Telling my life history

Four final-year undergraduate students have brought me a new experience.

There are two things that I would avoid doing in my interactions with young, fulltime, students. I will tell myself:

(a) Don’t ramble away.

(b) Don’t talk about my past history.

This is because I am aware that young people are generally put off by older people who are long-winded. Also, they are generally not interested in the personal history of older people.

At least I was like that when I was a teenager.

But for an assignment, Wendy, Caterina, Catharine and Darlie had to interview someone who has a long career history in the field of education. And they had chosen to interview me.

So, in two sessions totalling 4.5 hours, I re-traced my development in education, from the days when I was a young first-year teacher at a secondary school, to my twelve-month stint as an inspector of schools with the Hong Kong government, to my first taste of teacher-training at a college of education, to the drama in the three years after I resigned from the civil service, to my returning to teacher education at CUHK in 1991.

Yes, it was a long story. And I had to pause from time to time to ask the four interviewers if my stories were helping them with their assignment. The last thing I wanted to do was to bore them to death. I knew that they were very nice students and they would not stop me even if what I said was irrelevant.

But contrary to my assumption, they listened with full attention throughout. In fact, I could sense time and again that they were really interested in the stories I was telling (plus the grievances I was airing). They were not simply collecting ‘data’ for their assignment, so that they would only pay attention to what was immediately usable. They were sincerely and genuinely listening for insight from my life history.

I couldn’t remember the last time I could be so engrossed in telling my own stories. Sharing my life history with these wonderful student teachers, I didn’t have to worry about boring them to death. I didn’t have to worry about being irrelevant with what I said. It was an interesting as well as useful experience to me because it helped me to re-organise the tapestry of my life and to probe into certain issues more deeply. How did I develop from entering teaching because of the not-too-bad starting salary, to a teacher who realised that teaching allowed him to connect with humanity on a deep level? What did I do whenever I was faced with a situation that did not allow me to do a professional job? How did I live out the many trials and tribulations in education in the last twenty years amidst the increasingly stifling ethos of managerialism and performativity? And why am I worried about the direction that all levels of education around the world are now heading in?

Thanks to Darlie, Catharine, Caterina, and Wendy, not just for listening patiently to me, but more importantly, for giving me this opportunity to re-examine my life.

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