Hong Kong. In the words of a tourist it is vibrant, modern, exciting, busy, over stimulating! As a resident, however, of this brilliant city I have an insiders look beyond the glitz and glamour of the brand name shops, Michelin starred restaurants, and towering sky scrapers. After living here for three years I would say that (in general) Hong Kong life is fast paced, high pressure, high stakes and high stress. Of course it is also highly rewarding in more ways than one otherwise I don’t know how I would still be surviving. Most of the time I feel like I am barely treading water, trying to keep my head above the surface. I thought I worked hard back home. I thought things would get easier after my first year. No chance.
When I first arrived in Hong Kong I was extremely excited, yet at the same time absolutely petrified. It was the middle of the night and I distinctly remember taking my first step out of the freezing, over air-conditioned airport. It was like being punched in the face with a fist of extreme heat. The humidity wrapped around me like a warm, suffocating blanket. I was approached by a stranger carrying a sign with my name who helped me pile my three suitcases into a van. We drove in silence for what felt like hours and I couldn’t take my eyes off the bright lights illuminating our way. When I arrived at the hotel and checked into my room, I was, for the first time in a long time, completely alone. I looked out at the city below me – the room had a fantastic view. But I couldn’t appreciate it yet. All I was thinking was “what the hell am I doing here?”
I had always wanted to teach abroad, but never had any intention of coming to Asia – especially not anywhere associated with China. To me China represented all that was wrong with the world – over consumption, over crowdedness, pollution etc…I really had my heart set on going to Africa – a place I had been twice before and loved. I imagined a simple, ordinary life surrounded by stunning, natural beauty – not material goods. But alas, it was not meant to be. At the job fair I went to there were no positions for me at any of the schools I was interested in. Same situation with Europe. So I decided to pursue the Middle East. It was an area of the world I wanted to learn more about and there were plenty of opportunities. Upon arriving at the job fair, however, I was requested for an interview by a school in Hong Kong. Having decided against Asia I figured I would go to the interview as “practice” for the school in Abu Dhabi that I really wanted. I guess without the pressure of actually wanting the job, I must have come across well as I was hired on the spot. I said I needed time to think about it as I went off to my “real” interview. Well I got that job too. Not wanting to make a rash decision, I decided to do a bit of research on the Hong Kong school. It was, frankly, the most incredible institution I had ever seen. The facilities were phenomenal. In my old school I used to hold my breath as I walked under the broken ceiling for fear of asbestos poisoning. They had a 1:1 Macbook program. Where I came from we had one computer lab without enough computers for everyone in the class. The resources were abundant whereas I used to buy my own lab supplies at Value Mart. It was overwhelming that a place like this existed. It was teacher heaven. But really it came down to what was professionally in my best interests and not the aesthetics of the advertising. This school would offer me a position as an IB biology teacher with limitless opportunities for professional development. I had to take it.
When orientation week started, everything surpassed my expectations. I was surrounded by amazingly talented new colleagues including an entire LTT support team that taught us about all the latest educational technologies. But what I really wanted to know was what the students were like. I was worried that my methods would not appeal to this new culture of learners. Would they buy into my “learning is fun” gimmicks like “Mystery Monday” and “Trivia Tuesday”? Would they share my immature sense of humour? Would they be expecting lectures and worksheets and homework – things I had worked so hard to avoid? I posed this question to a (former) teacher at the school. “Nah,” he said with a shake of his head. “Don’t do any of that. Our students are used to traditional teaching styles.” He went on to explain that there were high expectations at the school and marks were key. He then put the fear in me by telling me not to end up like the last biology teacher who was released early from her contract. He also sent me his materials for the course we would be teaching together. Powerpoints. Fill in the blank worksheets. Recipe labs. Noooooooooooooooo! My world came crashing down.
Being very green with only two years experience under my belt, and also eager to please, I went along with what I was told. And that is the reason why I feel deep shame. What I have learned after three years in HK is that kids are kids! It doesn’t matter where in the world they have grown up – they share the same characteristics. They want to learn, they want to laugh, they want to have fun and they want a teacher that will give that to them in a caring, safe environment. They deserved the creative materials and meaningful learning experiences that I had been developing for the past two years. So why wasn’t I giving it to them? Why was I lecturing almost every day? Why was I ignoring the learning cycle and the words of wisdom passed on to me by my education idols? Because I felt I had to move at a fast pace. God forbid I didn’t cover every inch of the curriculum in class! Because I felt like I was under pressure. I didn’t want to end up like that fired teacher. Because the stakes were high. Exam results are extremely important to both students and their parents. They all aspire to go to great universities, which is admirable and respectable. Because I was stressed out. I took on a lot of other responsibilities as I am passionate about teaching kids things other than biology. I don’t blame the aforementioned teacher for inadvertently leading me down the wrong path. It was my choice to ignore my own instincts and follow it.
Ok let me give myself a smidgen of credit here. I’m not a horrible teacher. If I was, I wouldn’t be working at my school anymore. That’s the great thing about international schools. If you’re no good, you’re no longer there. But I haven’t been the type of teacher that I want to be. The type of teacher that the students deserve. I’m also not saying that I never do student-centred activities, use technology appropriately etc…I do. Just not enough. What I did was get too caught up in the HK mentality. And now I am faced with a choice. I could keep going along this path OR I could go back to the roots of what I know is best practice. It’s going to take a lot of work, but I’m willing to commit. It’s what’s best for the students and that’s what I’m here for. And that is what this blog is for – reflecting on my practice, admitting my mistakes and working towards something better.
“The only real failure in life is not to be true to the best one knows.”
Buddha knows his sh*t.
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