Category Archives: Shwetangna Chakrabarty

Life of ‘The International Educator’-the story of never leaving school.

A profession that inspires you to climb the highest peak in a continent; to dive into the depths of the ocean and swim along with the whale sharks; a workplace that lets you collaborate with people from all over the world; a classroom that exposes you to multiple languages and cultures; a cafeteria that has cuisine from across the world! This is the life of an international educator and I am blessed to be one.

My story of never leaving school took me on a journey of self-actualization where I learnt more than I taught. I would summarise my story in five takeaways which you can relate if you are teaching in an international school if not, you might start thinking about it! So let me try to inspire you…

LIFE IS A HOLIDAY

When you travel to new countries you experience a new environment; you get to taste new cuisine; indulge in local fashion; explore new markets; speak new languages; learn new etiquettes and discover new places. Life of an international educator is very much like this. It feels like a holiday always! To list a few, conquering Mt Kilimanjaro, the roof of Africa, diving with the dolphins and swimming with the whale sharks and feeding the Pandas are some achievements that don’t necessarily strengthen your CV but surely strengthen your soul.Experiences that you would have on a holiday becomes your lifestyle. An international teacher’s social media page is a true reflection of the adventures they have had. We have never left school and continue to enjoy our school days.

THIRD CULTURE PARENTS

There is so much literature on third culture kids(TCKs) that we can now relate to them very easily. But what is it like to be a parent to a third culture kid? I would like to coin a new term TCP(third culture parent). International teachers who are also parents can relate to the fact that it is different to raise kids outside their home countries or comfort zones. In a new country where no one speaks your language or your child’s favourite snack is not available, a complex skill-set is required to raise your child in a foreign place! But surprisingly it is one the best part of parenting too, to be a TCP. For example, my son speaks five languages, as many of the TCKs, in China where usually people complain of language barriers, I have my own personal translator who can have a basic conversation of how to buy something, how to order food in a restaurant and even how to bargain. Problem solved, I move with my 15-year-old personal translator everywhere.

VASUDEVA KUTUMBAKAM

This is a Sanskrit phrase which means the whole world is one big family! This is so true for any international school in the world! From Bhutan to India to Uganda to Tanzania to China, I have met a diverse range of people who speak different languages, eat different foods, think differently, have different beliefs and yet understand each other and break all silos created since generations to teach a diverse international community. The amazing people I met and the different languages I heard made me more respectful towards other people’s cultures and at the same time made me appreciate my own roots. It made me realize that the whole world is not only a big family but also a big home, I have homes in so many countries, I got to live, work and make lifetime friends with people from Japan to Jordan, from Mongolia to Malta, from Armenia to Argentina, hence I have a home everywhere. All international schools around the world celebrate diversity and plurality, for example, the International day celebrated in every international school is a true picture of how diverse and united we are at the same time, under a common objective of making the world a better place through education.

RELATIONSHIPS FOR LIFE

Rewind to my time in Uganda, my first day into the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme Mathematics class. A bit nervous and anxious I was very prepared to face any math questions that might arise from a curious mind in the audience. I had gone over the lesson plan at least three times and got all resources in place. After explaining the objective of the lesson I opened up the floor for questions related to the topic and then came a question completely unrelated to the topic, a student asked me “ Ms? Are you qualified to teach us?” I froze for a moment and all my preparation for the “math” class went out of the window! Fast forward to now, the questions asked today are also very similar: “How did you learn in school?” “Why did you decide to teach?” and the list goes on…The takeaway for me, it is not just about the first impression it is about the relationships that you build as you teach. The most beautiful relationship of a learner and a mentor, student and a teacher, where one learns from the other only by forming a strong bond of knowing each other’s purpose. The ever inquiring mind of a young learner knows no boundaries, international schools across the world give the opportunity to the learners to be inquisitive inquirers who go on to achieve amazing feats on their own. And thanks to technology I am able to celebrate their achievements as they mature in age, experience and relationships. In this process of teaching and learning a beautiful relationship is established for a lifetime.

WE ARE THE CHANGE

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Be the change that you want to see in this world”. This resonates with me every time I move from one country to another, one school to another and one home to another. International school teachers will agree with me that we love the change, we get tired of staying at one place for too long and that change is always for the better is now our personal mantra! The joy of shedding off all your inhibitions and learning new skills with every new attempt is an elixir for life, I personally wouldn’t trade my profession and lifestyle for anything out there. Nothing can be more satisfying than the ability to realise your potential by deconstructing, to reconstruct yourself every two to three years! In this process of metamorphosis, we also manage to transform students’ lives, as international educators bring along with them the change of perspective and ideas! We are ushering a change by teaching the skills and values and knowledge required to survive the future which is changing this very moment hence adapting to change is the most important skill to learn as well as to teach.

My decision to never leave school has paid off and I am so proud to be an international educator, I look forward to the next opportunity out there, maybe one close to you!

Bouncing Back!

Schools in China are back in business! With the Covid19 curve flattening in China almost all schoolsincluding international schools have reopened. What does it look like on the ground? Let us take a brief tour of how staff and students are trying to bounce back on their feet after the pandemic.

Welcome back to school

Stage one: reopening(suddenly)
The Chinese education board is advising and monitoring the reopening process of schools in their respective districts and provinces. While they have put together a process of inspecting the facilities and preparing for the first day back to school, they have also somehow managed to decide at the very last moment when each school should reopen. So stage one is getting over the shock that you have to be in school tomorrow, on time and on-site with 10-12 nours of notice! Stage one hurdle is the most challenging one; to get over 15 weeks of inactivity and inertia can be very challenging especially when you need to get up on the morning alarm and not just snooze it.

Stage two:extensive monitoring
Every morning when I come into the school I can see a few community members (not our staff) quietly observing the entire procedure and even taking notes. We have been advised that there might be surprise inspections to ensure we are following all safety measure. This makes everyone more safety compliant as there are legal implications for non-compliance. Also the requirement is-‘Early Detection, Early Isolation, Early Reporting and Early Treatment’. The funny thing is everyone’s monitoring everyone!

Placeholders to keep one-meter distance during temperature checks

Stage three: action series
A lot of action is required, the first action, take the nucleic acid test, second, test negative, the next set of action steps are very simple just a bit tedious: check temperature before entering the school bus; leave a seat in between while travelling in the bus; arrive at school and go through a temperature scanner; while walking and queueing for checks follow the one-meter markers on the path in order to maintain distance; sanitise hands before entering the building and after entering the classroom; do not use air conditioners; make sure rooms are well ventilated and sanitise everything in your workspace/office.

UV lights in every classroom

Stage four: inside the classroom
In the classroom, make sure no two chairs face each other, all students are separated from each other at least by a meter from all sides, accommodating a class of ten students seemed like a gigantic task. Students should not share stationery or any other types of equipment, books etc. Each room has an ultra-violet(UV) light installed in them in order to kill germs when rooms are not in use. The UV lights should not be switched on accidentally by anyone, there are enough notices to warn students but of course, the warnings sometimes excite the students to do just the thing they are asked not to do!

Cafeteria crisscross

Stage five: outside the classroom
Lunch area looks like a matrix of crisscrossing lines, students are not allowed to sit with each other or in front of each other as a result everyone is looking towards the wall and sitting behind each other in long queues. Students and staff need their temperatures checked before entering the cafeteria. Entry and exit gates are far away so if you have to go for second helping you need to exit the cafeteria and enter again, get in the queue and stand on placeholders to maintain one-meter distance. The next challenge is PE, playing sports with one-meter distance! The head of athletics has come up with creative ideas to engage students in sports in spite of so many restrictions, it is fun to watch students adapt and enjoy the new changes. Use of lockers have been restricted as it is a popular hangout for students, they are asked to keep their bags in the homeroom or common room and go back and forth in order to get their necessities; wash hands every time they go outside; gym and library spaces are no longer accessible due to fear of transmission through contaminated objects.

Stage six: information overload

The closest I have come to an emergency situation is the PPP or pandemic prevention precautions. Every stakeholder of the school has to read pages and pages of information regarding pandemic prevention. After reading all information when you arrive on campus there is more information awaiting you. Once you have digested all information you need to remember all of it. Register on a health monitoring app and update it every day, always wear a mask (of course), maintain one-meter distance from everyone, do not speak in public transportation, wash hand and maintain hygiene. A whole list of dos and don’ts and again another list of what-ifs

Virtual Teacher

Stage seven: onsite and online
With many students and teachers outside China even though we are back on-site, online teaching and learning continues, so in some classes we have the virtual teacher connecting remotely and in others we have students joining in from different parts of the world. As a teacher, I am sometimes talking and communicating with a device in the middle of a lesson also my colleagues are streaming live to join us from remote locations. It is a new experience and a great one for blended learning. Even assessments are happening parallel both onsite and online. Though I must warn teachers that students at the back of a device sometimes come up with requests like can I go to the toilet? In the middle of an exam! Teachers need to decide the purpose of an exam or even the purpose of having an online exam. Time to ponder: do we really need exams?

Stage eight: meetings
A regular school day or week is punctuated by meetings, department meetings, student council meetings, pedagogical meetings, club meetings, leadership meetings and the list goes on…
Now with the current requirement of social distancing, not facing each other in a closed space, has led to many comic situations in meetings. Meetings with colleagues sitting next door are via online platforms. Outdoor meetings, meetings with laptops connecting teachers outside China and meetings with people sitting behind you or far from you, it is the funniest experience ever, talking to peers and students a meter away with masks on. In case I forgot to mention, talking with masks on is another level of challenge as you cannot see the lip movement, hence to understand simplest verbal communication in a diverse community with people speaking in different accents is a major challenge!

Every classroom necessity

Stage nine: what happens if…
What happens if a student shows signs of being unwell in a classroom? The teacher will take the entire class in an outside open space; contact the nurse without making physical contact; allow the nurse to suit up into a full biohazard prevention suit or the hazmat suit; the nurse will then check the students if symptoms are similar to Covid19 the nurse will trigger the emergency procedure which has multiple steps; in short, the student/s with symptoms will be taken to the hospital and the rest in contact with the student/s will be isolated inside the gym for further checks. The gym has been set up as isolation space for at least a whole class of 10-15 people. But parent, guardians or family members will not have any contact with anyone in this group. Hence the biggest worry right now is if a student/s shows symptoms- a little cough or sneeze sets out panic reactions and forces the nurse to gear up in the hazmat!

Stage ten: bouncing back
Bouncing back hasn’t been easy! Nevertheless, it has been entertaining and educating. Entertaining because the new normal makes us laugh; educating because it has taught everyone the need for dealing with it together. Its like being on a trampoline, one moment you fall and the next moment you are standing up again. It still feels bouncy and unsettling to get back to school but it feels good to bounce back!

Ubuntu: “I am because we are” 

The Covid19 pandemic has been a turning point in the history of education, industry and technology. It has also ushered the best and worst in humanity. The worst being, instead of looking for a solution to conquer the fierce enemy-the Coronavirus, countries are engaged in finding a scapegoat for their own lack of combatting this issue, politicians are busy playing the blame game for vested personal interests, and people are displaying increasingly disturbing xenophobia. Is this humanity’s new avatar revealed by an invisible enemy?

When I think of humanity, the African philosophy of Ubuntuism or the word Ubuntu echoes into my conscience and makes me ponder what should have been the true face of humanity in the time of this crisis. Having lived in Africa for a long time, I came to use and relate to the word Ubuntu which means, ‘I am because we are’. In many sense, it explains the purpose of humanity that is to coexist and define each other by discovering the interconnectedness and relationship between humans and that between humans and the world around them. I would like to interpret Ubuntu in the context of Covid19 to talk about the need to educate with the purpose of achieving Ubuntuism.

Let us envisage Ubuntuism as the educational philosophy for the future. This means education will aim at inculcating the ideologies of Ubuntuism. Here is my interpretation of Ubuntuism integrated into educational values. This will serve the future generation by preparing them better to deal with any crisis at a global scale.

Consensus over conflict
Ubutuism explains the interconnectedness of one human with the other, the reason of existence of one because of the other, with this aim the first thing to do is abolish the root of all conflicts: unhealthy competitions, ranking, grading, constant need to be the best. Students should compete with their own abilities to improve and become a better version of themselves and not compete with others to become clones of each other. Competition kills creativity and harnesses jealousy, anger and a constant desire to prove oneself. This gives rise to conflict, while the need of the hour is consensus. Curbing competition and the constant need to be the best will have a solid positive impact on the decisions students make when faced with challenges, they will seek to find a solution and not find a scapegoat. They will seek consensus over conflict.
Unfortunately, we are witnessing an unhealthy conflict globally to prove that one country is better than the other, one religion, race even profession is better than the other; there are even tests and research being conducted for racial profiling of Covid19, a pandemic. An unhealthy response to a health issue.

Altruism over Egotism
Altruism is the ability to think of others before self and it can be linked to Ubuntuism as in the later the definition of self is in relation to others so you think of others first in order to think about yourself. When faced with a global crisis the only redeemer is the ability to think of others before self, that is how the health care workers would have powered on in spite of the looming danger of getting infected and possibly dying. The need to care for others first can be taught and this will be our biggest saviour against an invincible enemy. Egotism the very opposite of altruism is leading to the delay of developing a cure for the Covid19 pandemic. Countries need to come together to fight the global threat, fighting alone is not the answer neither the right response to the situation. This reminds me of the Sanskrit phrase, ‘Vasudeva Kutumbakam’ which means the whole world is one family and truly it is. Altruism can help us align to the idea of one world hence it needs to be an educational value.

Social equality over equity
Since Ubuntuism is about bringing together everyone to see each other as equal, it would demand educational aims and values to be directed towards equality and not equity. Equality in terms of opportunity is the need to give equal opportunity to all citizens of the world irrespective of caste, gender, religion, nationality or colour. Equality alone can bridge the gaps created by tensions during an apocalyptic situation. Equity is about helping others in the time of need but equity is not the answer as it will lead to widening the gap between the haves and have-nots, how? Well, simply because it again creates the situation where one is capable of giving and the other is at the mercy of the giver. To bridge the gap it has to be filled not widened. Equity is providing too little to those who need it and too much to those who do not, this can further exacerbate the inequalities we see today. Equal opportunity is the solution, teaching students to be entrepreneurs and to create jobs is a better skill than teaching them to indulge in charity. The current situation is a stark reminder on how charity is not the answer but sharing resources and opportunities to survive, is the only option.

Pluralism over monism
Pluralism philosophy encourages duality of ideas, thoughts and perspective, in terms of the society it celebrates diversity, racial and cultural differences; on the other hand monism philosophy unites into sects or groups by dividing under common beliefs for example religion. When it comes to Ubuntuism, if we consider the very core idea of one’s development in conjunction to another, it automatically reinforces pluralism and teaches to understand multiple perspectives and learn from other people’s experiences rather than just believe in oneness and unity which ultimately is used to segregate on the basis of colour, race, beliefs, geography, food and gender. The Covid19 crisis would have been dealt with better without prejudice and bias. The virus does not segregate it just keeps attacking the next human being without bias or prejudice hence is more successful than those trying to contain it with hatred and xenophobia.

Soul over self
At Nelson Mandela’s memorial, United States President Barack Obama spoke about Ubuntu, saying,
“There is a word in South Africa – Ubuntu – a word that captures Mandela’s greatest gift: his recognition that we are all bound together in ways that are invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us. We can never know how much of this sense was innate in him, or how much was shaped in a dark and solitary cell. But we remember the gestures, large and small – introducing his jailers as honoured guests at his inauguration; taking a pitch in a Springbok uniform; turning his family’s heartbreak into a call to confront HIV/AIDS – that revealed the depth of his empathy and his understanding. He not only embodied Ubuntu, he taught millions to find that truth within themselves.”

Ubuntu speaks about the soul, to overcome the self and be human in the time of crisis. Ubuntuism is the way forward, a world not divided but a world as one family, opening up borders, getting rid of economic domination, racial supremacy, roots of discrimination and cold calculated xenophobia. Only by revising educational aims and values can we survive the future, the future of coexistence with an understanding and respect for each other.

Covid19 has given an opportunity to policymakers, philosophers, politicians and heads of countries to rethink how to shape the future of the world. Creating a whole world, not a fragmented world, by acknowledging Ubuntu-I am because we are!

A CHANGED WORLD: UNIVERSITY 2020

It’s been 10 weeks since I started teaching online. While the world is learning to deal with this colossal change in approaches to teaching and learning, being an international school teacher in China I am already feeling the fatigue and anxiety that comes with teaching remotely.

My peers will agree that not a single training or a professional development was ever put in place or completed to deal with a crisis of this scale and magnitude.

Apart from teachers, this crisis has also impacted the students who are persevering to learn through online classes. Since February, when the schools in China closed down indefinitely, my senior students have been living life on tenterhooks. This is primarily due to the uncertainties they had to deal with all throughout this crisis: how to learn online; how to prepare for exams; how exams will take place; how this will impact the final grades; how it will impact the university admissions… High school graduating students have suddenly woken up to a changed world!

In this changed world, the university admission decision has been the most excruciating dilemma students are facing, right now, as you read this blog. Whilst there is a general relief that exams have been cancelled, there is also rising anxiety as to what the future holds for them. High school seniors have realized that once this pandemic is over they will have to deal with a changed world–especially with university admissions and studies.
In my capacity as a university counsellor, here are a few scenarios I have been discussing with my graduating class and my students worldwide who are facing the same crisis.

Surprisingly, the most asked question is: “Will there be a graduation ceremony this year?”

Most schools may remain closed through the summer, this means the actual graduation ceremony may not take place, but the class of 2020 has exceptions! In case the schools worldwide reopen in June, this is still a possibility.

My school has decided to host the graduation ceremony virtually in case we cannot do it on campus! In China, preparations are on to reopen schools but public gatherings will still be restricted so more or less we are looking at relying heavily on technology to host a virtual graduation ceremony. In spite of challenges, the answer to this question should be a ‘Yes’ as the high school graduation ceremony is a once in a lifetime event!

Second most asked question: “Will the university accept the new adjusted grades?”
Most international students around the world will have to accept the grades generated by the educational jurisdictions as the exams have been cancelled. Students no longer have control over their final grades, hence they are anxious whether their final grades will meet the university requirements. The good news is most universities around the world are willing to be more flexible considering the current challenges students and schools are facing this year. Many universities have released COVID-19 updates on their websites to explain that they will accept the adjusted grades and honour alternative assessments completed in school or by the examination board. Again the answer to this question should be a “Yes,” unless there is a marginal difference between predicted and actual grades.

“What do we expect in September 2020?”
Every year, September is the time the world witnesses a massive migration of students who travel to join universities abroad, revving up the economy by adding to tuition fees, airlines tickets, accommodation, phone bills, and the list goes on… The first hurdle this year is the travel restrictions. If the travel restrictions remain, most students will not be able to reach their dream destination universities, hence some universities are looking into possible arrangements like online teaching to begin the studies in September 2020. The next challenge to join the university in September 2020 is getting the visa on time. Since visas need to be obtained a few months prior to September, I am advising all students to start the application process early this year.

“What if I do not meet the university predicted grade?”
It is a changed world–mostly everyone on this planet has realized it. Most universities that I have interacted with have confirmed that the predicted grades will be used to ascertain a student’s ability and will not be used as a benchmark, but there are exceptions to this rule for courses like engineering. Universities will also take into consideration teacher references and evidence provided by schools to support student applications.

“How do I prepare for my first semester studies at university?”
Students have been out of regular school for some time now, they are nervous about the academic rigour and expectations in the first semester of university studies. They feel underprepared for this massive academic transition. Hence my sincere advice to students has been to keep up with the online teaching and learning facilitated by their schools worldwide, this will bridge the gap of knowledge and also develop self-management and organization skills required for life in university.

Another way of preparing for transition is to start communicating with the university right now, find out about housing, induction programmes, student support programmes and join the social media page of the university.

“Will I still get transfer credits from my current programme of study?”
This is a question only the university will be able to answer; hence it is very crucial to be communicating with the university to avoid any last-minute surprises. Usually, each university has its own system of transferring credits and it will remain the same if students meet the admission requirements.

“What if I cannot complete the English language requirement as I cannot take the test?”
There are a few universities that have waived off the English language test requirement but most universities in the UK still need the IELTS to be completed due to visa requirements. They are monitoring the situation closely and will make a decision if the language tests cannot be administered from now till September. The best advise one can give to students is to communicate directly with their university and ask for clarification.

“And finally a silent question that is not asked but begs an answer: “Am I the only one feeling stressed, nervous and anxious?”
In these challenging and changing times, the topmost priority of teachers, school administrators, parents, and international education institutes around the world should be student well-being. COVID-19 has altered the way we think and approach life in future. As such, our students need to be supported to overcome this crisis without a permanent scar on their psyche.

Hence, even before I start answering students’ questions related to their uncertain future, I always take time to help them voice their anxieties and fears related to life after COVID-19. By just being able to voice their feelings, students realise they are not alone in this “changed world.” There are many others in this precarious situation wanting answers to questions and sometimes just reaching out to find another person with similar challenges.
Students globally should know that they are not alone in this fight! In this new world, it may not matter if you do not make it to a university but it will matter if you make it out of this pandemic!

One big realisation that I share with all my students is that the pursuit of knowledge will continue despite all challenges. Education will evolve and it has evolved after this pandemic, in fact the change in education has made the world a changed place, and hopefully a better place.