The following remarks were all made by my former students, on different occasions, in the last ten days:
C: I’ve been following your blog closely, and it looks like you’re becoming more and more pessimistic.
K (false name; on quitting her present school): I’ve been forcing myself to stay at this school despite the crazy policies, but the last straw for me was that the new principal got rid of teachers she didn’t like on grounds of unsatisfactory performance in one lesson observation.
J (false name): The reason we’re having this unhealthy culture in many of our schools is that most of us are not reflective enough.
W (false name): My principal admits that our workload is excessive, but her advice is that there’s no need to give 100% of ourselves into everything we do. We only have to put in 70% or 80% of ourselves into things of lesser importance. But for me quality is paramount, and I need to produce quality for everything I do, but with so much work in hand, I just can’t do that, and I feel bad about myself.
T (after viewing a ten-minute clip in which Bill Gates reports on a teacher development project in the States: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1lcZbRY_bYs): I really wonder if such schools exist in Hong Kong, where all we care about is how to improve learning. If you have come across some, please give me examples!
Am I becoming more and more pessimistic? On one level, yes. Despite the ‘progress’ we have made in education policymaking, school administration, and curriculum development, we have often forgot what schools exist for:
School management often degenerates into managerialism, with school administrators administrating for the sake of administrating. One example is spending too much time on ‘systematic’ staff appraisals. Lesson observation becomes a tool for reminding teachers who has power, rather than a catalyst for teachers’ continuing professional development.
Quantity precedes quality, in order to please the parents and the public. As a result, curriculum innovations often exist only in form, but not in substance. Teachers become fire-fighters, rushing from one urgent task to another. They have no time to plan their lessons carefully and creatively. They feel bad about themselves for this gradual erosion of their professional competence. Soon they become burnt out, or hate themselves for becoming teaching zombies.
Why is all this happening? Don’t get me wrong; I am not implying that we teachers are the good guys, and that principals and Government education officials are the bad guys. From my dealings with them, I think most of them are well-intentioned people. It is not as if they were going out of their way to make life difficult for teachers. For me, all this is happening because we, and I mean all of us in different sectors and roles in education, are NOT reflective enough. Examples:
- If we give schools more money to help them improve the quality of teaching, what should the money be spent on? More curriculum projects?
- What is the purpose of lesson observation? What is the purpose of staff appraisal? Are we having too much management, and not enough leadership?
- Why do we believe that the more homework we give to students, the more they will learn? What kind of homework will really help them learn?
- What should we invest our time in? Are there certain things we are currently doing that we should terminate?
- What do schools exist for?
- Am I being true to myself? Who am I? Why am I a teacher? How should I spend this lifetime of mine?
Well, under the present circumstances, how can I NOT be pessimistic! W treats teaching as a calling. She has been moving from school to school because she has wanted to work in a workplace which enables her to really work as a personally caring and professionally competent teacher. But her passion has met with frustrations after frustrations. Last month as she was yet looking for another school, she wondered whether she should quit teaching altogether.
I understand her sentiments completely.
But, here is the truth: I am optimistic. I am optimistic because from time to time I meet teachers like J, who will give unconditionally to their students, teachers like T, who still dream about schools that only care about how to improve learning, teachers like C, who still look to their own teachers as role models; teachers like K, who affirm in their search for the school that enables them to be good teachers:
No matter where I am, I am NOT going to stop teaching. Most importantly, I am NOT going to let my passion die. No matter what reason makes me leave a place, there is NOTHING that can make me stop from going into a classroom.