The New Zealand schooling system and its reluctance to adapt is putting unimaginable pressure on our teachers. Alliv Samson looks at what we can do.

When Covid hit, we were one of the lucky ones. Immediate and strict lockdowns were put in place to snub out rising case numbers. Although this was something we’d never experienced, New Zealanders weren’t simply rolling over. Kiwis sprang into action, and before long, found ingenuity in the uncertainty. But while we were finding ways around the problem, countries like America were dragged through them.

We were rewarded with summer, unregulated socialising, and a taste of normality while America faced the music that we merely pushed pause on. As an international education technology provider, we saw it first-hand. They took the time to try and test methods to get systems – such as education – in order, to ensure their students didn’t get left behind through the pandemonium of the pandemic.

With this, New Zealand has had over a year to adapt, accept and embrace a post-Covid world. We don’t have to guess, US schools have already shown us the ropes by putting in the hard yards when it comes to adopting digital technology in the classroom. So, why then, have we not implemented proven structures and systems to support our students and teachers, ensuring we don’t add volume to the already-vast digital divide?

Together, Covid and lockdown have illuminated the drawbacks of our current education system. So, just as the world looked to New Zealand for our response to the virus, now is our chance to look overseas – to those who have been through trial and error – in order to build our schooling system up to where it needs to be.

Hybrid learning: A new normal

When it came to adapting to the world’s new normal, we worked alongside our American teaching community as they tested different methods for learning through lockdown. Regardless of a pandemic, US teachers realised some students will come back to class, but some will remain remote – plus, with new vaccination regulations, some might not return at all. To quickly adapt, the first and most common method was video classrooms, facilitated by the accelerated deployment of devices, mass training, and positive adoption of tech in everyday teaching routines. Similarly, Kiwi teachers hustled together their digital classrooms, but without the vital support systems and training. A positive “she’ll be right” attitude held things together initially, but it’s no longer enough. As New Zealand’s response began to stagnate, America kept pushing.

The next iteration for the US was approaching all students capable of returning, gathering them as one whole class, and setting them up with an online teacher. Again, foundational flaws found their way through the cracks; children of different ages, abilities, and comprehension were mixing, no longer getting the tailored learning experience they needed to get ahead – or at least, not fall behind.

After months of swimming upstream, coupled with an unpredictable future for the modern-day classroom, it was clear more drastic steps needed to be taken. What were once seen as temporary measures now needed permanent fixtures.

With the help of school district systems, states in America began to collectively band together to develop entire digital schools. An answer that could cater to students of all kinds, remote or in person, elementary or secondary. It should be noted, however, that this system is only able to be as successful as it currently is because of America’s comprehensive hierarchy within its educational structure.

Fixing the digital divide

The digital divide in New Zealand is glaringly obvious – exacerbated by WiFi and connectivity issues across the country, especially rurally. Back in September, we supported OMGTech! and their DigiTauTua drive; collecting new, refurbished, or donated devices to supply to Pacific and Māori students through Covid and lockdown restrictions. However, small-scale initiatives simply aren’t enough for the size of the challenge we have on our plates.

Currently, here in New Zealand, devices are a mess. It’s up to the parents to supply their children with mandatory tech, resulting in classrooms filled with a range of varying devices and compatibility issues – let alone the shame that comes hand-in-hand when minimal device requirements cannot be met.

Considering these factors, it becomes clear that a resolution can’t be left to teachers or parents to find, and instead, needs to come from the top down. Districts or governments have the clear advantage of leasing devices, stocking replacements, and achieving economies of scale.

Teachers for the teachers

As it stands, the New Zealand schooling system, and its reluctance to adapt, is putting unimaginable pressure on our teachers. As lockdown continues to ebb and flow, with lockdown levels and traffic light systems ushering in our new normal, determining a stable routine has been no easy feat. At the time of writing, it has been over 600 days since our Government introduced the four-tiered alert level system to help combat Covid-19. We say we’re “used to” this now, but we’re not. Teachers have still not been afforded equal aid to guide our younger generations through lockdown without the casualties of disruption and division. Ask three teachers and each will describe a different level of support, planning, and approach taken by their school.

“Our school lacks the digital framework to use technology in the classroom. Without knowing the value of technology in education, [teachers] lack the understanding of how to integrate technology effectively into their classroom or online environments.”

– Karen Paku, Primary teacher, Wairoa

Teachers single-handedly foster a love of learning in students. Without teachers who feel inspired, supported, and accounted for, children – and their futures – will bear the brunt.

So, how do we get back on track to stable learning environments and positive learning outcomes?

Due to size and sheer people power, following in America’s footsteps of district hierarchy might be something we simply can’t replicate; at least, not directly. We can, however, be thinking of new roles to establish in order to form a more robust support system.

Reorganising our approach would give space for those outgrowing traditional teaching – often becoming experts in the implementation and application of digital technology – and leave as a result of unmatched salary to skill. Establishing more operational roles, such as tech directors, would ensure adequate plans are put in place and enacted region-wide, so all teachers have equal access to the digital assistance they need.

By retraining teachers, we’d not only be retaining those with the skills we need the most but creating a stable source of support when livelihoods are thrown into the jaws of a worldwide pandemic.

Even as a small island nation clinging to the bottom of the globe, we New Zealanders have consistently proven ourselves to be world leaders. However, this post-Covid challenge isn’t like the battle for a world cup or a race to summit the world’s highest mountain; it’s the future of our schooling system; the future of thousands of New Zealand teachers and students – their own personal Everest. Number eight wire might get us to base camp but a spotlight on the ever growing disparities, with swift action and support, will be what gets us back on top.

Alliv Samson is the co-founder and COO of New Zealand-based digital learning platform Kami.

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