In the year 2020, we have been introduced to an uncertain world. The things we had taken for granted in 2019 have suddenly become sacred luxuries that we are rushing to experience once again. I almost feel a sense of mourning and awe when telling the story of where my work and my students brought me in 2019. How did this experience change me? Who am I now after this experience? And how do I experience the world today, as turbulent and uncertain as it is now?

Looking back at 2019, I wonder what the future will hold for us all and reflect on how my life has vastly improved by opening my heart and mind to a world beyond my own. Working from home expanded my horizons and took me out into the world. It helped me learn valuable lessons that I believe we will all need to learn together as we face an uncertain future. I see a world that is afraid and becoming more insular and closed off due to fear. I can understand these fears but hope that we don’t let fears dictate our choices. Since starting this journey of teaching online, I have found that facing the unknown and immersing myself in it has helped me grow as a citizen of the United States and the world.

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Pictured outside the China National Convention Center, where I would deliver a speech to thousands of Chinese educators.

The first morning after I arrived in Shanghai, I was looking over my iPad as the sunlight poured into my hotel room. My hotel room faced east, so every morning, I was awakened by the warm sunshine along with the excitement of each new day. I often woke up before the sun had even begun to rise. On my first morning in China, I was still pondering over the speech I had to deliver at ALO7’s National Education Association’s Online Learning conference, which was held in Beijing that year. It was still a few days away, and I had been putting months of thought and writing into the speech. I was worried about giving my speech, but not for reasons that you may think.

In October 2019, the local newspaper, the Altoona Mirror, published an article about me being recognized as ALO7’s 2019 Online Teacher of the Year and my upcoming trip to China to present at the conference. Subsequently, I received quite a few messages through social media and texts following the article. Some of my pals at home excitedly asked me how I was preparing for the trip and if I was nervous or scared. Some of my friends had brought the newspaper article itself into our local pub hangout and even read the article aloud. “As Teacher of the Year, she will address more than 3,000 people at the National Education Association’s Online Learning conference, about how ALO7 inspires future leaders…” My golfing pal, Bruce, read as he looked over the article. His eyes lit up as he looked at me while I sat with my other pal, Rusty. “You mean, you’ll be speaking to 3,000 people in China? 3,000! Did you hear that, Rusty?”

“Yeah, I did! Mom and dad at home even told me about the article, and mom said, hey Rusty, did you see that girl who’s going to China? And I said yeah, mom! She’s my friend!” Rusty said excitedly with a chuckle as he proudly patted me on the shoulder.

“That’s so funny, Rusty! And to answer your question, Bruce… it’s not so much that I’m nervous about speaking in front of everyone. I just hope I find the right words to say, and I think my speech might be ten minutes long!” I explained. I didn’t feel nervous about giving the speech, especially not in that moment. It was one of the happiest feelings in the world to make my friends at home proud.

But the question remained: How would I be able to convey to 3,000 people that the connections I had made with my students didn’t just have a life-changing impact on their lives, but had possibly changed me more than it had changed them? I wasn’t the same person I was almost two years ago when I first started this job, and I know it’s because of what this job had asked of me and the connections I made with my students. The challenge was not in having the courage to speak to 3,000 strangers, but to make sure they knew how appreciative I was of how this experience changed me for the better. I wanted the audience to know how much I hoped my students would go out into the world and have the same transformative experiences.

Fast forward to November in China, the first half of my trip to China, where I toured Shanghai and AL07’s corporate headquarters, had come to an end. My new friends (and co-workers), Zing and Hannah,  next accompanied me to Beijing, where the conference was being held. Beijing was very cold compared to Shanghai. The next morning after we had first arrived in Beijing, Hannah took me to the National Conference Center to practice my speech. 

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Reviewing ALO7 promotional materials with James Ashbridge, ALO7 Marketing.

When we arrived at the conference center, I was in awe of its size and the amount of preparations taking place. Many educators and members of ALO7 were working diligently on various booths to showcase the progress the company is making in amalgamating education and technology. 

One booth showed how Artificial Intelligence is incorporated into the courseware to help students and tutors meet learning objectives. Another showcased the range of curriculum, and interactive and innovative storytelling through ALO7’s Tales of China project, designed to help children learn English through ancient Chinese folklore and literature. These booths gave more of a glimpse into the tangibly real future of education. Little did any of us know how dependent we would soon become on this electronic-supported future of education in just a few short months due to COVID-19.

At the conference, I had two exciting meetings that I was looking forward to for a few months. The first was with the Executive Vice President of ALO7, Andrew Shewbart, and the second with James Ashbridge, whom I first knew as Teacher James. When I first started teaching with ALO7 in 2018, I watched many of his videos demonstrating good teaching practices to new tutors. Jason from the Shanghai office joked that it would be fun to see me meet Andrew, since I am a petite woman and Andrew is a tall Texan, with impeccable Chinese language skills. Hearing his impressive speeches the next day confirmed what Hannah had told me.

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Pictured with Hannah, who acted as my tour guide throughout the trip.

Hannah taught me some Chinese phrases throughout the trip and encouraged me to speak some Chinese to Andrew and James when I met them. Andrew and James were impressed as Hannah had predicted, so James coached me to add a bit of Chinese to the beginning of my speech. Hey! Just break out some Chinese during a speech to nearly 3,000 native Chinese speakers, right? Why not make life just that bit more exciting. 

I mainly felt comfortable with my speech, but continually kept putting thought into it, feeling that some integral part was missing. I had been transformed by being teaching Chinese students online. I wished I could find something that would tell the conference attendees what a fulfilling and life-changing experience this had been, in addition to being a way to provide for myself.

While preparing for the conference, I got a text from my friend Sue from my hometown, encouraging me after I had shown her a picture of the test run of my speech. When I saw that text, the ideas I was trying to synthesize came together for me; I realized that I couldn’t have made it to this milestone in my life without support from my friends, my family, my students, my colleagues, and even through experiences I had rather not have had happened to me. Because of it all, I was changed for the better. When I realized this, I thought of a special way to let the conference-goers know how much I valued my experiences as an online ESL tutor.

While waiting to give my speech later in the afternoon, I thought of my students, Max, Orange, Angela, Rebecca, Linda, Dora, Neal, Cherry, Charlie, Sissi, among many others… Orange was the first student to almost bring me to tears when she told me I was her favorite teacher. Neal often made me laugh and smile by telling me that I was sweet, and I was his “honey,” and Angela warmed my heart one morning when I heard her say to her grandmother that “Teacher is beautiful.” 

My student Max and I had shared knowledge of China and the United States with one another, and a heartfelt letter he shared with me brought me to tears, as he had also been in tears when we one day inevitably had to say goodbye. I thought of these experiences and endless support from those at home who loved me as I was on my way to give my speech. The lyrics of the song “For Good,” from the American musical Wicked, conveyed in the best way possible what this experience had been for me. “Because I knew you… I have been changed for good.”

I sang a portion of the lyrics to the song at the end of my speech, and could only hope that it helped each person know how much I would cherish the experiences from this job, this trip and the people of China. Looking out at the conference center at all of the people, both in the company and part of the education industry in China, inspired me and left me humbled at where this journey brought me over the course of almost two years.

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One last shot with James Ashbridge, also known as Teacher James in his ALO7 YouTube videos.

After coming home, I now see a world today that is afraid, much like I was two years ago, when I first began working for ALO7. I was unsure of how I was going to pay my bills, I was fearful due to wrongs that had been done to me, and circumstances outside of my control. My heart breaks when I hear of new surges of hatred against Asians around the world due to the outbreak of COVID-19. My experience communicating with the people of China individually and as a whole has shown me we are not all that different.  We need to keep an open heart and mind, now more than ever; miscommunications, misunderstandings, resentment, and blame won’t help us move forward in an uncertain world.

I hope you can take from my story, in light of the world today, that being open to learning, acting out compassion and working diligently can only yield a better version of you, and a better world for us all. The world needs the best version of you now more than ever. I will be forever grateful to this job for the lessons it taught me through this journey.

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