I didn’t dance around my living room on camera. I didn’t don a funny mask or a cap and bells to make my classes lively and entertaining. I didn’t generate whimsical content for Twitter or TikTok to demonstrate just how inspirational teachers can be during times like these. You know times like these. When the world has changed and now more than ever, we’re all in this together, etc.
I don’t begrudge the teachers who actually did these things. I’ve enjoyed seeing those clips on social media and local news of teachers and students engaged in dance-offs, singalongs, spirited game shows. Maybe I begrudge the news anchors for thinking teaching at its best resembles a vaudeville show, but I get it: we’re all craving positivity during times like these.
I struggled these past few months. I coped and adapted. I got a lot of things wrong and, I hope, some things right.
My school in Beijing went on break at the end of January for Lunar New Year. We’d all heard about the virus by that point but had no clue how everything would turn out. By the end of the week, we’d gotten word that our campus would close for two weeks and then that it would close indefinitely.
My wife and I flew back to the States at the beginning of February and quarantined in our condo in Northeastern Ohio. We assumed we’d be back to China in two or three weeks. It’s now the end of May. We were set to leave Beijing at the end of this school year and relocate south to Shenzhen. Now we have an apartment full of stuff to ship or unload remotely and a dog who has been with the boarder for months. We are currently unable to enter China. We don’t know when this will change.
At least we’re healthy.
I woke up each morning over the past few months and drank my first cup of coffee while checking my email. For a while, I did this on the living sofa, but eventually it was nice enough to sit out on the deck for this morning ritual. I flagged every message I’d need to follow up on once the caffeine had kicked in. It was nighttime in Beijing, but my students were spread out all over the world, so it was also morning or afternoon for many of them. Thankfully my school was forward thinking enough not to require synchronous teaching during regularly scheduled class times, or I would’ve been working the graveyard shift.
At least I was still getting paid.
Throughout each day, I emailed back and forth with a few students or worked together on a shared document. I went upstairs to our loft and recorded a few videos explaining concepts or assessment details that would have been tough to convey in writing. I composed whole class messages on Teams or email and scheduled face-to-face chats on Zoom and optional Q&A drop-in blocks for each of my courses. Then, I graded assessments or wrote my own example papers to help fill in the gaps I would normally have been able to through direct instruction.
I took breaks throughout the day for meals or exercise. My wife was doing home renovation projects all through the condo, so I made time to help her. I called my parents, and my father shared all the day’s end-times prophecies from cable news. I put on a mask and went to the grocery store to keep our cheese and coffee stocks replenished.
In the evenings, I got ready for the start of the school day in Beijing. I answered more emails and dealt with head-of-department matters. I corresponded with counselors about students who were struggling. A few completely dropped off. Some withdrew and relocated to their home countries. One recently lost her father. At 10:00 PM, I switched on Zoom and caught up with any students who dropped by to see me looking grizzled and mountain-man bearded. At 11:00, I went to bed and tossed and turned for a few hours before falling asleep.
I didn’t deliver exceptional lessons. I didn’t connect with every student as much as I would have liked to. I certainly didn’t make them feel any less lonely and uncertain about the state of the world. If I thought I could have danced our shared existential dread away, I’d at least have given it a try.
I did have some moments that were, to use education’s favorite adjective, powerful. I had a two-hour conversation with two grade 11 students about patriarchy and John Krakauer’s Into the Wild and the films of Richard Linklater. I debated the nuances of the Taylor Swift-Kanye West feud with a giggling group of grade 10 girls. I bluffed my way through a conversation about a piece of literature I hadn’t read since I was young and had a student say, “Oh, I get it now. That makes sense.” I gave more personalized quality feedback in messages and chats than I ever did working through a stack of rough drafts to hand back in class. I watched students physically relax with relief on camera when I said things to them like, “You know what, just do your best, and don’t stress about this too much. I’m comfortable that you’re engaged in thinking and learning, and it’s understandable if some of the procedural stuff falls by the wayside. Yes, I’m saying it’s okay if you don’t get everything done.”
I could have been more social and a better online member of my school’s community. I could have joined the Zoom events where we sang songs or played trivia or co-created amusing short films together. I could have created spectacle for my students and social media contacts. I could have danced around my living room on camera.
But, I didn’t. I struggled these past few months. I coped and adapted. I got a lot of things wrong and, I hope, some things right.