What Bruce Lee Taught Me About Teaching During COVID-19: Tips from S. Korea

As I prepare for a rematch with the pandemic in the fall, I often find myself reflecting on what I did during my first bout with it during the spring semester. Last year, I was the Grade 1 teacher at an international school in Seoul, South Korea, so we were among the first groups hit by the full force of the pandemic. Our school quickly transitioned to teaching online. At the time, most of us did not realize the scope of what was happening and expected that we would return to school in a week or so. This short-term mentality continued until the middle of May, when school leadership finally said that we would, in fact, finish the school year online and return to school in the fall.

Throughout my time teaching during the pandemic, it felt as though I was never quite able to get my feet on the ground due to the ever-changing government guidelines, school-wide crisis management plans, technical issues, spikes in cases, among other issues. It just seemed like there was a lot of uncertainty about how to respond, with little research to guide us.

However, we did still have each other. We were able to collaborate, share best practices, and exchange ideas for new apps or technology, and we began to stumble our way forward through the dark together. The constant planning, data gathering, assessing, and reflecting on such a short-term basis is what ultimately reminded me of the quote from Bruce Lee:

“Don't get set into one form, adapt it and build your own, and let it grow, be like water. Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless—like water. Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup; you put water into a bottle it becomes the bottle; you put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”

As we move forward into our next fight with the pandemic, we educators need to become like water. We need to take the shape of online education, in-school education, or a mixture of both. We need to adapt to new forms of technology, even if we aren’t familiar with them. We need to abide by the health and safety regulations, even if they make us feel physically uncomfortable. We need to adapt to the needs of our personal and professional lives, even as the lines blur and we find ourselves overworked and overwhelmed. We have to take steps to ensure we don't get stuck in one way of thinking or teaching. We must in essence become like water in that we are able to take on any form of teaching. Only then will we be able to make it through this ever-challenging time in our lives and our careers.

From my personal experiences during the pandemic, I have gained some insights into what worked and what I found challenging, which I share below.

Insights and Challenges

1. Start Every Day With Face Time.

Especially as the Grade 1 teacher, I found it effective to show my face to my students every morning. Since our school was on an asynchronous time frame, which I’ll discuss more below, I would record myself greeting students, allowing them to send me shoutout videos, giving announcements, and going over the tasks for the day. Of course, because I was the Grade 1 teacher, I would fill my videos with sound and video effects to entertain and engage students.

"We need to be able to take the shape of online education, in-school education, or a mixture of both."

2. Know the Pros and Cons of Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Learning.

This remains an issue, one I don’t feel I have a definite answer on, but I can give some pros and cons of both approaches to instruction. Asynchronous instruction allows students to approach the material at their own pace over the course of the day, which is especially helpful for students whose parents work. I often found that some students would submit work immediately after I posted it, while others would wait until around 8 p.m. My theory is that they waited until their parents finished work and could assist them. However, this type of set up fails to directly replicate an official classroom environment, and does not hold students accountable during the normal school day of 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. It also makes it difficult for teachers to give on-the-spot feedback to students who may be struggling with a concept.

Synchronous learning allows students to have the closest replication of the classroom environment. They can hear their teacher talking, and they can ask questions in real time. They can also interact with their classmates and collaborate with one another. On the flip side, young learners whose minds tend to wander may find it difficult to focus. To make matters worse, if students’ parents are both working, it can be hard to properly assist the student. Whichever one you find yourself thrown into, be aware there are positives and negatives associated with both.

3. Be Tech Ready.

One of my biggest regrets in the spring was not having my students “tech ready” before the pandemic hit. We didn’t use technology often in my class, so students and parents were unfamiliar with certain digital tools when we first started. That’s something I will remedy this year. I will make sure each student knows how to sign in and use all of the apps and programs they need. I’m also going to create a spreadsheet for each student containing their login IDs and passwords, so they can find forgotten passwords on their own.

One example of technology I have used during this time is Seesaw. Lower elementary students write a lot by hand. Seesaw makes this process seamless. I can upload a writing template, then students can either download, print, write by hand, and take a picture of their finished work, or write or type on top of the template within the Seesaw app and submit the finished work. Students can also demonstrate mastery of specific lessons by creating recordings of themselves, drawing pictures, and more.

4. Build a Sense of Community.

Our asynchronous schedule forced me to think of creative ways for students to interact and collaborate with one another. Even if it was indirectly, they could still feel like they were part of a community. I accomplished this by having them post short videos sharing an opinion on a topic using Flipgrid. In addition, I would record myself doing something (for example, dancing or exercising), and ask them to record themselves doing something similar. Then, they would send me their individual videos, and I would combine them into a video montage with some preselected music, publish that video to YouTube, and share it with them. The students really liked the videos—but the parents absolutely loved them! This helped remind students that they were part of a class community, not just the sole survivor of their bedroom island.

5. Promote SEL, Physical Activity, and Character Education.

The biggest challenge for me was continuing social-emotional learning, getting students to be physically active, and continuing to teach our school’s character traits. These three areas all but require face-to-face interaction with students. Especially during the early elementary years, students learn the correct social and emotional responses to conflicts and situations that arise over the course of the day. In the virtual setting, I have had to recreate scenarios and ask students to think critically about them. As for physical activity, last spring we posted fitness videos for students to follow along to but did not actually check to see if they were doing them. In the upcoming semester, I will instead hold synchronous sessions with students to be sure they are exercising or have them upload videos of them doing the exercises.

The challenges we face amid the pandemic are daunting, but not insurmountable. Now that I’ve had a chance to do a round with online education, I feel much more confident moving into the upcoming school year. I hope that some of my experiences can give you guidance as to what you may face in the months ahead. But remember, you are not in this fight alone. There are many of us standing beside you. Now, go and be water, my friend.

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