#WCW Back to School: Shelby Tucker, Teaching Abroad during a Pandemic

Wednesday October 28, 2020

by Antoinette Tansley


[Image description: Shelby with her husband and their two children out on a rainy day walk in Myanmar]


This week we have the honor of hearing from Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) and educator Shelby Tucker. Shelby served in Ukraine from 2009 to 2011 and is currently a 4th-grade homeroom teacher at Yangon International School (YIS) in Yangon, Myanmar. As a homeroom teacher, she teaches math, science, social studies and language arts. Shelby and her family moved to Yangon this year for her husband’s newest posting in U.S. Foreign Service. Together they have two young children, Maebel (4 years old) and Evan (7 months).

Yangon International School is a small international school located in Myanmar’s largest city with a student population that is predominantly Myanmarese. YIS uses a U.S. standards-based curriculum, and its students also take Myanmarese dance and language from a local teacher. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, Shelby has not yet had the opportunity to teach her students in a traditional classroom setting.


[image description: Shelby uses a platform called Seesaw to create and share activities for her students.  This is a screenshot of the page that students use to get to classes, know what the agenda is, and much more.]

Teaching from home provides its challenges for educators, so we asked Shelby how she is navigating the difficulty of managing a work-life balance during a global pandemic. This is a question which Shelby says has continuously been on her mind. Shelby was hired to work at YIS in March 2020 when COVID-19 was only beginning to emerge in the United States. As international travel was shutting down, Shelby and her family were planning their move. Candidly, Shelby shares that finding a work-life balance during these difficult times is just not a reality. “I strive for it but haven’t found it yet. Every week I make necessary tweaks to find a balance between the work I’m passionate about and my personal life, and while some weeks I get it right, others I don’t”.  Shelby believes that, while she cannot see her students in person, working from home has allowed her to form “different and more personal connections” with them. She is hopeful that “the awkward moments and insider view we are all getting into each other’s lives will transfer into the classroom when we finally get to return.”


[Image description: Handwashing stations found at the entrance to the Yangon International School]

When asked about how she feels returning to the classroom, Shelby stated that back in August, she was comfortable with the idea of going back to school because COVID-19 was well controlled in Myanmar at the time. When her family arrived in Yangon in July of this year, they underwent a 21-day strict quarantine in an apartment, receiving grocery deliveries every few days thanks to a kind neighbor. Shelby and her husband have been very impressed overall with Myanmar’s handling of COVID-19 and noted that most community members wore masks, bus stops had sinks set up for frequent handwashing, and grocery stores provided hand sanitizer and performed temperature checks.  She feels community members are working together to protect one another. At school, YIS set up multiple handwashing stations at entrances, trained cleaning staff on how to properly sanitize frequently touched surfaces, and made further preparations for students’ eventual return. While these factors helped her feel confident about returning to school, the chances of that occurring diminished as Myanmar’s COVID-19 situation deteriorated between September and October.

Although Shelby had been working from her classroom every day, after news of an outbreak in a nearby state prompted more precautions, it became increasingly apparent that the students would not be back on campus any time soon. By October, she knew they were in for the long haul. Townships and neighborhoods closed, and only one person per household is permitted to go to the grocery store. Shelby now teaches from the spare bedroom in her home while her son naps in the bedroom next door, and her daughter runs around the house playing, often prompting laughter from students when they hear one of them in the background.


 [Image description: A photo Shelby’s husband took of her working in her home work space.  She has stacked two end tables to have a standing desk because she says it feels “weird” to sit and teach]

Shelby is taking the challenges of teaching in a pandemic day by day.  She expressed that YIS has done a great job of communicating with stakeholders and have determined that the best schedule is teaching a regular school day most of the week.  Shelby teaches mostly synchronous lessons, where she introduces the teaching plan via Zoom and then has students work independently while she checks in with them individually or in small groups.  They have been in school for about ten weeks now, and as new challenges arise, sometimes daily, she and the students work together to resolve them. Sometimes the challenge is technology related, but other times students simply need some time to talk and check in with each other. “The students have far fewer opportunities to be truly heard in the online environment, so I’m always looking for creative ways for them to express themselves and share their feelings with me and with each other. It has been rewarding to see how we’ve truly created a caring class community without having met each other in person. Just the other day we were all laughing about how it might be awkward when we finally get to meet in person. Some of my students think I’ll look shorter in person than how I look on Zoom.”


[Image description: Shelby’s students use the annotate feature on Zoom to write their names on the screen and tell her where they needed help in their writing class.]


Shelby also team teaches with a colleague who is still in New Jersey waiting to get back to Myanmar.  They take extra time to reflect and ensure they consider the reality of the situation from all perspectives. They recognize that this is not easy for anyone and that it is especially demanding of their students who are only 9-years old. These young students must be more independent and accountable than has ever been expected of them. The task for parents is also great, as most did not experience the same style of education. Shelby is especially grateful for her wonderful Myanmarese assistant, who she feels has perhaps the most important task communicating with parents in the local language.

Shelby expressed that Peace Corps made her more resilient and flexible and that it is an important part of who she is but that she also feels there isn’t much that can prepare you for life during a pandemic. The challenges of living and working from home, not by choice but as a requirement, are numerous not just for her but also for her family. That being said, she is grateful for the relatively fortunate position her family is in. Her father originally inspired her to join Peace Corps as he is a career Navy doctor, and service to others has always been an important family value. She recalls him talking about Peace Corps early on in her life as it was something he wished he had done, so she knew it was something she wanted to consider. After college, uncertain about her desire to become a classroom teacher, she applied to Peace Corps. As chance would have it, she was assigned to the TEFL program as a schoolteacher. “I’m so glad I was as it reignited my passion for education, and it’s also where I met my husband, also an RPCV. We’re one of those Peace Corps couples who met during language training, and the rest is history.”


Thank you Shelby for all you do and for your wonderful contribution this week! If you know someone who an educator and you want to nominate them for this blog series email [email protected]!

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