Back to school: engaging with the new normal

Webinar hosted and organised by the University of Glasgow – @tanzania8 @UofGEducation @pimpmymemory & @TILEnetwork

I presented my personal experiences of going back to school as part of a webinar organised by the University of Glasgow.

Three key themes dominate my reflections:

1. plan for uncertainty

2. be collaborative and creative

3. be kind.

The Western Academy of Beijing is a large and well established international school in Beijing. I am currently the Grade Level Leader for Grade 2 – the equivalent of Primary 3 in Scotland. 

Plan for uncertainty

Since my school closed on the 24th of January, I have been teaching online for a total of 18 weeks. On the 29th of January, I escaped home to Scotland for 8 weeks with my children, leaving my wife and the virus in Beijing. The children even attended local schools. And life was good. Then the virus extended its reach. We risked complete separation as a family for months ahead. So we all returned to China, gaining entry literally hours before the border shut to foreigners. We then endured two weeks in hotel quarantine in Xi’an before arriving back in Beijing. It’s been, to coin the phrase, a ‘corollercoaster’ – completely ruled by one thing – uncertainty. Whatever you plan to do and however you plan to do it, manage expectations, and be cautious with overconfidence and optimism. Always prepare for the unexpected in the knowledge that uncertainty reigns supreme.

Be collaborative

The story I will share is a collaborative journey. These are my personal reflections but the operation required a massive collective skillset and commitment across the school. It was a huge and often stressful operation. We were following strict guidelines and protocols set by the local Beijing (Chaoyang) Education Authority. KG, G4, and G5 were all due to reopen on the 8th June for one week – the last week of school – and then the plan was to extend the school year with a non-compulsory 2-week summer programme for students in those grades who wished to attend. 

We were also managing the expectations of parents who were anxious and ready for their children to get back to school. Up until a few days ago, Beijing was completely virus free for nearly 50 days.

A handful of grades in the middle and high school had already returned a few weeks earlier. We had the benefit of their knowledge and experience too. A final inspection by the education authority two days before reopening gave the all-clear to G4 and 5 but not KG. KG did not meet the standard as is common in Chinese kindergartens.

Be creative and show kindness

My tale also reflects on the importance of creativity and kindness. In my experience creativity and kindness, arguably two key foundation stones of every good teacher were vital in not just making the week successful, but actually being able to enjoy it too.

Initial Fears and Anxiety

With my son J, aged 10, as we ride back to school nerves ajangling…

You will hear from my son J a bit later. He’s in Grade 4 at the same school. When it was announced his grade could return we were instinctively all very apprehensive. I didn’t have a choice to go back to school, but he did. And he didn’t want to go. All his closest friends were not there. Social distancing, mask wearing and being locked to a table were not the way we were used to learning at home. Home felt like a safer and more flexible space to learn than school. Which felt ironic. Had the tables turned? Many of the ‘cool’ areas of the school were restricted, like the MakerSpace, Science Lab, Green Screen Studio and Learning Kitchen. I respected and agreed with his choice. But we lived with the decision over a few days and eventually we all decided he should give it a go. If he didn’t like it, then fine. No big deal. It was only one week, after all.

Approaching the ‘NEW NORMAL’

Jamie entering through the social distancing tent of the Elementary School, and having his temperature taken.

There were strict safety protocols and procedures that students and staff followed on a daily basis.

Masks had to be worn at all times inside the building. They were allowed to take them off for lunch and when outside at break.

Student and staff temperatures were taken and recorded twice a day.

All corridors and pathways inside and outside of the school were clearly divided and marked for the direction of travel. There were clear steps about what to do if a child or staff member was showing symptoms.

There were child-friendly graphic posters positioned prominently everywhere around the school; reminding and reinforcing the new norms and expectations for students and staff alike.

Establishing a sense of fun

One of the key things we learned from the grades in Middle and High School returning before us was: don’t be afraid to be yourself and have fun. Easier said than done… Teachers and students were all very serious, quiet, and focused on day one. And the first day back was stressful – don’t get me wrong. We were working in a way completely alien to how any of us imagine school. But, actually, once the first day was over, it really wasn’t that bad. You got used to it. And then you thought creatively – what else can we do? How can we be flexible within this framework?

Something completely different from Scottish schools is that we only had 30% of our teaching staff in Beijing. Everyone else is still marooned outside China. Including all of our Elementary Admin. Therefore, our Principal and Vice-Principal both Zoomed in live to greet students and teachers on the first day. But we did have all our local staff who make up the classroom assistants. And amongst the staff in Beijing, there was an incredible camaraderie and spirit to make it work. There was perhaps something gladiatorial about it too. With the other 70% of staff gleefully supporting and cheering us from their online seats in the galleries of WeChat and Facebook. 

How did it look?

The school is very fortunate to be blessed with lots of resources. New hand washing stations were everywhere.

Hand washing stations

The social distancing rule in China is 1 metre. Small yellow dots spaced out children at tables in the classroom and the canteen to show that visual reference clearly.

On day one, the most important thing, to begin with, was establishing the new routines and new norms. Calmly and kindly. Also asking students to be vigilant and helpful towards reminding adults too. Below is a copy of the presentation that was created to support students to discuss and agree on these new norms.

Blended learning was the model we used. Not all students were in Beijing. And I wasn’t teaching my own class. I was effectively doing two jobs and also teaching my Grade 2 class. We started each day with a morning meeting (similar to circle time), with fun games and a focus on social and emotional wellbeing. Then the students planned their own timetable for the week based on their learning options set by their teacher and grade, a pattern already well established during 18 weeks of remote learning. The afternoon was PE and a block of free-choice time.

To hula or not to hula?

You may have seen pictures such as this – or where Chinese students made hats with helicopter blades to reinforce the idea of 1 metre social distancing. Whereas there is practical element to this, and I think you can definitely make it fun, I also caution about being mindful of too many gimmicks and novelty – because we want to share a clear and strong message. The message is about creating a shared identity, a collective commitment to the group, trust in one another and ultimately a stronger and more caring community. If students don’t understand why they are doing things and adults are not doing it too, then don’t bother. 


Social distancing activities in PE and having fun in the classroom.

Engagement was key, and the PE activities were absolutely brilliant for this. Carefully designed and checked by the supremely skilled Geraldine Watkins to follow all the rules. But they brought out so much joy and natural energy from the students. It was inspirational.

And it wasn’t very long into Tuesday until we all began to loosen up. And have fun within the confines of the NEW NORMAL. This is the Grade 5 class who I was with – ceremoniously bowing to their real (although still virtual) teacher on the whiteboard!

Flexibility within the framework

By Thursday, our amazing PE teacher had planned a FUN DAY outside. With all activities designed and checked for social distancing as before. But with extra fun and a feel-good factor of 50. Notice the brilliant smiles as they happily eat socially distant ice lollies.

Forging community through agency and creativity

The end of year school assembly and a happy faces hidden behind the masks.

We ended the week and the school year with the traditional whole school assemblies. They are usually massive all singing, all dancing events. Like a rock gig or the best birthday party ever. At the end everyone says their goodbyes and sails off into the sunshine and a flight back to their home country or to a glistening beach in Thailand. Obviously, this year they were going to be very different. The rest of the school was online and the original plan was just for us to participate through Zoom. However, by that point in the week we were buzzing. No longer confined by being a 3D teacher in a 2D online space, creativity kicked in and we all clubbed together to make the assemblies as interactive, fun and REAL as we could. In the spur of the moment, I was recruited by the talented Mr Cowell to assist in rewriting the words of Yellow Submarine for a Covid sing-along. It was fantastic. I was once again a 3 dimensional teacher again: a real teacher, surrounded by real students and in a real school. 


But the week was not without its challenges. I reflected constantly and learned a lot along the way. 

Lunchtimes were a challenge and a hotspot. The schedule had the G4 and G5s on a staggered lunch break. They found it hard to sit still for 30 minutes. So we brought in games and books and art materials into the canteen.

Teaching wearing a face mask is not pleasant at all. I was often afraid of inhaling it during times when I was speaking. And everyone sounds muffled and not quite there.

Social distancing is a challenge. But you must be realistic. There will be times when students and adults walk or brush past each other. Be calm and kind with how you nudge compliance. The guidelines stated that students could not talk face-to-face, but this is virtually impossible to impose on the letter of the law. Try talking to someone without turning your head. 

And what did I learn from the experience?

The first day was the hardest. It was stressful, alien, and completely bound by establishing new routines and norms. But it gets better. Trust me.

Focus on reestablishing the social and emotional connections – chatting and being around peers  – is the most important thing to nurture and establish.

The space and resources you have dictates your plans. Make the best of what you can do following the guidelines.

PE and fun activities are essential to plan for.

Look for flexibility and creativity and support teacher agency to come up with new ideas.

Couch the NEW NORMAL with tenderness and a community spirit.

Blending learning is essential but structures and approaches must be clear and allow for student choice and flexibility. 

And just be you. This is what we do. This is the career path we have chosen. We are kind and compassionate human beings first. We also happen to be teachers. Be kind to yourself.

Meeting my student at the gate

New connections and reconnection

You know you have done well when parents take the time to thank you out of the blue. Your efforts and kindness never go to waste but acknowledgement is always important.

I’d not met any of my own Grade 2 students in person for over 18 weeks. A prolonged period of separation of nearly 5 months. I arranged to meet Jonas at the school gate to hand over his art folder and school jotters. His mum was there too. It was an emotional experience. He was one of my most prolific and enthusiastic contributors to our virtual learning. I’d seen him and heard from him multiple times on Zoom, Flipgrid and blogposts. But none of those experiences compared in the slightest with reconnecting in the 3D world. We smiled, we laughed, we cried and we hugged. You are reminded in an instant of how much teaching is a human endeavour, characterised by values such as kindness, compassion and relationships.

Student perspective on going back to school

My son, J, has recorded his own reflections of how it felt going back to school.


So there is an epilogue to my tale – remember I said at the beginning to plan for uncertainty. Well, with the recent spike of cases in Beijing all schools have now been closed. Learning from that short week back, we had organised an engaging and hands-on two weeks of activities for the summer school. It wasn’t to be. Things change in a heartbeat. The NEW NORMAL is here to stay for a lot longer than we care to imagine.

So, be kind to each other. And stick together. It’s the very least we can do.


Together Apart – The Psychology of Covid-19

Many of my ideas and reflections were also underpinned by reading this brilliant social psychology analysis of our times. You can download the free eBook by following this link.

“Unless or until a vaccine is developed, or we discover medicines to treat the virus, our means of controlling the spread of infection depend on behavioural changes and hence upon human psychology. … Indeed, all we can do to control the virus right now is get people to behave appropriately — to ‘do the right thing.’ … However, it is not enough to understand that we need psychology as a core part of efforts against COVID-19. It is also important to understand what sort of psychology helps or hinders in those efforts.”

Introduction to ‘Together Apart – The Psychology of Covid-19’

Back to WAB

Back To WAB song written by G2 students

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