The year 2020 changed everything. Dreams. Reality. Perception. Imagination. Faith. Hope. Its earth-shattering impact was felt by each and every human on this planet; some lost their lives, some lost their near and dear ones, some lost their jobs, some lost their homes, and sadly, some lost their humanity as conditions changed drastically within a few months. Change has indeed become the new normal.
This is the story of the year 2020. Some will tell me that caution is in order; after all, the year has not yet come to a close. It is over in many ways, however, for all the international school teachers who lost their jobs, their friends, their belongings, and their homes. I hope this resonates with your personal struggles and gives you an opportunity to face the reality that change is the new normal.
Beginning of the end
Let me rewind to December 2019, when my school in China celebrated the Chinese moon festival and closed the year on a high, with confidence for a promising start in 2020. We were a great team—diverse, experienced, and dynamic. The school’s financial health was in its pink and there were plans for expansion in 2020. We went on a six-week holiday to celebrate Christmas and Chinese New Year. All expat school teachers and students traveled outside of China, knowing that they would be back before 1 February to begin the school year. But destiny had different plans...
Around the middle of January 2020, right after I had completed sending New Year greetings to all friends and family, I got an update on my phone about a virus spreading like a wildfire in the city of Wuhan in China. Initially this news was insignificant to the world at large but a week later this inconsequential information made it into global headlines and onto every social media channel until it seemed all were reporting on the virus 24/7.
Schools across China were shut down in early February and the gravity of the situation began to sink in. Curriculum matters needed immediate attention, as the graduating class was scheduled to do their mock exams that month. All teachers at my school collaborated to shift learning online, as did those at many other schools in China. We launched our first online classroom on 2 February 2020. Little did we know that a metamorphosis had begun that would prompt a permanent change in education across the world. Soon all schools in China were online, hoping to keep the ship sailing.
Change does not require approval; it comes with conviction and forces the process of adaptation. Amidst all the covid-19 craziness and uncertainty, I got more news that changed my world. Learning that my mother had been diagnosed with stage-2 cancer, I rushed to India to see her through her operation. This was a very traumatic period, as cancer is feared like death in my circles due to the lack of information and the alarming fatality rates associated with the disease.
This family crisis forced me to rethink my priorities, and without realizing it, I learned a lesson that helped me to survive covid-19. During my mum’s treatment, I was running online classes from her hospital cabin. At this point, a kind of numbness was setting in due to my inability to control or predict the course of events. But watching my mother’s fight with cancer gave me the courage and strength to deal with uncertainties. She would get up every morning with a lot of positive energy and carry on with painful treatment as if it was just a normal, everyday affair.
On the day of her surgery, which had a high-risk factor due to her age, she told me her secret mantra—“One day at a time”—and that she does not worry about the future, as she cannot control it. Taking up this mantra myself gave me the courage to face what was coming for me. As my mother continues to battle cancer, and the world continues to battle covid-19, I have learned to live in the moment and to celebrate each day, even when faced with the most difficult situation or decision. Which is what came next.
I lost my job
In June, my school board decided to close down the school, explaining, “the school has decided to stop student enrollment for the next academic year due to the Pandemic.” We were given this news on a weekday right after school ended. The immediate reaction was shock.
Tears, anger, and frustration followed very quickly, as there was no time to mull over the situation. The realisation that all teachers had to find a job in the next three weeks hit us hard. But having to pivot quickly spared us from a protracted period of grieving over the news.
Personally, I completed around 15 to 20 teacher references in a period of two weeks whilst working on my own CV, cover letter, and job applications. Having lost my job meant I could not stay in the country… yet I could not get back to my home country as the airspace was closed. I had to look for a job in China, in a school that would be a good fit for my son and would provide him with quality international education.
As a programme leader, my work had quadrupled because I was now assisting teachers in their efforts to secure employment, helping graduating students to meet their university requirements, and aiding students assemble the necessary documents that would allow them to apply to other schools.
When I look back now, I am very proud of what I managed to complete under extreme duress. Where did I find the strength? It now seems clear: it came from witnessing my mother’s battle against cancer.
I am equally proud of my colleagues who survived this unfortunate turn of events and accepted change with courage. Below are a few experiences they related to me about losing their jobs, surviving the pandemic, and adapting to the new normal.
“I read a quote somewhere: ‘You cannot truly understand something until it happens to you.’ In March 2020, I was hearing the news about people losing jobs around the globe in different industries due to the pandemic, I never realized I would have to experience the same in my own life. First week of June, when my head of school announced my lovely school was going to close forever, I was really shocked with a mixture of emotions. I loved my school, colleagues, and students; on the other side, securing a livelihood was also a big question mark for me and my family. I was blank and shattered... it took a long time to retrieve myself from that situation.”
—Rahul Viswanath, IBDP/MYP Biology and IBDP ESS teacher
“The school closure changed my life plans. I had less time and opportunity to find a new job, as my school was closed at the beginning of the summer when most of the international schools had already completed the staff recruitment process. Due to a lack of time, opportunity, and visa limitations, I chose the job option that is temporary. These circumstances put a huge stress on me and I have started thinking about going back to my homeland.”
—Seda Kocharyan, IBDP/MYP Individuals and Societies teacher
“It's not new to anyone that covid-19 has changed the world from several points of view. We learned to be flexible with different situations; adapt ourselves to new challenges; have patience with people; practice resilience and compassion with others. This pandemic has forced us to review our teaching strategies to create learning opportunities that will engage our students in a meaningful experience.”
—Ricardo Vieira, Athletics Director and Dean of Students
“The school closure left me with a sense of incompleteness. All the effort and work we had all put in over time was left behind on the server and in empty offices. Saying goodbye for good to colleagues, students, and parents was heartbreaking. Not only because we wouldn’t see each other again but because for many, the future was uncertain, and everyone was dispersing to new schools or countries. The school closure left many feeling like they now had no place to call home.”
—Kerryn Tucker, Head of Primary
“School closure impacted every aspect of my life. Not only did I lose contact with my closest friends, but I started to realize how school was a major part of my life, not just in making me more knowledgeable but for the social aspects of my living.”
—Abdul Karim Alkhayat, Grade 12 student
“When someone asks me, "What is the weirdest thing that has happened to you?" the first thing I think of is when my school shut down. I've had to say farewell to many friends, teachers, and schools in the past, but never all at once. In this entire experience, I did realize how much school meant to me: the teacher-student banter, the break-time jokes, and the afterschool activities. While the last week on campus is usually a celebration, this June I went through the melancholiest of conclusions.”
—Ahaan Chakrabarty, Grade 10 student
Luckily, I got five job offers, all from schools in China, but none of the roles were exactly what I wanted. I realized that the pandemic had actually changed my priorities in life. It did not matter what work I did—what mattered most was that my new work environment support internationalism, celebrate diversity, and be able to sustain itself through the global economic crisis. I kept chanting my mum’s mantra: one day at a time.
Change: the new normal
My experience during the pandemic gave me insight into the way things had changed in our world because of covid-19. Travel restrictions, xenophobia, anthrophobia, and many other phobias were openly demonstrated under the pretext of safety and security. Humanity was flaunting its most inhuman face. Social distancing had actually become distancing from solidarity—a big change during this pandemic.
After only eight months, I can say that everything has changed for me and for many international educators around the world. The way we teach and learn has changed forever. The biggest takeaway from this experience is to live in the moment, to be fluid, flexible, and prepared for change. This process can be compared to Darwin’s theory of evolution; the virus has ushered in the next stage of evolution in education, the economy, ecology, and in every aspect of life. If we are ready to embrace the metamorphosis, we can survive the next era of change; otherwise, as with the process of natural selection, we will be eliminated.
Embrace the change and change with it, as this is simply our new normal.