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Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Designing a Solution – CovidSchooling in Far North New Zealand

Fish lures crafted by a student. Photo provided.

Remote teaching is difficult for all teachers but brings some unique challenges for Greg, a veteran teacher working in New Zealand’s far North. Greg teaches technology subjects, which in New Zealand encompasses metal work, wood work, design and technical drawing.

His first stint as a teacher lasted 12 years, before he worked as a designer for 10 years in the superyacht industry, then three years as a mechanical engineer. He returned to teaching eight years ago.

“As an older man coming back to teaching, I have chosen to teach in the poorer area, where there are more difficult students as they live in poorer communities,” he says.

“Younger teachers have difficulty staying in these positions. Older teachers have more experience with tough kids to draw from.”

The high school in which Greg teaches has an 85% Maori population, New Zealand’s indigenous people. 

“Relationships are paramount to these students,” he says, “if they don’t know you and your tribe, they have less respect for you as a teacher.”

New Zealand is in full lockdown, the country’s Level Four, with the steps up from Level One through Four happening in just a few days, he says. He lives with his wife, who works in the health field, and the couple’s adult children live elsewhere, one in Melbourne, Australia, and the other in Wellington, New Zealand.

The existence of Covid-19 was on the country's radar since the first outbreak in Wuhan, China, and the government had been preparing its response, but the harsh reality struck suddenly, he says.

“The government announced the lockdown including school closures. They also bought the school holidays forward two weeks to align with the start of the lockdown. This was to give the teachers a chance to figure out how to teach their subjects from their homes.”

That’s a tough task to figure out for a subject that is mostly very hands on using many specialised tools and machines in the school’s hard materials room. Greg says the students really enjoy working with the materials and making things, and find satisfaction in the tactile experience. Practical lessons don’t translate well to Google classroom or Zoom, and the ability to make things differs from household to household.

He says no one was ready for the sudden move to full lockdown, when Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that the country would, “Go early and go hard”.

“The nation has responded and followed the procedures,” he says. 

“This has meant no travel out of your home except to get supplies. Supermarkets are open with a limited number of people allowed in at a time. Suddenly all the roads and streets are quiet. There are daily announcements on the public television channels. The director of health and the prime minister speak daily and keep the nation up to date with pandemic.”

Many students in the area where Greg teaches, and elsewhere in New Zealand, don’t have Internet access so the Ministry of Education is trying to provide connectivity for all students.

“The government is mostly concerned with the wellbeing of the population, so they are delivering food packages to those in need and later they will deliver devices so that students can work from home. Fortunately, couriers are still able to work.”

He has been in contact online with most of his older students, at least those who have Internet, and they have access to his online lessons.

“However, the need for personal contact is important to my students and they rely on personal interactions to make them feel confident in their work.”

Greg says it is still early on in the fight against Covid-19 for those in NZ and there will be many things learned once things settle.

“Teaching will never be the same,” he says.

“I have no idea how to teach students to be builders and engineers from my home. It is possible to teach programming and robotics, however this doesn’t suit the situation here in NZ. We have plenty of creative people who can do this and struggle to make a living due to the geographic location of our beautiful country.

All he can do, he says, is to keep encouraging his students to be creative so they have the desire to become builders and engineers.

“There is a real shortage of skilled workers in NZ and we can’t let it get any worse, so the push is on to find ways of teaching the skills that require feeling and practice.”

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