On September 1, 2010, Ms Becky Cheung will enter a new phase of her professional career. She will work as a School Development Officer with the Hong Kong Institute of Education Research, CUHK. In this interview which took place on August 4, I invited Becky to look back on her days of teaching, and to look ahead to the challenges in her new position in teacher development.
Paul Sze: What were your first few years of teaching like?
Becky Cheung: The first school I taught in was an elite EMI school. The English proficiency of the students was pretty high! What I had to think of was how I could enliven my teaching on top of using the textbook which was completely too easy for them. You know, to arouse their interest and to win their respect, they had to feel that they were really learning from you! In the first year, I had to teach a Form 2 class, which was an elite class at the school. After a week, I got a bit worried! I realized that I shouldn’t just rely on the textbook. I looked for some detective cases and some problem solving tasks for them to do discussions. I organised role plays so that they could show off their fluent English. Well, there was bound to be a minority who didn’t talk much, and I had to think of ways to get them involved as well. What was challenging was that they could be quite demanding. But they were good students. They were brilliant. Not only my students, but my colleagues as well. So I was stretching myself all the time! In the first three to five years, I felt that I was more like learning English than teaching English there! There were lots of things to learn. You could even learn a lot from a meeting, like taking good minutes! In this school, they use English in all meetings, no matter how many local teachers are present. So, in the first few years, I was developing my language skills as well as my teaching skills. I worked hard to survive, but at the same time, I was equipping myself professionally.
I remember once during a dinner gathering, the English panel chair told my colleagues about how she interviewed me. Her impression was that the principal was not keen to employ me. My application was chucked into the ‘OUT’ basket, but it was HER who retrieved my application from it. After that dinner gathering, everyone knew I was not the principal’s first choice. Honestly, I felt quite embarrassed and discouraged. But looking back on the whole thing, I should thank the panel chair for disclosing the truth. After that conversation, I had a nice chat with a colleague, who acted as my true mentor and is now my best friend, I told myself I had to work even harder to show everyone that I was worth my salt.
So, it’s probably the teaching environment and that special experience that have made me the teacher that I am today.
Paul Sze: How did you come to realize your professional competence in English language teaching?
Becky Cheung: Two months after assuming work, around November, Northcote, one of the teacher training colleges at the time, contacted my principal. They asked whether I could do a demo lesson to be observed by their teacher trainees. I was invited probably because I was an outstanding graduate of Northcote, being the prize winner of both elective subjects, English and History. Then, my English Panel Head asked whether she could come to the demo lesson with the Principal and of course I was happy with such an arrangement, since I’d prepared the lesson for my students and my visitors anyway! Even though the principal didn’t observe the whole demo lesson, she expressed her satisfaction afterwards. The principal then observed a History lesson a month later. I think she was rather pleased. Actually, with the very positive appraisal reports I had been given by my different bosses, I could see that I have the potential to become a good teacher.
Paul Sze: What is it about English language teaching that you enjoy the most?
Becky Cheung: The environment of my first school allowed me to be very creative with my teaching. I could design a lesson in any way I liked. The students didn’t want you to follow the textbook. For example, I could use ‘Breakaway’ of Kelly Clarkson to teach the Imperatives. This was more effective than the textbook stuff and the students enjoyed learning grammar through music. You know, there were a lot of brilliant students in my school. The students and I were both happy with my active teaching style.
Apart from having autonomy in designing English lessons, I also enjoyed being with the students, especially those less capable learners of English. I guess I was born with a flair for taking good care of the weaker and the underprivileged ones. And this was also why I switched to a non-elite school for the chance to work with working-class students two years ago. You know, it’s actually quite easy to make friends with students. Like most teachers, I enjoy chatting with my students, responding to their journals, trying to influence them with my own life experiences. I share with them good movies, books and lyrics, which are all good English learning resources.
Some of my former students still call me up now and they would tell me how much they miss me and my lessons and this is what I find the most rewarding. Two days ago, I had a meal with a student, who is studying in Australia right now. She does a piece of writing every day and the audience is me! She keeps all those photos she’s taken with me, at her bedside. When she sees me, she feels that I can give her the energy to survive her school life. Watching my students grow is surely amazing, and this has given me some deep insights into how to raise my child.
Paul Sze: In your new job, you will be heavily engaged in teacher development. How did you discover your ability in helping in-service ESL teachers develop?
Becky Cheung: Well first, I have accumulated a wealth of teaching ideas from my years of trying to teach English more creatively and effectively. In the last few years, I have been invited by teacher education institutions in Hong Kong to speak at professional sharing events. Recently, I took part in a professional development project organized by EDB named Pilot Scheme on “Hong Kong Teachers’ Exchange Activities to the Mainland”. The objectives of the programme were to expand the scope of professional exchange between Hong Kong and the Mainland and to promote the strengths of English language teaching in Hong Kong. It was a two-week programme and I was attached to a secondary school in Foshan, to conduct lesson observations, collaborative lesson planning meetings, lesson demonstrations as well as professional sharing on selected topics. I had really learnt a lot from my EDB supervisors and my teammates, who were absolutely brilliant people to work with. Besides new knowledge on curriculum planning and lesson design, I also learnt how to work with new acquaintances in an unfamiliar environment. Having worked with the Foshan teachers, I realized that as long as teachers’ intrinsic interest in enhancing their teaching effectiveness is aroused, they will be happy to go on learning and improving their teaching. Throughout the programme, my supervisors assisted me with almost everything I needed; they collected teaching materials to go with my demo lessons and even analyzed with me the difficulties I might face. Their professionalism impressed me a lot. They made me see the challenges as well as the satisfaction of a job in teacher development.
I found this teacher exchange programme a true godsend for me. As you know, I’ll be working with different teachers from different schools in the near future, I’m so glad that such a programme has equipped me with more techniques and confidence to face the challenges ahead.
To answer your question, I must say my potential in working in teacher development was actually spotted by those educators who have granted me opportunities to share my teaching experiences on different occasions.
Paul Sze: At this moment, how do you feel about having to leave teaching?
Becky Cheung: Well, frankly one relief is that I don’t have piles of compositions to mark anymore. I don’t really mind if I have to mark or write test papers. In fact, I enjoy writing test and exam papers. But there are always deadlines to meet in marking compositions. You know, the quality is not good when you have to mark compositions in a rush. This is the only thing I’m pretty pleased about. I don’t feel that I’m escaping from a harsh work life! In fact I don’t think my new job is going to be in any way ‘easier’ than teaching.
Also, as I said, it’s easy to get along with students but it’s probably not the same with adults. Things may be much more complicated. For example, how can I help teachers when they are already encountering a lot of urgent problems and feel that they can’t deal with their own students? So, I might well be experiencing some difficulties in my new job. When that happens, I may miss being in a classroom, interacting with these young and innocent students a lot, who will remember even a tiny thing that I tell them.
Paul Sze: What are your aspirations for your new position?
Becky Cheung: I remember at the job interview, Prof. Chiu Chi Shing, who is head of the teacher development project, said that all these reforms may make teachers feel stressed and frustrated. Their enthusiasm for teaching may be diminishing. What we have to do now is to keep up teachers’ morale. Sometimes, teachers may not get any satisfaction from teaching. I am thinking whether there is anything I can do to help the teachers. Prof. Chiu also mentioned the NSS, about keeping track of a student from F.1 to F. 6. He said, if you were to teach in a Band 2 or Band 3 school and a student said that he was a Band 3 student and he was hopeless, and you had to teach him for 6 years, it would be a painful experience! Of course, you want them to have a good future after teaching them for 6 years. So, having been in the teaching profession for so long, I’m thinking what contributions I can make. I won’t be concentrating on the English curriculum only. There are a lot more I have to look after; projects to be worked on including cross-curricular planning and curriculum tailoring for learner diversity. So I feel that this job offers lots of learning opportunities. I’ll be thankful for being able to work with so many experienced and devoted educators, which would surely broaden my horizon. I really hope to make some contributions to the education field especially in this era of the “334” New Academic Structure.
To listen to this interview on my Teachers’ Stories podcast, go to http://podcast.cuhk.edu.hk/teacherstory/ (‘From teaching to teacher development)