We Did Not Sign Up for This! 9 Lessons Learned from a Hong Kong Principal on Facing a Crisis

By Heidi Hayes Jacobs and Allison Zmuda

NOTE: This post has also been curated on a new website that we launched the week of April 20 devoted to facing the challenge of COVID19 in your school community. Visit transform.curriculum21.com to explore.

The massive disruption to schools around the world is heartbreaking on multiple levels: connections amongst peers, safe spaces to learn, showcasing work, creating work and receiving feedback in real time, troubleshooting learning on demand.

What if we had a playbook of lessons learned from leaders around the world to help guide our local thinking in how we respond that is compassionate, responsive, and dynamic to changing conditions?

We had the illuminating experience of interviewing school principal David Lovelin at Hong Kong International High School (HKIS) during a video call. Our intention was to better understand key lessons learned from their response to multiple highly disruptive events through the 2019-2020 academic year. What is particularly fascinating is that HKIS had a dress rehearsal to prepare for COVID19. In June  2019, Hong Kong protests began and became increasingly more active into the fall. The city was paralyzed for weeks. The school was forced to jump into an online learning platform for a week in November when all schools were closed by the government.

Perhaps one of the most striking take-aways from the first experience with the protests was that teachers all had different platforms, “favorite apps,” preferred video conferencing tools, and a widely varying approach to the use of time and expectation. This variety proved confusing both to students and parents. Our hunch is that these are most likely points that many educators can identify with. With clear-eyed leadership and a highly professional faculty, the school took a deep dive into lessons they learned about that first experience to be more prepared for the next time they had to “jump” into a full-time online program. They shaped responsive professional development to support individual teacher efforts and to create a more agile and more consistent approach.

For the Playbook:  9 Lessons HKIS Learned from the First Closure

What were lessons from the first round in November 2019 that informed their response to COVID19?  We culled nine of them to contribute to a leadership playbook based on David’s insights shared in our virtual conversation on the evening of April 7, 2020, Eastern Standard Time and the morning of April 8, 2020 Hong Kong time.

  1. Establish a crisis management team to manage immediate needs in instruction, social and emotional wellness, responsive communication with families and staff, use of established templates, tools, and policies.
  2. Identify key common technology platforms for communication with learners regularly. To monitor effectiveness of the program,  preserve sanity and increase comfort level of staff, students, and families, all teachers need to use the same Learning Management System to organize learning ideally in 1 or 2 week intervals. They agreed to the same virtual conferencing platform. Teachers are encouraged to use an array of vetted applications, websites and resources to design specific lessons and tasks. These lessons are applicable in larger districts where a common LMS would be a necessary expectation.
  3. Use talent within your school community. During a crisis situation, it might be tempting to designate immediate needs by role. The lesson here is that during a crisis we should draw from specific talent or skills. At HKIS, there was a need for short video tutorials, lesson templates, and peer coaching faculty. It was a talented assistant principal and a tech integrationist who were instrumental in turning around a wealth of materials that proved a critical element in helping the staff. We talked with David about how students have played and can continue to play a significant role as well. For example, a journalism class or elementary school news program might run virtually to capture community perspective on how people are managing. An example, like this one, highlights what passions students are pursuing because of “down time.”
  4. Be clear on synchronous vs. asynchronous learning expectations. During the first interruption, HKIS moved to asynchronous learning. Real challenge was that teachers had little clarity on what students were doing during that time and was highly problematic for learners and families as they made the transition to online. When COVID-19 caused the second virtual break, high school decided to preserve the traditional bell schedule — expected that all teachers started with a 10-minute video class check in. This way the daily attendance could be maintained. The remainder of the time could be a blend of online/offline learning assignments plus increasing office hour availability for students.
  5. Keep up with learning walks to observe student thinking as they are engaged with a problem or task at hand. These virtual administrator walk-throughs have been essential to HKIS as administrators are sitting in on Zoom calls: spending time in student breakout rooms, studying what students are expected to do, and watching teacher explanations and facilitations. This regular practice has led to the design/use of lesson reflection protocol to document and grow online instructional pedagogy. A bonus benefit was the walks provided an opportunity to celebrate faculty  instructional practices.
  6. Parents are watching the learning as it unfolds in their living rooms or kitchen tables. Their potential presence in the background is something to make staff aware of and be mindful of the impact (positive or negative) that the student might be feeling.
  7. Regularly engage with parents to demonstrate compassion and responsiveness to their concerns. HKIS leadership team does this through regular parent surveys, dedicated office hours for parents to voice concerns, scheduled virtual meetings with the high school parent advisory group, and communicating responses to frequently asked questions.
  8. Everyone needs down time. Initially staff were working 24/7 in making preparations as well as fielding calls from anxious students and parents. Be clear on time boundaries for staff, students, and families.
  9. Beware of virtual learning fatigue. It will happen. Support for periodic time-off from a schedule and opportunities to interact virtually with family, friends, and colleagues. This is not just about screen time but also about how all members of the school community are grieving the loss of direct contact with one another. From missed celebrations to daily interactions to collaborative learning experiences — many of these moments cannot be realized with social isolation restrictions. Building leaders also learned from their students that seeing the activities on the school calendar was depressing so the calendar was cleared of these events.

Three Phases in Our Current Crisis

In the course of our conversation with David we shared our current work on framing the experience around three phases of decision making and response. We developed these descriptors to assist educators in making decision making to ensure the most effective response to our learners given the resources available.

David related immediately to the three phases and said that HKIS had gone straight into the Triage phase at the beginning of each crisis, the protest period and COVID19. In many ways the school is still in the throes of Triage, but is definitely beginning to look ahead at the Transition phase with impact of the virus lessening significantly as of this writing. The leadership at the school anticipates that there will be significant policy decisions to be made for the start-up of school even as it is not clear when that might be. It is important to note that because this is an international school there are learners scattered throughout the world and  basic questions of flights, travel restrictions, and policies will be in play.

As David said at the beginning of our discussion, “We did not sign for this. We did not sign up to be full time online teachers for months. Our students didn’t sign up to be full time online learners for months.” All of us can relate to these sentiments. What can buttress our efforts is to learn from one another from our global network of educators. Thank you, David, and to the educators from HKIS for contributing to our playbook.

If you want to reach out to David, contact: dlovelin@hkis.edu.hk or follow him on Twitter @DLovelin. Comment down below to share lessons learned for the crowdsourced playbook.

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