A couple of days ago, I attended a consultative meeting, along with some colleagues, with representatives from the university management. The meeting aimed to resolve recent conflicts between management and staff over the discriminatory policies against a certain category of teachers at the university. Towards the end of the meeting when the chairman was about to adjoin the meeting, I found myself saying to representatives from management:
“Never adopt the mentality of an employer in the commercial sector and think, well, if you’re not happy with the terms, feel free to quit. This is our offer; take it or leave it, and if you quit, we can always find someone to replace you.”
In the last decade, changes and developments in employment terms and staff appraisal at my institution and many other education establishments in Hong Kong have reflected this corporate-boss mentality: Take it or leave it. You are not cherished. You are just an employee. You can always be replaced.
This mentality is doubly saddening when it takes root in an educational establishment, which should give teachers all the recognition and respect they deserve.
Most educators are not the calculating type. If they were, they wouldn’t stay along in teaching. This is because conscientious teaching involves endless sacrifices. Good teachers don’t do arithmetic: If my monthly pay is X, then I should put in Y hours a day. And it’s not even a question of putting in how many hours a day, because good teaching means teaching from the heart. You are constantly thinking about your students and teaching, and looking out for ways to help them and to improve your teaching further.
All teachers want is the recognition and respect that they deserve.
I fully understand that as a result of expansion of the school and tertiary sectors, the government is shouldering hefty bills on educational expenses. (When I started university teaching, there were only three universities in Hong Kong. Upper secondary education was still not available for all.) While expansion of education opportunities has benefitted more students at various levels, this has also meant that government has had to cut its fundings for universities, and the universities, in turn, have to reduce their pay and perks for staff. As a result, short-term contracts, delayed increments, shortened leave entitlement, ….you name it.
A similar development is taking place in the school sector, with teachers being hired on continuing contract terms, or appointed and paid as teaching assistants while undertaking the full duties of a teacher.
I think most educators can understand the situation. And, as I said, most educators are not the calculating type. Despite the increasingly harsh employment terms, most of them are still doing their job with professionalism and dedication. You seldom see a teacher thinking: well, since I’m not treated fairly, I’m going to take it out on the students, and I’m going to do my job only half-heartedly.
So I found myself saying in the middle of the consultative meeting:
“The university should be grateful to these colleagues that under the unfavourable employment terms, they are still throwing themselves into their work. All they want is a little bit of recognition and respect.”
People don’t go into teaching because they want to become rich. They don’t mind making sacrifices. All the want is a little bit of recognition and respect.
Unfortunately, what we have been seeing in the education sector in recent years is the opposite: policy after policy that relegates teaching staff to amenable employees like those in the commercial sector; increasingly stringent appraisal criteria and harsh employment terms that serve to remind staff from time to time that their survival and existence depend on the pleasure of management.
The message behind is always this: If you’re not happy with this, you can quit. We can always find people to replace you.
And I found myself saying in the middle of the consultative meeting:
“Many colleagues are staying out of goodwill. Don’t take advantage of them by exploiting their goodwill Yes, no one is irreplaceable. But if this becomes the mentality of management, the quality of teaching in the university will suffer in the long run.”
Deep down, I really wonder whether they really care about the quality of teaching!
This is my appeal to all those in management positions in educational establishments at all levels:
“If you truly care about quality teaching, give teachers the recognition and respect they deserve.”
Postscript: Most of the time, giving people the recognition and respect they deserve doesn’t cost any money.