It has been a strange few months to be working in language education within China, with institutions in the country closing their doors for the Spring Festival, and then being unable to open them again afterwards, due to the unprecedented health pandemic that has defined 2020. Now though, some four months since those initial closings, EF centers around the country are beginning to reopen for classes. After months of only being able to communicate with teachers and classmates online, students are once again able to speak in person, and return to an English environment. This has been done in stages, in accordance with the regulations and expectations set by local governments. My own center, based in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, was one such location able to reopen recently, and one of the first in the country. This reopening, a return to normality while remaining wary and vigilant, is of course a good thing, but it brings with it further challenges also, though. In such an industry, it’s important to be adaptable, and staff are adapting.
The first of these challenges is maintaining, presenting, and promoting a clean and safe place for students to study. The service team and cleaning staff in my office have been particularly diligent here. The work areas, classrooms, and communal spaces are disinfected daily, and students are required to pass a temperature check on arrival, as well as sign in so a record of visitors can be kept. Each classroom has disinfectant on hand, and students are given the choice as to whether they wear medical masks or not. Going into work daily, I feel that I am an entering a safe space, and students tell me that they feel likewise.
During the four months in which centers were closed, a vast majority of teachers moved online if able to, so as to better meet students’ needs at the time. Before this mass-migration, staff were trained for the new platform, and assisted with the transition, and have been assisted also when transitioning back to a normal teaching schedule. In my center, teachers have been moved offline in stages, and meetings were held beforehand to discuss this process and make sure everyone was comfortable coming back to work in their usual capacity. Advice was shared, suggestions were made, and we quickly found ourselves to all be on the same page. Teaching offline is quite different to teaching online, especially when it comes to the more practical side of teaching, such as managing a classroom, and it involved shaking off some rust that may have accumulated in the interim – for this teacher anyway. It is a real pleasure to be able to see my students in person again, but I’ve found myself quizzing colleagues, and referring back to training undergone pre-2020 in order to re-adjust. Four months feels like a long time, but it is good to feel so supported by those around me. As has been the case so far this year, we are moving forwards together, seeing what the next day or week might bring.
This return to normal classes poses difficulties for students also, who, although relieved to be back to a kind of normality, also have some accrued rust to shake off. Some of that have spoken to me of how unnatural it feels to be speaking English in such a capacity again – to be talking to staff and teachers in-person like so. As a teacher, it remains especially important, now more than ever, to provide students with an environment in which they feel comfortable speaking. It means encouraging them to book classes again, come into the center again, and to communicate with other students and strangers in a second language without anxiety. To try and ease the transition here for students, we’ve been hosting daily “free talk” sessions and “welcome back” activities for students to participate in. Again, I’ve really appreciated the efforts of my colleagues here in facilitating such participation, all of whom go above and beyond on a daily basis to check in with students and make themselves available.
It remains a fairly uncertain time, but one thing that has never seemed uncertain is the professionalism of those working around me. Local management have pushed for a speedy but safe reopening, and then, after this reopening, with the help of local staff, have warmly welcomed students back to the center. “Normal” is not a word to use lightly in 2020, and things aren’t quite there yet, but they’re getting there.