I arrive at school each day around 7.30am, while the relative cool of the morning is just about clinging on. The 20-minute cycle still raises a sweat, but luckily the school (like most buildings in Singapore) is air-conditioned to the point where you might consider putting a light jumper on. At times, I forget that the unwavering equatorial heat lies just outside our chilled classrooms.
On most mornings I drop my three-year-old son at his class in DUCKS (the school’s early-years centre). Then I walk back to my room for 8.20am, when my ever-lively Year 7 tutees begin to filter in, weighed down by big backpacks, musical instruments, and occasionally cakes for someone’s birthday.
The glass wall of our classroom gives us a perfect view of the still-shaded sports field, where a carousel of practice sessions for football, rugby and other sports takes place. On cloudy days, my tutees watch the brewing rainstorms, which roll in over the tree tops beyond the school’s boundaries. But on most days, we see only blue sky, white clouds and the merciless sun.
Period 1 begins at 8.50am, and we have six 55-minute lessons throughout the day, with a mid-morning break and another 55 minutes for lunch. Although the college has more than 2,000 students, the senior school retains a surprisingly small feel, and I frequently run into students of mine throughout the day.
With smaller class sizes, a shared dining hall frequented by most staff and students, and lots of extracurricular activities, it is easy for a strong bond to develop between teachers and students, as we seem to spend so much time in each other’s company.
Our student population is very mixed, with more than 50 nationalities in total. But the very idea of nationality seems slightly blurred at times. Almost half of our students are British, but may never have actually lived in the UK. Other students have strong American accents, but may actually be Indian or Korean, their pronunciation a product of their international education. Recently, one of my American-sounding tutees managed to pick up some very English vowel sounds during the space of a two-week trip to London, and still flits between different versions of words like “after” and “ask”.
This flexibility and blurring of assumptions suits me well, as a teacher of Mandarin who is not Chinese. Like a student who sounds English but couldn’t tell you where Leicester is, the gaps in my knowledge are sometimes exposed when I need to look up words during lessons to make sure I haven’t miswritten characters. So I try to focus instead on being creative, on the many possibilities for thinking and expressing ourselves differently that learning Chinese brings.
Luckily, students love any opportunity for creativity, and this helped to shape the most memorable moment for me during this first year in the school. My Year 9 class jumped at the chance to write Mandarin raps on the school’s theme of “our heritage, our home”. With support from our music department, we recorded them and turned them into the surprise package of the senior-school Chinese New Year assembly.
I would also like there to be a school buzzer, to try and firm up punctuality around the start of lessons, but this kind of issue is to be expected in a school that is only five years old and still developing. I am learning that building a school can be relatively quick, but getting everything to work takes time.
Our students, on the other hand, have a tendency to squeeze a lot into a short space of time. For many, the move to Singapore may be recent, temporary and apt to end at quite short notice. These conditions seem to accelerate familiarity and friendships, especially against the background of inevitable new arrivals and departures at the end of term. There are so many international families at the school, whose homes and families are often far away, so the school can really act as an anchor for both staff and students who might sometimes feel adrift.
All in all, it is quite different from the large comprehensive school where I used to work in London. Instead of the sass and pushback I am used to, most students here listen eagerly and take notes when the teacher is talking, always with an eye to excelling at the next assessment. While I have loved working in both schools, I’m definitely not about to swap Singapore for anywhere for a while.
Adam Moorman teaches Mandarin at Dulwich College, Singapore