The privilege of being a teacher

Had a three-and-a-half-hour dinner with education students from the first phase of my teacher education career, when I was a lecturer at Northcote College of Education. It feels like a miracle to be able to reconnect with these students from the late eighties. A bigger miracle is that their personal attributes have remained the same: their personality, their temperament, their smiles, their speaking style, their facial expressions, their voice, their little habits, and the values they hold on to …It is as if they were my students of yesterday, except that they’re now much more knowledgeable. The intervening years have not pulled us apart; we quickly chatted as heartily as we did in those days. How many other occupations allow you to enjoy this kind of lasting and uncomplicated relationship?Imageteacher

Let’s 勉強!

(By the way, 勉強, according to Usagi, means ‘study hard’ in Japanese.)

Last Wednesday in my MA class, I mentioned my previous post “Do teachers become more stupid after teaching for a few years?”. After the session, one of the teachers, Usagi, opened a new blog in which she would document what she could learn from her students in the next 60 days. She treats this as an experiment, and at the end of the 60 days, she will take stock of what she has learnt from her students. In doing so, she will be armed with something more concrete to answer the question whether teachers become more stupid as a result of teaching, which some teachers perceive as involving output only. Her blog is at:

It is a wonderful writing project that Usagi has embarked on!

And here is my response to her first post:

Given our culture (and I guess in Western societies too), it’s not easy for teachers to accept that they can learn something from their students. I think this has something to do with how we have been conditioned to define ‘knowledge’: I am a teacher; I have certain ‘knowledge’ that my students don’t have; they learn this knowledge from me; I don’t learn from them.

But if we are willing to expand our definition of ‘knowledge’, then there will be numerous things that we teachers can learn from our students. Here is one example:

Below is a short list of ‘things’ I have learnt, and can learn, from Usagi, who teaches English and Japanese at post-secondary level:

– the Japanese language;
– her experience in acquiring Japanese: this will enrich my understanding of how people acquire English as a second language;
– her experience in teaching Japanese; this will enrich my understanding of TESOL;
– her decision to go into teaching: How do people make career choices and decisions?
– her teaching materials: HOw do teachers apply their professional knowledge and creativity and experience in designing teaching resources?
– her time management: How can she be so productive?
– her willingness to learn from her students: How do some teachers view teaching?

And this is but only a short list. Now, I hope we’re more convinced that we CAN learn from our students.

Creative teachers, creative students

Today was a hugely happy day for me. Two delightful things happened, one in the morning and the other in the afternoon. I’ll talk about the morning one in this post.

This morning, four teachers and I spoke at a seminar organized by my Department The theme of the seminar was promoting collaborative eLearning in the primary English curriculum through Web 2.0 activities. The four teachers are Ms Peggy Yau, Ms Bess Wong, Ms Clare Wong, and Ms Janet Law. I opened the seminar with an introduction to Web 2.0 tools. This was followed by experience sharing by the four teachers. Prior to the seminar, I had the chance to preview their PPTs, but didn’t have the time to organize a mock presentation for them. So when my introductory talk was over, I listened to their sharing attentively. This turned out to be a highly rewarding experience.

First, their presentations were showcases of teacher creativity. The technologies, such as wikis, online journals, podcasting, etc., are there, but there are no definite models as to how they should be applied in teaching. The four teachers created and designed their Web-based activities from scratch. The only thing they could rely on was their own imagination and creative power.

Second, the work produced by their students was superb examples of learner creativity. We often complain that students in Hong Kong lack imagination, but the activities designed by the four teachers show that when given the right opportunity, students’ creative ability is fathomless. Those Web-based activities were a stark contrast to the routine accuracy-focused tasks and exercises we mete out to students day in and day out. It is time we asked ourselves whether it was we teachers, and the education system, that were stifling students’ creative potential.

When I was leaving the university after the seminar, this question kept lingering in my mind: Is there any correlation between teacher creativity and learner creativity?  At least from the four sample projects, that is obviously the case. When you see a creative teacher, you will see creative students.

A related question is whether there is any correlation between teachers’ effort and students’ effort. Again, from the four sample projects, the answer is obvious.

For me, listening to the sharing by these creative teachers is a highly energizing experience.

(I’m indebted to those who fought the ghastly rainstorm to come to the seminar. Their support made everything worthwhile.)

Mentoring that makes a difference

In Chapter 9 of When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough, Harold Kushner proposed three ‘non-negotiable’ elements of life, experiences that enable us to say that we have lived our life and not wasted it. His third suggestion, which may not come as a big surprise to many people, is “knowing that you have made a difference”.

Kushner continues to cite examples of work and activities which have the potential of allowing us to make a difference. Interestingly, one of the examples he gives is being someone’s mentor. This immediately reminds me of Icy’s blogpost titled Nurturing Young Scholars (; Nov 28). In this post, Icy writes about her mission in supervising doctoral students, and the satisfaction she derives from the process. Icy writes:

I know it sounds very high-sounding, but you can probably imagine the strong sense of satisfaction for a teacher to see her students grow academically and professionally, especially when the mentoring is personal and one-on-one.

But more importantly, supervising research students involves taking them on an academic journey, mentoring them, supporting them, and helping them gain expertise in the academic community. It is a mammoth but very worthwhile task

It is also a task I take seriously. I hope I can make a difference as a thesis advisor. For that to happen, I know I have to play the role of a co-learner, learning together with my students. I will try my best.

Kushner was writing generally about mentoring. He quotes from Daniel Levinson:

Being a mentor with young adults is one of the most significant relationships available to a man in middle adulthood. The distinctive satisfaction of the mentor lies in furthering the development of young men and women, facilitating their efforts to form and live out their dreams … More than altruism is involved: the mentor is doing something for himself. He is making a productive use of his own knowledge and skill in middle age. He is learning in ways not otherwise possible. He is maintaining his connection with the forces of youthful energy in the world and in himself. He needs the recipient of mentoring as much as the recipient needs him.

Icy’s own refection testifies to the psychological motive and needs that underlie conscientious mentoring, as she pledges to make a difference in her doctoral students’ scholarly development.

Of course, teaching also provides an opportunity to make a difference. But teaching is one to many, while doctoral supervision is one to one. In teaching, you are lucky to be able to follow the same group of students for two years, but doctoral supervision is a much longer process. Furthermore, doctoral supervision is more personal: the supervisor taking an intense interest in the student’s work, and guiding her towards the successful completion of the thesis. And also because it is a longer process, the student is likely to meet with academic hurdles and emotional and motivational ups and downs. This provides the supervisor with opportunities of sharing her life experiences with the student, and of caring for her personally. In sum, doctoral supervision can be the most nurturing kind of mentoring.

Citing Levinson, Kushner also talks about the benefits to the mentee:

A young man starting out in his career will benefit greatly if he has a mentor, an older patron, not old enough to be a father figure, but perhaps a half-generation older, someone who knows the ropes and will teach him how things are done, someone with enough prestige and influence to take a personal interest in his career. The young man or woman who finds such a mentor has a better chance of being successful.

Hence, I’d like to let Pauline, a former student, know that she is indeed very lucky that her thesis supervisor is Icy, someone who mentors from the heart. I’d like to tell her, somewhat reluctantly, that with increasing pressure in the academia, there are some supervisors who take on doctoral students simply to beef up their own CV and appraisal records; they may not really be interested in their supervisees’ work and they do not care about their students as aspiring scholars and younger fellow human beings.

For Icy, she takes on doctoral students because she wants to make a difference in her students’ lives. This will definitely help her to proudly declare one day: “I have lived and my life mattered.”