Another teacher laughed when she replied to my question of what she has been doing. “Cooking,” she said. “I have learned how to cook! I never really liked to cook, and now I don’t have a choice. I have found that I have really enjoyed learning how to cook.” We agreed that someday she would teach me Chinese recipes, and I would share some of my western recipes with her, as I enjoy cooking myself. Connections have been cultivated for when this disruption finds its end.

“I am teaching myself calligraphy,” one teacher told me.“ I have wanted to learn, so every day I practice. See what I have been doing.”

Exercise is one aspect that had become essential for many of the faculty during this period, as they indicated it was hard to get enough physical movement, due to the fact that many had not left their homes for over 50 days. I decided to share in my morning message a link to a yoga channel I follow, to provide a resource if needed. During one conversation a few weeks later, a teacher remarked, “Yoga! I began practicing yoga and now I am doing two hours a day. It has helped me so much.” Another commented, “You put that yoga link in your morning message. You kept it there, and 3 weeks later I was able to get to it and have been doing it daily since.” These types of narratives have become an endless stream of conversations recently.

It is worth noting that the initial reaction to the COVID-19 intruder was of trepidation and fear. It then became one that allowed deeper connections, empowerment to learn new skills, and to embrace compassion for others, as everyone was dealing with unique struggles, ones not to be judged. And as I write this, I am reminded of why I came to Beijing in the first place; it was an opportunity to work towards what my school’s mission evokes; “…to challenge and empower students to be compassionate and inspired people, who act for the good of all and for the sustainable development of the world.” The stories shared by the teachers is a reminder of how our mission exemplifies how we can live.

What I have learned and want to remind people is that COVID-19 has also awakened the importance of human connectedness; to be global citizens that are compassionate, empowered to support others, and may it inspire us in unknown ways.

The intrusion of COVID-19 has no doubt been a battle; one that has and will cause death and illness, one that evokes fear, isolation, a down swing in economies, and so many other endless issues. What I have learned and want to remind people is that COVID-19 has also awakened the importance of human connectedness; to be global citizens that are compassionate, empowered to support others, and may it inspire us in unknown ways. The stories that wove into my life have allowed me to remember that throughout all the hardships there is a silver-lining to be found or many perhaps.

Debra Cota is a life-long learner and has been working in international schools for the past 13 years. Her career in teaching has mostly been in Early Childhood. She moved into administration 5 years ago. Her passion is being able to Foster authentic learning experiences for students and teachers. Debra likes to cook, bake, be outdoors, write, and tries her best to balance her life by adding lots of laughter to it.

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