A ‘shabby’ farewell card from a student

On seeing my post yesterday, a student teacher who had just finished his practicum shared with me the following personal story, which once again illustrates the impact that teachers who connect with their students as real persons can make:

“I have a similar experience in the TP I’ve just finished! I came to know the students without any knowledge of how they usually behaved. There was a student who always couldn’t hand in his homework on time. He needed to submit his work separately for the teacher to check but despite repeated handbook “notes” to his parents there was no obvious improvement. And he tended to shout and say silly things out in class (he was arranged to sit in one of the corners in the classroom on his own).

At first, I asked if he could promise submitting all his work on time the next day and keep quiet in class. However, after a few days (or less!) he fell back into old patterns. Then I invited him to have lunch together and got to know him better (and other teachers told me he was very happy to be invited – he kept telling others). It turned out that it was somehow related to his family, and their support is rather weak. He didn’t like English either. I could not say now English is his favourite subject or he always behaved in the “expected” way, but we were so glad to see his significant and continuous progress.

On the 2nd last day, this student wrote me a card he made (just using the paper from the school’s single line book + the badge from the school he cut from notices, etc + some simple pictures he drew, but it is already good enough). And I wrote back to him and said I’ll always support him, giving this to him together with a print out of the photo taken during our lunch. From other teachers’ observations, his writing in the card and the photo we took on the last day, we all witnessed how his behaviour improved and he treasured my “gift”….plus my colleague told me some students cried after they knew that I’d go.

I’d never imagined that I’d got more than 10 farewell notes / cards students made and wrote (and I replied). Some teachers said I was too nice to students and wasn’t stern enough. And sometimes I wondered if I should resort to scolding, but I’m glad that I didn’t as I can now say confidently that students (esp those nowadays) need more love and support, and my job is not to make them feel afraid of me or my subject, but to build positive relationships with them and see them as real persons. This is definitely my privilege! How blessed I am! ^^”

Are we failing these conscientious young teachers?

(Written on July 22)

今天是22日,大部份教師才剛開始了愈來愈不悠長的暑假,但我的寶貝FT PGDE學員,已經磨拳擦掌,急着暑假後大展拳脚,以便一展教育的抱負。前一天才有一位應屆學員,向我重申她要做一個好老師的決心,和會找機會運用她很有興趣的E-learning。每想到這些一心為了意義而投身教書行業,或由其他專業轉過來的年青人,我既感動又興奮,但一想到教學界一些違反教育理想和原則的現象,我又擔心他們日後會否深感挫折和氣餒?

我和鄭丹瑞一樣,覺得今天學校最大的過错,是沒有堅持教育理想和原則,為了達到一時分數上的表面成績,對學生進行大量的功課和測验考試操練;不講學習興趣和動機,不再追求有效的teaching and learning, 只埋首The earlier, the better, 和 The more, the better; 沒有人再相信在優質的教學下,Less is more。這樣的局面,一部分辦學團體和一些學校管理層以 managerialism 的心態去辦學,例如簡單化地把學生的分數作為教師表現的指標,例如籠統地利用公開試的成績將屬下學校排比,這绝對難辭其咎。

由於太多功課測驗默書考試,教師上課時大部分時間只能解釋如何做家課,對功課,温測驗,温默書,做工作紙……那有餘下時間進行有興趣和有意義的教學! 曾有舊學生向我打趣的說:看着學生這麼辛苦和疲倦,為了減少自己的罪咎感,他們只能盡量捕捉一些時機,做一點兒趣味性的活動。而我也經常負氣的想,我的工作是訓練教師有效地教授英文,但如果他們實際的工作根本全無發揮教學法的機會,我是否在浪費我的時間?

這些年青人為了追求工作的意義,為了make a difference in some children’s lives 而入行,但是我們的教育界有否辜負了他們?

Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose

Yesterday, I had the chance to have a longer chat with a fulltime student-teacher. As is my usual practice, I probed into her reason for aspiring to become a teacher. She revealed that she majored in accountancy in undergraduate studies. Upon graduation, she started to work in the accounting department of a company for a year, but after going through 365 days of real-life accounting practices, she realised that the nature of the job did not match her personality traits, or her aspirations in life. She wanted to work with people, not figures and balance sheets. More importantly, she needed to see meaning in what she was doing, and have something to be passionate about. She recalled the sense of satisfaction that she had had when she was a private tutor – the sense of achievement she derived from succeeding in teaching her tutees something new or difficult. She admitted that she did not need to worry about career prospects if she stayed in the accounting profession. Nevertheless, she quit her job, and applied to the teacher education programme to train as a teacher.

In a way, her story is not breaking news to me, as from time to time, I come across a student who has switched to teacher training from another field. These student teachers share one inclination – they wish to find meaning in what they do. I am often awed by their sense of vocation, but deep down, I am also worried. The ecology of the school as a workplace has changed so dramatically in recent years that not every part of a teacher’s day-to-day work has to do with educating young people. Students are not always easy to teach, and parents can be difficult to deal with. The workload is backbreaking. These energetic, angelic, and unsuspecting young adults have chosen to become teachers because they wish to find meaning in what can be a lifelong career. But one day, will they regret their decision, when they are facing the harsh realities of teaching day in and day out?

I still believe that it is possible to experience meaning in teaching today, but one has to possess a will of iron, superhuman EQ and AQ, and a triathlon runner’s physique.

In my teenage days when poverty was commonplace in HK, extrinsic rewards such as pay and promotion prospects were the only consideration when people chose between jobs. Today, this student teacher’s story, and that of some of her peers, perhaps point to one aspect of human nature – that deep down, we yearn to find meaning in what we do. This is probably what Maslow refers to as self-actualisation.

In the context of work, why is it that more and more people act like robots in the workplace, and will only liven up on weekends? Why do more and more people want to retire early? On the other hand, why are there the few lucky ones who jump right out of bed in the morning and dash to the workplace with endless energy to start another day of challenge, and who don’t think of work as work? In “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us”, Daniel H. Pink, a writer on transforming work and workplaces, identifies and examines 3 elements that lead to true motivation for staffers: (1) Autonomy, (2) Mastery, and (3) Purpose. Thus:

(1) Autonomy: In our jobs, we need to have some space for planning and handling how we go about what we do. If all the time, we can only follow a routine, like when we are required to follow, slavishly, lesson plans that are thrust on us, we won’t be very excited about our lessons. Hence, bosses who micro-manage may get their staffs’ obedience, but not their initiative. (2) Mastery: the work needs to be designed in such a way that it enables us to do a better and better job. This is the satisfaction that devoted master teachers get. If what we do is forever repetitive, we won’t have much zest about it. (3) Purpose: We need to see purpose in what we do. Otherwise, sooner or later, we feel disillusioned – What am I doing all this for? This, to me, is why some people turn to teaching – they want to see purpose in what they do.

Hence, to my wonderful student teachers, this is what I wish to say to you. I salute you for your desire to educate young people and to do something meaningful in your life. I have to caution you, though, against romanticising teaching. Some years into your teaching when you have the chance to reconnect with former students and witness their growth, or when they have a heart-to-heart conversation with you on FB, you will be pleased that you have done something meaningful in your life. Be prepared though, that much of everyday teaching is about fighting battles of various kinds. And there WILL be times when you wonder whether you made the right decision some years ago.

How to keep up your passion? Here is one suggestion. Look out for those people in your group who are as passionate about teaching as you. Continue to stick with them after your teacher training year and meet up with them once in a while. Your passion for teaching will then continue to rub off on each other.

The need for seeing meaning in one’s work

Yesterday, after the post-lesson discussion with the student-teacher whose lesson I had observed, I asked her how she was experiencing the Teaching Practice. She revealed that she had been working mechanically on a mechanical job for a couple of years before she joined the teacher-training programme, but currently she was enjoying her TP because she could put her heart and mind into her daily work. I joked that she should wait until she became a fulltime teacher before she made her conclusion.
But all the same, this reminds us that many people go into teaching because they want to find meaning in what they do. However, the ecology of the education system and the school as a workplace has made it more and more difficult for teachers to find meaning in their work. As a result, many of them feel demoralised, and burned out. This is very unfortunate. For me, we don’t need any additional, revolutionary, fanciful reform measures, to improve education. All we need is to do everything we can, to enable teachers to find meaning in their work. Then, everyone will benefit.

helping teachers find meaning