Virtual School Reflections From Stephen Dare, the Head at Hong Kong Academy

I remember well when I saw schools in Hong Kong and China going virtual and thinking, “Oh gosh, that must be rough. I am so lucky that this is not happening at my school.”  Seven weeks later and I am not asking “Ok, how did those schools handle it now that I am in full virtual school mode.”

Stephen Dare is the head of Hong Kong Academy and a seven week veteren of virtual schooling.  Our discussion today left me with a much clearer pathway forward for my own new journey into virtual learning and will hopefully give some ideas to all regardless of where we are on the virtual learning journey.



Stephen Dare is completing his tenth year as the Head of School at Hong Kong Academy (PK-Grade 12 IB World School located in Sai Kung). He originally left his home town in the UK for a two-year adventure overseas: four international schools and 30 years later he is still enjoying life as an educator and doesn’t have plans to return home just yet!


Michael: 00:00

[music] 21CL Radio. Hello. Ready? My name is Michael Boll, and welcome to the Education Vanguard. Great to have you here. Still continuing our focus a lot on virtual learning, and today, I’ve got the head of an academy in Hong Kong. Stephen Dare is the head of Hong Kong Academy and a seven-week veteran of virtual schooling. Our discussion today left me with a much clearer pathway forward for my own new journey into virtual learning, and will hopefully give some ideas to all, regardless of where you are, on the virtual learning journey. Enjoy the conversation. [music] Steve Dare, thanks so much for joining me on the program today.

Stephen: 00:45

Thank you. Good to be here.

Michael: 00:47

All right. So as the head of an international school in Hong Kong, you guys have been closed for about seven weeks now, and I– could you take me back to that moment? You’ve realised this school will be closed for some period of time. What were your first thoughts?

Stephen: 01:04

Well, my first thought was, “Why did they announce this on the first day of my holiday [laughter]?” We had just commenced the Chinese New Year break, and for many of us, we’d already started to take our flights out of Hong Kong into different parts of the world. And in essence we landed, to find out that the Chinese New Year break would be extended, at that time, for two weeks. So we had a mindset that we [were?] preparing for online classes for about two weeks.

Michael: 01:39

So I mean, is it a scramble– I mean, the assumption that I guess I’m thinking is that you guys can’t come back in those two weeks [away?]. Are people out and all over the place, making it even more difficult?

Stephen: 01:48

Well, that did make it difficult. There were some advantages. Because there were no classes that week, it actually gave the leadership team an opportunity to sit down and prepare for what was coming. So although we were spread far and wide, there were some people still on the campus, others over different time zones, and that gave us a chance to start practicing our online meetings, and begin to start modelling some of these sorts of ideas. But it did give us a chance to think about, what did we want to do going forwards for those two weeks. And in the meantime, we sent a letter out to the community, confirming that the campus would be closed for two weeks. And that gave us a little bit of time to say, “In three or four days time, you’ll receive a more-comprehensive communication from the school, outlining how all this is actually going to work from that first Monday back.”

Michael: 02:46

So what did that look like, the first Monday back? And [I’ll?] have to ask, what’s it look like now, seven weeks later? But what were the initial phases looking like from a parent and a student point of view?

Stephen: 02:58

For us, the first thing was, is that we wanted to make sure that we could get some time, so that we could really think about what were realistic in terms of our expectations. And although that stage, the campus was closed to the students, we were still able to bring faculty and staff onto the campus. So those first two days that we came back, we really set up some activities for the kids to do. For want of a better word, it was an extension of things that they’d already been doing in the classrooms. So it was additional reading, finish off assignments, we set some activities, whilst we could really strategise how we could sort of facilitate the continuity of the program. So the first Monday back was really getting people initiated with online programs, and then the second day, teachers began to start interacting with students, to begin to set things out. And we ran it slightly differently for primary and secondary. For the primary school, we have in these last few weeks. We’ve posted all the learning in advance for the students, generally a week ahead. And the parents and students have been able to review that information. And then day-to-day, the teachers have been touching base with the students, generally with the parents involved in this as well, two to three times a day. In the secondary school, we try to make sure that we could run classes as if they were on campus, in essence, just running those online. But we offer two different services. One of those was really to have run synchronously, where the kids could follow the learning in real-time. And recognising that some kids were in different timezones, others could actually work a-synchronously. So they could switch on at whatever time, and then they could follow the recordings and the work assignments that had been set by the teachers.

Michael: 04:56

So this sounds structured almost like you did it in advance.

Stephen: 05:01

We did.

Michael: 05:02

So did you come up with this idea in the beginning, this sort of structure, and just stuck with it? Or did you have one, and they ended up modifying it?

Stephen: 05:09

I think one thing to preface, is that we had been fairly familiar with using technology at the school. We run a one-to-one laptop programme with the kids. Obviously, it’s embedded within a lot of the learning that goes on. We even, actually had some kids taking online courses in the grades 11 and 12s. So there is a sense of familiarity. I would also say as well, with the political situation in Hong Kong and the subsequent closures that we had earlier in the year, it gave us a little bit of an opportunity for a week period to be able to start planning some of these ideas. Although, we hadn’t really planned it to this level for this extended amount of time. So there was a sense of familiarity. We had already started working with the teachers. And the students knew how to access many of the programs. What that allowed us to do, was to know structures we already had in place, what were teachers comfortable with, what do we think the students could manage depending on their age levels, and that really allowed us to set realistic expectations. And that’s been very helpful in this process so that we can manage the expectations within the school and of the parents and the students at home.

Michael: 06:26

So you have a process that’s working for you. How do you know? What sort of mechanisms do you look for feedback? I’m guessing probably parent interaction, that lets you know that you guys have a process that’s going to work the best that it can.

Stephen: 06:39

Yes. Different ranges of feedback. One of the things that we found in this process is, that unlike teachers working in a classroom where they have a great sense of familiarity about how to do things, they run automatically sometimes. They can sometimes miss out a step on feedback. Whereas now, because a lot of this is new, there’s been a great deal of openness to check that kids understand things, to make sure that their learning is accessible. And in essence, it seems to have elevated the sense of vulnerability, that willingness to say, “I don’t have all of the answers. I want to check that I’m doing this the right way.” And if we look at a positive out of this, and something that we hope is sustainable, the way in which this has really elevated our partnerships [with parents]. We’ve been asking questions. Is this working? How is this working? What would you like to learn next? And we’ve been getting very sort of regular and quick feedback, which we’ve been able to make adjustments along the way. So that’s really been helpful in this process. And also, thinking about feedback to kids’ assignments and work. There’s three areas that we’ve really looked at. There’s been a greater sense of self-assessment, teaching kids how to self-assess their work, thinking about questions that they might is asked, particularly when they’re in their single environments. We’ve done a lot more on peer assessments as well. So we’re actually bringing kids up on screens and trying to help them to take turns in listening and presenting ideas, really encouraging them to comment on each others’ work, in an open forum. And then, obviously, thinking about the way in which teachers can give meaningful feedback in an online environment.

Michael: 08:27

I’m curious, you probably had an expectation of how this was all going to go. But now seven weeks later, what surprised you the most about all of this that you just didn’t expect would happen? Now, it could be a challenge or a victory or whatever.

Stephen: 08:41

Well, if we look at the process. In the very beginning stages, a lot of the focus was about structures. Did you have programmes? How are we going to do this? And it was really, how do you facilitate that learning? As time has gone on, there’s been a much greater shift emphasis on wellbeing for teachers, for students, and also for parents who have found themselves, I think, a lot more involved in the learning process. So some of those things have been a little surprising. And what we’ve actually found is, is that as a community, the sense of resilience that has come from people. Particularly as, I suppose, the endpoint keeps changing all of the time and the uncertainty, just how well people come together as a community and how creative that they are to keep wellbeing going, keep the learning going, how they’re trying to work with each other. And the self-efficacy that has come out of this has been really impressive.

Michael: 09:44

I wonder too if there’s a change in attitude. So if I am not from Hong Kong, I might have thought to myself earlier, I’m going to go back to my home country and just enrol my school kids there. Now I’m like, why do I have that choice? I think I’d rather hang out at Hong Kong Academy, where they know what’s going on and they’re already far into it. Have you seen a change in tone because of that, these new realities?

Stephen: 10:03

Ah, we have actually seen some of that, particularly in the last couple of weeks. One of the things that we were really emphasising was the sense of flexibility, as much as we can. Because when there’s high emotions and you’re trying to support a community and things are being done differently, as flexible we can be, we felt was going to be as helpful as well as keeping it manageable. And some parents did choose to take their children back to some public school, say in the states, and enrol their children there. And we worked with families to basically say, if that’s choice that you wanted to make, you can choose to follow the online learning. What we will ask is– when you come back, we’ll just ask for a brief report, an update on the child’s progress in that sort of context. And then, we will work to re-integrate them back into things. What we’re finding now, particularly as this has become a global pandemic, is that those families are coming straight back here now.

Michael: 10:58

That was my next question. I can imagine.

Stephen: 11:00

Yes. And I suppose we have been– I’m going to blow our own trumpet a little bit here. I think [laughter] we’ve done a pretty good job of actually supporting families and students online, under the circumstances. And that’s put us well placed to continuity. Schools that are just starting on this journey now– well, where we were seven weeks ago and where we are now, different places but we’re dealing with different things at the same time. We’re able to think about now is what sorts of things have been challenging for the kids, what’s working well for you, and being able to adapt for those. And you can only really get that as a consequence of being involved in this.

Michael: 11:43

So I want to ask you a question about workload, or just working itself, versus community. So I would imagine, at least in my frame of mind at the beginning, it’s like, “Oh, how am I going to deliver the curriculum and make sure they do the work?” And then, I think as you go along it might be like, “Oh, how do I create a sense of community so we feel like we’re in this together did you go through that sort of shift as well, that continuum?

Stephen: 12:03

Very much so. And I think that sense of working together has been very much a common theme. We communicate regularly with the community so there’s circulars that come out from me, also from the principals and daily from the teachers, but it’s just people keeping people connected. And we’ve also tried some very, very creative things. One of the things that we recognise is that whilst we could get the traditional academics covered through the online programs, it was much more difficult to do things like sports programs or some of the more practical things, or even parent-teacher-student conferences. So we ran a virtual sports day, for example, which went down very, very well. It’s really been something that’s brought the community together. And we’ve published quite a lot on this but it was just really the creativity, thinking we need to ensure that we recognise balance of curriculum is something that we would offer to the kids in school and we need to think about ways of doing this, and in essence, you don’t have to have all of the answers. People come up with great ideas. So we set up a studio in the school. It was like an ESPN or a sports centre where a few of the teachers would begin to demonstrate events for the kids. Kids would then go and do these things at home. They would send in videos or scores and then the teachers would talk about what they’d observed on the videos, ways in which you could actually improve things, and it was really good fun for the kids and for the community. We have a coffee house that we run twice a year. It’s where kids can deliver poetry, they can sing songs, they can work in bands, and once again, we got kids to make these things at home. We put them together and then it was projected out to the community online, and we know that this is working because we get constant feedback from the families being thankful of feeling connected to the school even under these circumstances.

We ran online parent-teacher-student conferences for the first time. We weren’t quite sure about how that would work, and in fact, the feedback from the parents was very good. They would say, “We’ve got all of the information. We’ve connected with the teachers and in some sense, there’s been advantages because there’s no wait time where you don’t have to travel to and from the school and I can sit with my child and speak with the teacher,” and what it’s making us realise is that there are other ways to do things and they can be really successful on these online platforms, and I do believe that when we move beyond this, that there is a great opportunity to actually enhance learning in the classrooms because of the experience that we’ve had.

Michael: 14:49

Yeah. I know you wanted to talk about lessons learned in the long term after you return to school.. You brought that up right now. Do you have some of those lessons now that you think, say, when you start back in the fall and you’re back all face-to-face, you thought, these are the three things I want to make sure that we now take to heart.”? Do you have some of those?

Stephen: 15:05

Yeah. One of those I would say we’ve already touched upon is that sense of being open to feedback and what it has taught us in this piece is that elevating the voice of the community and giving them an opportunity and setting the expectation that, please tell us how this is working, publishing what they’ve said, and then being able to say, “These are the adjustments we’ve made,” is a great way to continue to build community and that’s one thing that I very much hope will continue as we get back into the classrooms. The second thing I think has been a real revelation for us is that fence of inclusivity in a classroom setting. Classroom settings are often very much favourable to the most verbal students. They have lots to say. They’re the ones that can often sort of lead the dynamics [in?] a classroom setting. What we found, as an online platform, is that teachers are asking questions, there’s been a greater sense of pausing and giving kids processing time, and they’re not just people speaking but people writing things online. And some of the teachers have actually commented that this has actually engaged a larger group of kids in the process. Wouldn’t it be nice, when we come back, that we actually continue to have those discussions and those conversations and that we offer an online platform where kids can choose which they feel most comfortable with? Some children prefer the anonymity of being behind a screen who definitely want to participate and this gives them permission and it gives them a frame in which they can actually do that.

And the third thing that I would say is what this is really teaching us a lot about is kids independence and giving kids choices. One of the things that kids have come back, that’s been said, that in terms of some of the positives and what’s working well for them, is the choice they have about when they want to learn, how they want to learn, and in some sense, it’s helped them utilise their time better. Sometimes we get very anchored in, “You need to learn this. You need to do it by this time.” And giving kids choice, giving them an opportunity to plan the day the way they want to, hopefully, will be something that carries forward. What we do know is that people are desperate to go back to sort of normalcy. Going back into the classroom’s what they’re familiar with and this won’t [inaudible] if we just assume a world– we learned all these and now let’s just go back into classrooms. We’re going to have to think really carefully about how we continue to elevate these learnings and the ways in which we frame it in the classrooms. Otherwise, these things will get lost very, very quickly.

Michael: 17:52

Yeah. That’s a good point. I wonder too, as far as the teacher’s workload– I’m a middle school teacher and middle school students are kind of designed for this. They’re ready to go on their laptop. But what about, an elementary school teacher, middle school, high school teacher; which group do you think has it the hardest? Or am I asking another question like which child do you love the most? [laughter]

Stephen: 18:12

Well I’m an early childhood teacher by trade, so [laughter]. I think it’s different for different students. One of the things that we found with the very early childhood education, this has been more challenging for us. It’s involved a lot more parent participation, and if ever you’ve worked with three or four-year-olds , you know it’s a very physically demanding piece and I think it remains so online. What the teachers have really tried to do is just keep the connectivity. Talking to the kids. Reading to the kids. Even sort of doing lots of presentations and keeping it fun and upbeat so that the kids have that sense of connection. With the older kids, there has been a sort of a greater sense of independence but I would say, universally, this is tough for teachers. This is learning to be a teacher again. Teachers, some of them, have described it like being on teaching practicums again. You know how long we work, late into the night, to plan everything just so and this is all new territory. So not only are they trying to actually provide access to learning, they themselves are learning that the best tools, the best technology, in which to do this, and a lot of experimentation and I would probably say teachers are pretty exhausted right now. But the the way in which they’re going about this, from my perspective, is commendable.

Michael: 19:41

So they’re exhausted, even in week seven.

Stephen: 19:43

Yes. This is not going to let up because everything continues to be so new. Nothing is static in this process and we’re dealing with different things all the time.

Michael: 19:56

Now, Steve, I’d like to finish up here with– you had a focus in the beginning which is probably just creating something to get things going. But seven weeks in, would you let us know, what are you thinking about now? What are you focusing on now?

Stephen: 20:09

A lot of work is going on to wellbeing and trying to ensure that there is breadth of curriculum. And some of the things that kids have articulated, in terms of what’s challenging for them, is they are missing things like their social life, their sports, their after-school activities. So that is ways in which we can try and supplement that in the best form that we can, even if it’s reminding kids to take a break, go out there and do things. Some kids have said, “This is less enjoyable than school.” And so we’re really having to keep this humorous and upbeat, and many of the things we’re being asked to do now really run counter to what we are as social human beings. Don’t touch your face. Don’t touch your nose. Don’t shake hands. And it’s just trying to find fun ways of reminding ourselves that being social and being connected is really, really important. And finally, I would say, is that we can never take for granted that this is challenging for everyone. And when people feel overwhelmed, whether it’s parents, teachers, or students, reminding them to ask for help and making sure we provide the structures, whether it’s videos to show people how to do things. Making sure you can connect with a person. Making it okay to say, “This is really tough.” And accepting of that, and feeling comfortable to share that with people. So we’ve run some parent groups where we’ve tried to get people to come together online so that they can talk about the experience themselves, how they can support each other, and that is helping and I think we’re going to see more of this as we go forward through the next three or four weeks.

Michael: 21:58

Steve, thank you so much for all of your information. I know there’s going to be a ton of people out there enjoying and listening to what you have to say. It’s given a great road map, I mean, speaking for myself or many of us that are just entering this phase and or ideas for those of us who’ve been on that path already.

Stephen: 22:13

Thank you very much and I’d say good luck, and the last thing I would say is it’s amazing how resourceful people are in these situations and you find yourself doing things you couldn’t have imagined in a very short space of time.

Michael: 22:26

And that’s the kind of thing we certainly want to hear so that’s good news.

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