News from a first-year teacher

A student from last year’s fulltime primary group has a day off today. This is what happened to her yesterday:

“Paul, it’s my school’s open day today and I just did a lesson demonstration with my p. 1 class in front of 100+ people (including my school principal, teachers, parents and students). I was a bit anxious, but thank God that it went smoothly. I really enjoy teaching my students…. It (the demonstration lesson) definitely took me more than 1 day to prepare, but (believe it or not) I enjoyed every moment of it.”

I’m so proud of her.

Rising to the challenge

Today is going to be a taxing day for my student-teachers (and some teacher-students) as they toil through 3 LPAT papers within the same day. This reminds me of how some years ago, I flew to London to take the Certificate in English Phonetics exam of the International Phonetic Association. I, too, had to struggle through 3 papers within the same day, and I still remember vividly how my emotions roller-coastered during the day. Looking back, I’m glad I took the exam voluntarily, not because of the result, but because I had risen to the challenge. (This has also given me the chance to brag about having been examined by professors, including the eminent Chair of Phonetics Professor John Wells who had compiled the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary, from the world-famous Phonetics Dept of University College London, even though I have never had the privilege of studying at UCL.)

I hope my students will realise that whatever they think about LPAT, and whatever their results, today will become a specially memorable day for the rest of their lives. The important thing is that they have risen to the challenge.





Nagging at my fulltime teacher education students before they take off for immersion

Today I had the last class with my fulltime PGDE Primary group before they took off for a six-week immersion programme in Edinburgh or Brisbane in a couple of days. So, I started the session by nagging at them for 10 minutes like a worrying dad:

1. Watch  your belongings all the time.

2. Don’t pick fights.

3. Don’t do drugs. An occasional beer is all right.

4. Don’t go on joy rides.

5. Don’t tune out because people speak English with a Scottish or Australian accent. All varieties of English, accents, and dialects are worthy of respect.

6. Don’t expect your host family to do your laundry. Learn to operate a washing machine if you have never used one. Help to clear the table after a meal.

7. In casual conversations, listen for whether native speakers say ‘There is’ or ‘There are’ when followed by a plural noun. In other words, take the opportunity to sharpen your language awareness. Otherwise, nothing will happen to your English after 6 weeks.

8. In class, speak out, and speak up. We don’t want lecturers at Edinburgh University and Queensland University to think that all  students from Hong Kong are passive learners.

9. Use the (long) weekends to do some sightseeing. Go to London …; go to the Gold Coast …

10. The host families’ responsibilities are not to serve or entertain you. Take the initiative to learn their culture.

11. There is little time to prepare for the LPAT exam after you return. Treat the immersion programme as preparation for LPAT.

12. Stick together, but also get along with other programme members.

13. Your parents WILL worry, no matter what they say. Text them at least once a week.

14. There is only a 3% chance that you will get to study overseas again as a fulltime student later in life. This could well be your last opportunity.

15. I envy you.

Wishing my teacher-friends a smooth and rewarding 2012-13 school year

Last night, I battled with Facebook, and lost. I was trying to send every one of my regular teacher-friends on FB a best-wishes message to cheer them on at the start of a new academic year. Obviously, given the time constraints, I was not able to write a completely personalised message for every recipient, but I still addressed each person by their own name.


But after the first 20 messages or so, I got a warning from FB accusing me of using FB ‘in a way not intended for the Message function’. It then required me to go through a security check for each subsequent message by typing in the security code shown on the screen. This turned my messaging into a big hassle, as the security code was like Greek, and I had to type in each code three or four times to get it right. Still I persisted, but the process was slowed down enormously as FB was dragging me back all the time.


After another 10 messages, I had an idea: Why not post the message on their Wall instead! So I went for the Wall, and for the next 10 messages, everything went well. Then, the warning popped up again: FB was suspecting that I was spamming. The security check code came on again, but I persisted, although progress returned to a snail’s pace.


Ten more posts on people’s Walls later, disaster struck. FB logged me out completely, saying that they suspected spamming or phishing. It then asked me a couple of security questions, like my mother’s maiden name, and forced me to change my password, before allowing me to log on again.


I lost completely to FB.


So, if you haven’t received a best-wishes message from me for the new academic year, it is not because I have forgotten you. It is because the idiots at FB cannot tell a genuine message from a spam letter. And I’d like to re-send my greetings to you here. I understand my greetings will not be of any material help to you, as you will still have to face unmotivated students, unreasonable parents, and sometimes unsupportive colleagues, on your own. But I hope this will still give you an extra ounce of energy to face the back-to-back challenges lying ahead.


Teaching can be a stressful job. I wish you a smooth and rewarding 2012-13 school year. All the best.

I’m proud of you Mable

This afternoon, I attended the award presentation ceremony at PolyU, where Dr Mable Chan, a former PGDE student, received the Faculty Award for Outstanding Performance in Teaching. At PolyU, they have only one recipient from each Faculty. Mable is working at the English Department within the Faculty of Humanities. In effect, Mable has been recognised as the best teacher in the entire Faculty of Humanities. Not long ago, I was in the same auditorium, witnessing Mable’s receiving the same award from the then President Poon Chung Kwong.

This afternoon as I was sitting in the auditorium, I recollected those scenarios with Mable in them: the PGDE class sessions (I still remember in one session she was so tired that she couldn’t help dozing off!), the lesson observation, her starting to teach at PolyU, her application to study for a PhD, our lunch at the PolyU staff restaurant, the first time she received the Teaching Excellence award … and how jubilant she looked this afternoon. We didn’t meet very often in the last ten years, as we are both usually very busy. But interestingly, the unspoken connection has always been there. And when Mable knew about her obtaining the award again, she knew that I would be very happy for her and I would put aside everything in order to attend her ceremony.

When I saw her this afternoon, I said: “If you hadn’t invited me to this ceremony, I would have been cross with you.” Of course we both knew that would never happen.

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.