From expert teachers to teacher development experts: What we can learn from China

I have just returned from a two-day work visit to the Guangzhou Teaching and Research Institute (TRI) (廣洲市政府教育局教研室) of the Guangzhou Education Bureau. Before that I had heard bits and pieces of the work of the TRI, but through this closer encounter with their ELT curriculum experts, and the good fortune of a one-hour breakfast with Master Teacher (特級教師) Mr 魯宗幹 , I have learnt more about the work of the TRI. On top of being awed by the huge amounts of work they do, I am greatly inspired by their approach to conducting teachers’ professional development which, to my mind, Hong Kong has a lot to learn from.

As a teacher educator, I always uphold the importance of continuing professional development for teachers. This is not simply because teachers’ professional knowledge which they acquired during teacher training will become obsolete after some years of teaching. More importantly, teachers need continuing professional development to strengthen their sense of professional identity, not to mention their passion for teaching.

This is why after teaching for 10 years, I applied to the Education Bureau (then Education Department) of the Hong Kong Government to become an inspector. I thought that with my ten years of experience, during which I constantly experimented with different ways of teaching, I would be able to help with the professional development of other English language teachers in Hong Kong. I have written elsewhere about the reason why I quit after working as an inspector for some time, but for now, let me briefly state that it was due to the nature of the job, which was more concerned with evaluating teachers’ teaching, rather than helping them develop professionally, that led me to my decision to quit. (I actually applied for transfer to a college of education, and that started my later long career in teacher education.)

The Education Department then underwent a few rounds of re-structuring. Today, there is an English section within the Curriculum Development Institute of the Education Bureau, which is mainly responsible for curriculum development and admin matters related to ELT in Hong Kong. On-site support of teachers is not their major function. Another big division within the Education Bureau, the Quality Assurance division, performs a function which is somewhat similar to that of the Advisory Inspectorate of my days, that is, the assessing of school performance which comprises teachers’ quality of teaching. So, something which I have always upheld as crucial is still missing: the provision of professional development and support for frontline teachers in the form of partnership. Yes, the Native English Teachers Section, and the Language Support Section are doing some of this work, but compared with the number of schools in Hong Kong, they are only reaching a tiny number of teachers. The Education Bureau may take pride in its lengthy training calendar, but it contains short workshops and seminars only. I am not discounting the value of these activities, but they are a far cry from what an on-site support event can bring about.

For me, the approach by the Guangzhou TRI is inspiring. They actually reach out to schools to provide on-site professional support. Their primary function is not one of evaluation, so teachers do not feel threatened or vulnerable when dealing with curriculum and teaching experts from the TRI. Their advice is not only respected; in fact, it is actively sought by teachers. For teachers, teaching experts from the TRI are partners and supporters, or even friends. This kind of working relationship is of course most conducive to teachers’ professional development.

I have been wondering how this ethos came about. One thing I have learnt over the years is that in China they attach a lot of importance to practical, classroom-based, professional development activities. There are a lot of opportunities for teachers to observe expert teachers’ lessons. Teachers are encouraged to share their ideas and experience by writing to practical journals. There are plenty of professional exchange activities for teachers from different localities to learn from each other. My overall impression is that good teaching is valued more highly in China than it is in Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, if I may make a somewhat sweeping statement, we value good exam results, and to get good exam results, we resort to large doses of examination drilling, not good teaching.  (I understand that not every professional peer in Hong Kong will agree with my view, but at least in my own 25 years of experience in teacher education, one of the biggest challenges is to convince teachers that good teaching WILL lead to better exam results, and that an exclusive obsession with exam drilling will kill students’ motivation in the long run,)

The scenario in China I have described above will lead to a situation where expert members of the teaching workforce will be gradually known by their peers, and in the local school community. In other words, after a while, there exists a network, even if it is not a formal one, of outstanding teachers whose expertise we can draw on. When these teachers are invited to serve on the local teaching and research office, or the city-level teaching and research institute, these expert teachers are already known to many teachers. Teachers know that these teaching experts represent the cream of the teaching profession. Their expertise is recognised and respected.

In contrast, in Hong Kong, teacher development personnel seldom starts with this clout (haha, I may be offending people again). Academics from the universities, when they lead professional development activities for frontline teachers, are often accused of being too ‘theoretical’, and ignorant of real-life teaching. Quality assurance officers who observe their lessons are there to assess, not to help them. Teachers who have turned teacher development personnel, who may not have proven evidence of their own teaching quality, are often strangers to the teachers they serve, and find it hard to gain their wholehearted acceptance and cooperation.

In conclusion, the way that expert teachers are identified in China, their attention to good teaching, and the way that their Teaching and Research Office/Institute operates are food for thought for us in Hong Kong. Of course whether we find that food palatable or not depends on whether we have the appetite, and by that, I mean the appetite for effective teaching.

(Postscript: This portrayal is founded on my own observation and limited experience in working with professional colleagues at the Guangzhou TRI. I am aware that other people may have other observations and views.)

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