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When schools in Hong Kong closed for COVID-19, Stanford educators stepped up to help

Photo of Hong Kong skyline
Schools in Hong Kong were among the first to close due to concerns over the spreading coronavirus, launching a worldwide experiment in remote learning. (Photo: bady qb/Unsplash)

When schools in Hong Kong closed for COVID-19, Stanford educators stepped up to help

Stanford instructors helped Hong Kong teachers respond to a scenario that would soon spread across the globe.

At the end of January, as concerns mounted in Hong Kong over the coronavirus outbreak in nearby Wuhan, families and friends were gathering for the Lunar New Year, one of the biggest celebrations on the Chinese calendar. Students were enjoying the week off for the holiday when word came from the minister of education: Schools would not reopen after the break.

With that, teachers in Hong Kong became among the first participants in what has since become a worldwide experiment in remote learning.

Dozens of high school teachers in Hong Kong happened to be midway through a professional mentoring program led by the Center to Support Excellence in Teaching (CSET) at Stanford Graduate School of Education, which includes virtual coaching throughout the school year. When news broke of the school closures, CSET instructors realized they might need to take the program in a different direction.

“We offered the teachers sort of a ‘choose your own adventure,’ ” said Michele Reinhart, a professional development associate and instructional coach at CSET, who oversees the Hong Kong program. “They could hit pause on the coaching, continue as planned or change course.”

Many of the teachers indicated they wanted to continue—but with a new focus on strategies for teaching online. So the Stanford coaches quickly shifted gears, teaming up with Stanford Online High School to help equip the teachers for a scenario that would soon spread to schools the world over.

A year of turmoil

The relationship between Stanford and this group of teachers began last June, when CSET instructors flew to Hong Kong to lead a five-day intensive institute on research-based classroom practices for deeper learning. To help embed the strategies afterward, CSET instructors would provide one-on-one coaching remotely throughout the year.

During the summer institute, Hong Kong was already experiencing some turmoil of a different sort. Last year’s anti-government protests were in force that week and intensified in the fall, prompting some schools to close briefly out of concern for students’ safety.

Photo of Hong Kong teachers at a professional development training

Stanford instructors led a five-day institute for teachers in Hong Kong last summer that continued with remote coaching throughout the year. When schools in Hong Kong closed, instructors took the program in a different direction.

“This year has been very interesting, very unusual,” said Carmen Yau, director of education at the Bei Shan Tang Foundation in Hong Kong, which funds the teachers’ participation in the program. “When the schools shut down because of the virus, it was actually not as much of a shock as it might have been, because some had already been closing during the protests.”

But it soon became clear that the COVID-19 closure was likely to last longer, necessitating more sophisticated plans for remote instruction. For high school teachers, an added stress was the pressure to prepare students for Hong Kong’s university entrance exams—which were only postponed from March to April, despite educators’ widespread urging to further delay or cancel them.

Still, for the teachers participating in CSET’s program, one of their biggest concerns was maintaining the connections they’d developed in the classroom as they transitioned to a virtual space. “Engaging students and creating community,” said Reinhart. “That was hands-down what they most wanted to work on.”

Finding experts on campus

To strategize ways to help the teachers in Hong Kong, Reinhart called on Christine Bywater, a professional development associate with CSET, whose background includes a focus on the use of technology in coaching both teachers and students.

“When we started talking, COVID hadn’t really hit the United States yet, so we weren’t in that mindset,” Bywater said. “But I knew there had to be people out there who were already running classes online and doing it really well. I thought, Let’s find them before we try to create something that probably exists.”

She found experts close to home—at Stanford Online High School (OHS), a private independent school based on the Stanford campus. About 800 U.S. and international students in grades 7-12 are currently enrolled, attending online seminars with an average class size of 11 students.

“Our classes have always been about creating an intimate experience with a big focus on community,” said Meg Lamont, an assistant head of school and English instructor at Stanford OHS.

A newfound appreciation

Together CSET and Stanford OHS organized an online seminar for the teachers in Hong Kong on March 19, at which point schools across the United States had just begun to close.

“The first thing we said to them was, ‘We have such a newfound appreciation and understanding of how hard this has been for you,’ ” Reinhart recalled. “They were so gracious: ‘Yeah, it’s been hard!’ ”

As the forerunners, Hong Kong teachers had devised many of their own systems for bringing their classes online. “Now, because it’s a worldwide pandemic, internationals and universities have started releasing resources for teachers to use,” said Carmen Wong, assistant program director of education at the Bei Shan Tang Foundation.

The Stanford instructors focused their guidance on practices for sustaining a virtual classroom community, including ways to encourage discussion, motivate students to stay on track and ensure that quieter kids bring their thoughts into the conversation.

“We talked a lot about the importance of making students feel seen in the online space, that their presence matters and changes what happens there,” said Lamont. 

For the Stanford instructors, the experience of working with the teachers in Hong Kong offered a powerful and humanizing reminder that the stress, anxieties and uncertainties educators are feeling during this time are universal, transcending place and culture.

“Teachers—here and there—all have the same underlying fears: Are my students OK? And how am I going to keep doing this?” said Bywater. “It’s not just a scramble for devices and tools and technology. There are humans and heart in this work, and this global perspective has been very grounding.”

You can find more professional learning opportunities and resources for educators at the Graduate School of Education’s COVID-19 response page.

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