Having made a small mark in the history of ELT in Macao

I’m glad to have made a mark, albeit a small one, in the history of ELT in Macao. This was the first-ever study programme for the core teachers (骨幹教師) (primary English), organised by the DSEJ (Portuguese for the Education and Youth Affairs Bureau of the Macao SAR Govt) in support of the curriculum reform that is currently taking place in Macao. The programme has lasted for 15 months, consisting of several modules that were held on Saturday afternoons. Besides attending class, the participating teachers had to carry out post-module tryout teaching at their schools, and complete assignments. It was a highly intensive programme for the 30 teacher participants. I have been lucky to have taught on some modules of the programme, while Ms Gina Twellmann of Macao taught on some other modules of the programme.

The programme has allowed me to learn more about the culture and practice of ELT in Macao. This first-hand experience has also triggered my thinking on many issues related to curriculum reform, teacher development, and even the meaning and purpose of education. After this programme, I am even more convinced that teachers are the key to quality education, and that all parties concerned should do everything to make it possible for teachers to do a good job, if we are truly sincere about good education for our students.

On the ‘softer’ side, I have also learnt a few things about primary English teachers in Macao: they have good grammar knowledge and can tell you a lot of grammar terms; they have very beautiful handwriting; and they have strong 人情味. But they are like their counterparts in Hong Kong: overworked and overstressed with teaching and marking and endless school activities. So, when I wrapped up my sharing at yesterday’s closing ceremony for the study programme, and since their DSEJ Division Head responsible for curriculum reform was there, I took the opportunity to read aloud the following message from FB of two days ago, which has resonated with me:

‘A teacher somewhere in your neighbourhood tonight is grading and preparing lessons to teach your children while you are watching television. In the minute it takes you to read this, teachers all over the world are using their “free time”, and often investing their own money, for your child’s literacy, prosperity, and future. Repost if you are a teacher, love a teacher, or appreciate our teachers.’

Pictures from yesterday’s ceremony:



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.)

A perfect morning

I had a most enjoyable time this morning conducting a workshop for teachers of the English Department at Sacred Heart Canossian Primary School. The workshop was about using digital storytelling in English language teaching. It was conducted in a computer lab. The teachers turned up on time, although they were working in the P.M. Section and this morning had to go in a couple of hours earlier than usual. The workshop went smoothly; there were no technical glitches, not even minor hiccups, although as you can imagine, the computers were a bit worn out already, and you wouldn’t find state-of-the-art equipment in the computer lab of a primary school. The teachers turned out to be quite proficient in I.T. skills. My timing happened to be almost perfect. But what made the event thoroughly enjoyable to me was the teachers’ motivation and active participation.

Because of my work, once in a while I will go to a school to conduct a teacher development event. And I have to concede that not all the teachers I had met engaged enthusiastically. It was not that they disliked me, but I could often sense a variety of reasons why some of them looked aloof: they had had a long day; they had been up to their eyes in preparation for a big upcoming event; they had a tight exam paper marking deadline to meet; they had a grudge against the principal or the panel chair; or they were simply burnt out. I wouldn’t take offence when that happened. In fact, I often sympathized with them, putting myself in their shoes, and thinking that perhaps they would be better off spending the time clearing up their backlogs or perhaps simply chilling out for an hour or two. It isn’t that professional development is not important; but I think generally teachers in Hong Kong are exceedingly overworked already.

Hence, this morning, the English teachers at Sacred Heart Canossian School made my day with their active participation. They listened attentively throughout, couldn’t wait to try out the tasks, and responded with pleasant smiles and encouragement. This was the greatest reward for me, not to mention three bonuses: (a) the opportunity to catch up with five former and current student-teachers and teacher-students at the school, namely Vivian, Zenia, Maria, Janet, and Elaine; and (b) a most heartwarming thank-you card with all the English teachers’ signatures and a cute cartoon picture of me drawn by Janet Law, and (c) a reunion chat after the workshop over coffee in the nearby Starbucks with Vivian, and Cici and Mandy both of whom are former students and are now working as educational psychologists and who happened to be in their office in the adjacent Caritas Centre because today was their office day and learning that they were enjoying their work and that it would be Ceci’s birthday tomorrow and Vivian was thinking of picking up rugby again ….and oh, what a perfect morning!