These connections are possible, because we are teachers

Yesterday morning while I was presenting certificates and awards to the graduating students at Bishop Ford Memorial School on the stage, Miss Winnie was watching intently from among the audience. She had been their teacher and was content to see her students reach this milestone of their education.

About 2 months ago on April 29, I attended Miss Winnie’s wedding at Chung Chi Chapel on CUHK campus. I had been Miss Winnie’s PGDE teacher, and was content to see her reach this milestone of her life.

Back in 2003, one day while I was thumbing through the timetables of the teachers on the PGDE programme, in preparation for the upcoming Teaching Practice visits, I saw that Miss Winnie was a teacher at Bishop Ford Memorial School, the school that I went to as a primary kid.

The next week, when I saw Miss Winnie in class, I said proudly to her, “Winnie, did you know that I went to Bishop Ford Memorial School as a student many years ago?”

Miss Winnie replied, even more proudly, “Paul, did you know that I also went to this school as a student some years ago?”

All these miraculous connections are made possible, because we are teachers.


Character and passion for teaching

Yesterday, I met up for lunch with a former education student, Jenny. Jenny was as exuberant as ever. When I asked her how she managed to keep up her passion for teaching after all these years, she replied, without a moment of thought, “As long as it is something that students will benefit from, I will totally pour myself into it.”

Jenny has taught for some years already, but she is even more zesty than a first-year teacher. She has inexhaustible energy for her work. She possesses a wide array of professional competencies, and has taken on a variety of curriculum leadership roles, but she will jump at the first opportunity to try something new. On top of serving her own school, she is now part of a Hong Kong University’s project providing school-based support for teachers teaching non-Chinese-speaking students.

When I probed further and asked her what gave her all that drive, she attributed it to her own character. I was not totally content with this answer, which is a purely innate quality. I wanted to look for some generalisable factors that can be applied in other work contexts and across people whatever their character. So I pushed Jenny to think harder. At last, Jenny came up with this example. If after going through some school-based planning with teachers, she sees that the teaching design works well in the classroom so that the students learn happily and effectively, this will give her a great sense of satisfaction.

This indirectly supports the current view of many writers on motivation who highlight 3 external factors that give people drive: autonomy (having the space to decide on how to go about one’s work); mastery (the possibility to get better and better at what one is doing); and purpose (being able to see the meaning of one’s work). For me, Jenny’s example is saying that if on top of these factors, you also have the right character – that will give you the lifelong passion.

Lesson planning can be rewarding

I enjoy planning new workshops from scratch. This is a highly creative activity. At the same time, it enables me to make full use of my professional knowledge, and experience. The process of planning, however, is not always straightforward. It’s often messy, with hundreds of ideas floating in your mind, and dozens of practical considerations to make. But it gives me a great sense of satisfaction as gradually, the workshop design takes shape, and the ideas become more concrete. I hope that all teachers can share a similar satisfaction, and that’s why we must ensure they have sufficient time to do lesson planning.


(Written on May 7)

昨晚在臉書上分別看到澳門教師自發為配合課改而進行的工作坊,和台灣翻轉教學大師張輝誠老師在彰化舉行的學思達專業分享活動,都很有感動; 作為教師,他們要做好份內工作已很不容易,而犧牲自己大量的時間,目的只希望幫助同工提高教學水平,使行業更專業,讓其他教師更能找到教學的意義和樂趣,這無私的精神真令人敬佩。


政府教育部門在這環節上可以做的,就是提供資源上的支援,並肯定和鼓勵這些活動的策劃人和參加者。香港目前有一班很有心的 FlippEducators 老師,推動翻轉教學,希望這樣的組織和活動能遍地開花,使我們的課室更有生氣,學生更喜歡上學,我們的行業更專業。

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! ^^”

Teach the children, not the subjects

At the beginning of the Make a Difference movie, Ms Thompson was preoccupied with teaching her subjects: reading, and maths. She noticed a failing little boy in her class, Teddy Stallard. At one point, she made an effort to find out more about his background, and was then shocked by what she unveiled. She then began to put extra effort on Teddy, which subsequently revived his confidence and performance. That Christmas Teddy handed Ms Thompson a clumsily wrapped present. After the children left, Ms Thompson cried for at least an hour. From that very day, Ms Thompson quit teaching reading and maths. Instead, she began to teach children.

Of course, we understand that it’s not really the case that Ms Thompson stopped teaching her two subjects. What it means is that she had learnt to put her students in their rightful place – that her students were the centre of her work – and that without the students, the teaching itself had no meaning.

In education, we value intrinsic motivation. But experienced teachers of young children will also know that if their students like them, they will easily like their teaching subject as well. One of the student teachers in my last year’s preservice primary group aspired to become a teacher out of a love of children, and the determination to make a difference in their lives. During the teaching practice supervisions, I already witnessed how her love for the children was making a significant impact on her students’ learning of English.

When the teacher training programme was over, she entered teaching with the same commitment. After 7 months of back-breaking real-life teaching, she shared with me this inspiring experience of hers:

“It was Parents’ Day last Saturday. As I am not one of the class teachers, I stayed in the corridor to help. Out of my expectation, many parents came up to me and thanked me for teaching their kids. They said their kids loved me so much which made them enjoy the English lessons so much. I felt flattered and touched. I’m feeling the power of love in education which will surely make a difference in children’s lives.

As some of the kids are really clever and brilliant in languages, I thought they had taken extra English lessons after school to reach that level. To my surprise, their parents told me they learnt all their English from my lessons. Their kids were motivated to study by themselves at home to achieve all that.”

In the Teddy Stallard story, after his year with Ms Thompson, Teddy continued to write to Ms Thompson on completion of every major stage of schooling with the affirmation: “Up to today, you’re still the best teacher I have ever had in my whole life.” I think in a way, that’s the privilege and reward of teaching children (as opposed to teaching teenagers, or adults) – you can love them, and your love may have a great impact on their later life.

My vision and mission in education

This morning, after the undergraduate class, one student asked me, out of the blue, what my vision and mission in education is.
I wasn’t prepared for the question, so I blurted out, which probably captured my deepest belief, “That teachers will enjoy teaching, and students will enjoy learning.” The next moment, I realised that this was neither revolutionary nor groundbreaking. In fact, it is a rather modest goal. But how many education systems, or schools, have achieved that.? So I added, “Why is that goal so difficult to attain?”
I believe that teaching and learning can be intrinsically enjoyable. Life is short. Yet, most of the time, we either let ourselves continue to suffer, or torture each other, in the name of education.