Behind the Screens: Interview with Danielle Byrne, LAMDA Exams' representative in China
For this edition of Behind the Screens, we talk to Danielle Byrne, LAMDA Exams' representative in China, to see what insight she can bring after working under the constraints of lockdown since the beginning of the year.
So far, we’ve only talked to teachers based in Britain for the Behind the Screens interviews, finding out how people have adapted and are managing to make the most of the situation. But I was keen to talk to someone who has been living the lockdown life for longer, to see what all that experience has taught them.
Danielle Byrne teaches drama at a well-known international school but she is also our LAMDA Exams representative in China, meaning she knows more than anyone what it’s like to teach in lockdown.
“Covid started for us on January the 13th. We were notified, and by January 15th we were online,” she tells me.
Like so many of the teachers I’ve been talking to, they use both Microsoft Teams and Zoom. Schools in China tend to use Teams. While the private centres are on Zoom.
There however, the similarities end. Due to strict censorship laws, many websites that teachers turn to in Britain are not available in China.
“Facebook is banned, Google is banned, Twitter, YouTube. Although we can get access to them, you can't get access to them from an education platform. So, you couldn’t say to children: ‘oh, Google that,’ or ‘oh, I'm going to show you a video on YouTube.’ You're not allowed to do that within the Chinese education system.”
This means that in order to build her lessons and source new ideas, Danielle had to turn to other teachers. Not just within her school, but within the wider education network. Teachers who work at what were previously competitor institutions, were joining group chats in order to share information.
“The main method of communication in China is an app called WeChat, which is a little bit more sophisticated... well a lot more sophisticated than WhatsApp.”
Messages were soon flying, swapping tips and advice.
“We're such a proper little LAMDA team. Rather than different business competitors.”
I joke that they’ve evolved beyond competition.
“Yeah, we have,” laughs Danielle. But there’s an earnestness to her words. “I think there's bigger things to worry about. People in our communities, who we know, have died.”
“It’s been really wonderful. Whereas before, although we’ve met socially, I’m not sure that people would have been as open. One of them actually just said to me today: ‘I feel like we’re a real LAMDA team together now.’”
And now that lockdown in China is coming to an end, this new community is something they are keen to keep up. “100 percent,” says Dannielle emphatically. “Absolutely.” They’re now planning workshops, and the chance to meet face-to-face once things are back to normal.
And as restrictions are lifted, the community is still proving itself useful.
“Having that toolkit to know how to speak to parents from a second language, has been really good, because we have some Chinese centre coordinators, it's been really quite good to have some inside knowledge of 'listen the parents are really stressed about coming back and how you socially distance.’”
Even the difficult decision about whether to take LAMDA exams online, or wait for the centres to reopen has been run through the group.
“A Chinese colleague said: 'keep on Zoom, because the parents are so stressed about being close to each other as it is, you're just giving them one extra thing to think about.'”
And so the decision was made. And Danielle actually took part in the trials for LAMDA Exams’ online assessments.
“I wouldn't have had that insight into a Chinese parent's mindset.
“From the parents’ point of view, and from the other the LAMDA centres in China points of view, they want their children to achieve in LAMDA, and they want their children to do the exams, therefore if there is an alternative, then that's fantastic. Their children can still achieve.
“There's a really good sense of spirit and community, and that ‘this is the challenge we face, we're going to face it with determination, and we're actually going to overcome it, and LAMDA has given us a solution.’ So, there's a sense of gratitude as well.”
This go-to source of information on WeChat has broken down some internal barriers as well. Danielle feels more able to help for help, to say ‘I can’t do this. Can you show me?’
But it’s not just the logistics that has been improved by their group chat. The presence of a community is, in itself, a welcome thing in a world which is now so separated.
"You need it because it could feel so isolating, particularly for us, because this started for us in January, in minus 15, with snow on the road. And you were just by yourself. The foreign office said: ‘all foreigners should immediately leave China,’ and there was this uncertainty of 'am I doing the right thing? Should I stay? Should I go?’
“You might see them in the background, but I've got three children and I was so worried about 'should we stay? Should we stay?' but having that community... Almost all of us, all the LAMDA centre coordinators, and all the LAMDA teachers across the centres, have stayed. Nobody left.”
And it’s not just her peers that are offering assistance. Her learners have been stepping up to explain the technology.
“I think it's been a really good opportunity for them to show their own leadership skills.
“At first it was quite a difficult process to say to the young people: ‘I can't do this,’ or ‘I don't know how to do this.’ I'm wearing a headset now, and it was a child that said: 'you need to get a headset, noise cancels everyone else behind you, and a microphone means that we can hear you.’”
They’ve also been teaching her all the abbreviations and jargon and getting her fully up to speed in this new technology-led world.
“They've embraced it. We're incredibly proud. Also, we're in a very fortunate situation in China with the way that technology moves. We use the expression ‘digital learners.’ Our children have access to multiple devices. Using technology is something that is very much in their day-to-day life.”
And so lessons have been able to develop into something more sophisticated as time went on. Classes can break away into separate rooms in Zoom for vocal warmups or choral-speaking practice or other group work. And when they all return to the main space, screen sharing is being used so that different groups can show off what they’ve been working on.
Over on Teams, every learner has their own digital folder where they can save their work, and all the class resources they’ve been collecting over the past six months. These folders have proved so useful, they intend to keep them, even when they’re back in the classroom.
“We're not closing down our Teams. We're actually going to move to Microsoft Teams rather than the homework platform that we use now, because if this ever happens again, then we're prepared, we're ready. We're already in a Team.”
This awareness of the potential for a second wave has meant that Danielle has been able to invest in more long-term planning rather than gap-plugging lessons.
She proudly shows off some of the awards that they’ve been sending out to their learners. Bronze and silver medals, and even golden Oscars for the very best work. These can be packaged up, and posted out, so that learners have something real and tangible in return for their efforts.
A rare treat in an electronic world.
At the time we’re talking, we’re mere weeks away from schools reopening. Six months after everything shut down. Soon Danielle will be returning to the real world.
“I can’t wait. I can’t wait.”
Danielle’s top tips
- Structure the lesson as you would for the classroom. Your warmup, your solo tasks, your sharing work, your peer evaluation, your plenary. It can all be accomplished online with a little thought
- Don’t forget to give out positive praise. Sending out awards is great because it only takes a few days for the learners to see recognition of their hard work
- Make it as easy as possible for the parents. Create a PDF of access codes for online lessons. Use the record function so if anyone’s internet drops out, learners can catch up afterwards
- Use the share screen function. This is a great way of getting resources over to learners, and by leaving it on screen you can give more complex instructions that learners can refer back to without you needing to repeat it. If you’re working with children who don’t use English as a first language, it’s a great way of showing translations
- Tape! Danielle uses a lot of tape on the floor to mark out the bounds seen by the camera. She also asks parents to buy music stands to hold her learners’ visual aids instead of damaging walls by sticking things up with blutack
- Find your community. We’re all weathering the same storm . Your fellow teachers can help you problem solve and spark creativity, while simply knowing you are not alone is truly invaluable