Lessons from lockdown

Despite their countries experiencing very different COVID trajectories, teachers in Singapore and New Zealand faced similar challenges during their respective lockdowns. We spoke to teachers from both countries to find out how they kept calm and carried on.
A small group of students milling around wearing face masks

Schools in Singapore closed on 8 April and didn't reopen on a full-time basis until 2 June

Teachers in Singapore were largely prepared for home-based learning (HBL) when schools closed due to COVID-19 in April. In March, with COVID-19 already taking hold, the Ministry of Education instructed schools to prepare for closures and teaching online. What's more, school closures in 2003 due to SARS meant many schools had drilled for just such a scenario. Regardless, there were still teething issues to work through. One of the first things teachers had to get their heads around was the technologies they’d be using.

“[Home-based learning] was indeed a new experience for parents, teachers, and students as we took some time to grapple and adapt with the changes,” says Nur Ashikin, a teacher at Wellington Primary School in Singapore.

The New Zealand teachers reported using the likes of Google Classrooms and Google Docs for collaborating with students, and their schools’ own student management systems, such as Edge. Google Meets or Zoom were used for face-to-face time. The Singapore teachers utilised their Ministry of Education’s online platform Learning Space (introduced in 2018), Class Dojo and Microsoft Teams, connecting face to face using Zoom.

Geoff Wood from Rosmini College in Auckland says the technology required was largely in place at his school and being experienced teaching online (Mr Wood regularly connects his students in New Zealand with students at partner schools in Asia and elsewhere) the transition to online teaching was a smooth one.

“We had established Google Classrooms where lessons, material and links were posted, and most teachers used Google Meets to connect live with their students.”

A student sitting at a kitchen table working on a laptop

Teachers were conscious of limiting the amount of time they asked their students to spend online

The teachers from both countries reported that the needs of students during this period were largely predicated on their age, with younger students requiring much more supervision and parental input.

Providing students, particularly younger ones, with a clear, structured day of activities helped them remain focused, Mr Wood says.

“Most successful 'home schools' for the younger students appeared to be those that followed the normal school routine, mixed with recreation, chores, and hobbies.

“If no guidance was given from home, the students, both younger and older, floundered, panicked and stressed.”

Coordinating lesson plans with parents and getting their support and involvement was a key factor when it came to students’ engagement.

“Parental support played a very important role in ensuring that learning does not stop at home. This is especially for younger students who need more assistance and guidance,” says Miss Nur Ashikin.

To help encourage parents to get involved, Krishna Ramadugu from Puhinui primary school in Auckland says teachers at the school designed activities that included parents in classroom activities.

“…we started thinking of activities that could foster fun and family involvement that still had an element of learning, like baking, drawing, finding patterns in leaves…”

However, she says while learning was important, the primary focus for teachers was the student’s welfare: “They could learn as much as they could at their own pace, in their own bubble environments without any stress.”

Otago Girl’s High School teacher Nicola Chapman it was important to show students they were supported.

“We tried hard to make the students aware that there are many adults to help them, such as their whanau teacher, their mentor, their house leader, as well as the school counselling service."

A teacher from Singapore taking a selfie with students in the background

The Foundation brought a group of teachers from Singapore to New Zealand in 2018 to connect with their counterparts here and learn about New Zealand's education system

She says some students reported enjoying the flexibility and self-directed time management, but home-based learning wasn’t for everyone.

“Others found it hard to be self-disciplined and meet deadlines. Nearly all were finding it hard to remain motivated by the end.”

Mr Eng Han Seng, Dean of co-curricular activities and physical education at Singapore’s oldest school, Raffles Institution, says while some students struggled during lockdown, others flourished.

“The happy outcome of the online learning methods used during the lockdown was that students who were normally reticent in class felt more confident in asking/typing out their questions and responses.”

The change in learning environment also provided space for students to reveal skills and interests teachers had previously not been aware of.

“[Home-based learning] allowed me to see different talents from students that they don't usually get to show at school,” says Leonie Austin, a teacher at Waterloo School in Lower Hutt.

“For example, one student is a total whizz at building with Lego and created amazing designs during lockdown, another student showed a talent for designing in Minecraft.”

The teachers from both countries reported that on the whole students were happy to be back at school and rather than rush to get them to catch up, students were eased back into school life. As with during lockdown, student wellbeing was their key concern.

“Transitioning back to school was difficult at first as there was still a lot of anxiety about being in close contact with so many people again,” says Miss Austin.

“We tried to keep lots of fun activities, group bonding, art, games, etc in the programme as we all settled back into school.”

Two boys standing in the stands of a crowded arena

As a measure to contain COVID-19, schools in Singapore are limiting extra curricular activities to small groups and online

In Singapore, where schools reopened on 2 June, because of continued community transmission, students and teachers are still subject to COVID precautions, such as wearing face masks/shields, having their temperature taken when they arrive at school and maintaining one metre distancing.

Mr Eng says, “Adapting to the new measures (e.g. wearing of masks) requires time for transition, for both teachers and students. Safe-distancing measures will mean that many programmes need to be relooked at.”

With school back, teachers have had to assess students and adapt their teaching to account for the disparities in students’ learning during lockdown.  

Mr Wood says he has noticed students who were less focussed during lockdown had fallen behind the more conscientious ones.

“From my observations, students who established the same routine at home were ahead of other students who appeared to have been absent from regularity and supervision."

All the Singapore teachers reported students were expected to follow their normal timetable of classes (up to six hours a day) but the number of daily schooling hours New Zealand students were expected to do varied between school, ranging from two to six hours.

The teachers we spoke to for this article were either Foundation offshore programme participants or had taken part in the Global Schools Partnership Project, a collaboration between the Foundation and the Southeast Asia Centre of Asia-Pacific Excellence aimed at building sustainable online connections between teachers, students, and schools in New Zealand and Asia.