I have not had an active teaching role in the classroom for two and a half years since becoming Vice-Principal and oh, how I miss it! VC@T, THS’s virtual school platform, provided me with just the excuse I needed to go back to being part of teaching and learning through observations and pop-ins. Stepping back ‘inside the classroom’ during these last 11 weeks of virtual learning has really ‘filled my tank back up’ so to speak and I owe a big thank you to our teachers for making this possible.
From the get go, the VC@T journey had not been easy. We were one of only two schools in all of Hong Kong to kick off virtual learning back in November last year when the government mandated school closures for six days due to protests. From rolling it out administratively and strategically, along with ensuring parent and teacher preparedness while never losing sight of student engagement and learning along the way, it was no easy feat. Nevertheless, this experience has turned out to be incredibly fulfilling for me as I am lifted daily by the can-do optimism of our teachers, their ability to continuously innovate, their resilience, creativity, strength, grit and ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking. I would like to qualify here that these are qualities our teachers exhibit everyday on campus, however VC@T is an entirely different beast and who would have blamed them if they kicked up a fuss? So I am justly in awe of our teachers for all they have achieved so far. These past three months has left me deeply honoured to be a part of The Harbour School team and more than that, I know that we have some of the best teachers here in Hong Kong. This blog gives me, a very proud Vice-Principal, the opportunity to boast without shame the many moments of amazing I have witnessed.
I have been a part of a Grade 2 poetry unit where students were discussing and wondering about how to incorporate nature and wilderness into their Haiku poems. Their wonder was encouraged because their teachers were incredibly informed about it and genuinely happy to share the knowledge with them which helped to build their curiosity. Inspired, I penned two Haikus! We shared our understanding about how this form of poetry is important culturally in Japanese society, how the syllables matter and the importance of following the 5:7:5 rule. Students were so excited to contribute and share their ideas. This culminated in a virtual Poetry Cafe session that I loved attending.
A well-planned virtual Math lesson on radius (which let’s be honest, how exciting could this possibly be?) really honed in on all the areas that students needed support in. The teacher used error analysis to guide them encouragingly through their corrections, adding little personalised drawings and a Bitmoji of herself to bring a smile to everyone's faces. Even in a virtual classroom, there will always be a pen and paper element in a Maths class as students work out their sums. We then shared our workings and answers with each other over our screens which generated multiple responses.
During a Middle School social studies class on ancient Greek medicine, I was able to help “treat” four “sick” patients where we were only provided with their types of illnesses and had to leverage on our understanding of humorism as shared to us in the lesson. We then logged into Google Classroom to document our suggested system of medicine, detailing how it could assist our patients. A whole class discussion was held where students listened to each other’s suggestions for remedy and why.
Was the Vikings' reputation for cruelty and fierceness justly deserved or was it an image created purely by those who conquered? Our Middle School students debated this question long and hard during an especially lively Social Studies lesson replete with gory details of beheading, stealing babies from mothers and finger amputation. Our enjoyment and interest was kept alive through the whole session by the teacher’s unwavering passion for the subject as she expertly chaired the discussion.
I have even taken part in a volcano investigation with groups of students. The teacher took the time to open up choice to partner pairings and provided additional Hangout links for students to work in small groups. Despite the new challenges of virtual teaching, our teachers are constantly thinking: how can we extend this activity so all students can socialise and continue to integrate with their peers?
One of my favourite lessons was reading the “Tiger Who Came to Tea” to a group of Prep students. All of us had our cups of tea and listened keenly to this classic story. Their teacher and I waited for the students to share back with us their drawings to show who they would each like to visit them for tea? Their drawings were so colourful and detailed that I know that this was because they would really love to have just about anyone visit for a cup of tea right now. But instead, they understand that for the time being, we will have to wait. Their teacher was so proud of their effort and attention to detail. This was made possible because she believed they could and they knew she believed in them.
I enjoyed a Gothic horror lesson where students had to critically think and then contribute their ideas on what made a good “hook” in a story. I was part of a Math lesson to introduce “rounding” numbers to six-year olds, where the teacher didn’t think to rest on his laurels and simply show basic groupings on a slide presentation. Instead, he demonstrated through the drawing design of a car going up and coming down a hill which had his students so engaged because it was interesting and fun.
Virtual classrooms certainly did not deter our teachers from incorporating hands-on learning. For example, a topic on ancient Chinese inventions and their importance was presented to Grade Three students. The teacher threw the class a challenge of presenting their own “inventions”. We saw a live demonstration of a working catapult, also known as a slingshot, to our wide-eyed wonder and amazement! In a Grade Three science class, the teacher creatively designed a Kahoot activity to assess students’ knowledge about scientific concepts they had recently covered. It could have been shared as a simple slide presentation but the teacher designed it so that it was interactive and engaging. The online game generated excitement, a healthy competitive edge and an opportunity for students to all respond and look at scores anonymously. Music was added and students had fun even as they learned.
The passion and professionalism displayed by our teachers left me full of gratitude and admiration. From completing planking challenges complete with toilet paper rolls, writing to penpals in France, completing fun quizzes in Mandarin, following (breathlessly) a High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) workout, as well as producing incredibly detailed and intricately drawn artwork, it gave me such pleasure to see our students enjoying themselves and working so hard. There were pictogram posters made for favourite movies and comics created to raise awareness of climate change. Students' faces light up because they were able to share their favourite music piece or homemade instrument with their teacher and their peers. During morning check-ins, teachers focus on students’ social and emotional wellbeing.
The teaching and learning never stops. Our internal messaging platform is buzzing daily with faculty members sharing resources from virtual museums to visit, free and online zoos to “explore” with your class, stories and read aloud ideas, and Chrome extensions for Hangouts so we can use a grid function to see all the students on one screen (because teachers want to see their students!) along with online resources and Audibles. All this helps to “fill the tanks” back up on some of the tougher days.
I am also on the other side of these amazing lessons with THS teachers in regular check-ins and meetings with them who mostly remain effervescent, positive and strong. But, sometimes, just sometimes, they express that they feel disappointed that they could have done better today. They shed a tear or two because the lesson didn’t go to plan and they wanted their students to be more engaged and how can they do better for them? They share that they feel sad that they can’t ‘reach’ them like they wanted to. They share with me that their eyes are a little strained today from screens and it’s not easy. Everyday isn’t easy. They desperately miss the kids, they miss their working space at school, they miss their colleagues and the social aspect of being at work.
It is important to recognise these challenges and acknowledge these feelings. In such moments, I take a breath. I remember such days as a teacher two and a bit years ago and how tough some days were. While I have never taught virtually for 11 weeks, I have this to share with our teachers:
You are incredible. What you are doing is amazing. You are enough for today. Your lessons won’t be perfect and sometimes you will ask a child a question after everything they’ve seemingly learnt and the penny still won’t have dropped yet and you need to breathe. If the teachers only saw themselves on those days through my eyes, they would sit there equally astounded as I. This journey is ongoing and from where I am standing and from what I have seen, the tanks always get filled back up again and it is on the mighty efforts of our THS teachers who are truly splendid.