Being a teacher for 20+ years, and having taught in Hong Kong for several years, this article will present life in Hong Kong from a teacher’s perspective, and give some pointers about the opportunities to be found there as an English language teacher.
People travel and move to Hong Kong for many reasons: the shopping, the food, the business, the culture, the landscape. This unique international hub right off the coast of mainland China has many attractions to lure international people to its shores.
Having lived and worked in Hong Kong leading teacher training courses for three and a half years, I got to know hundreds of teachers working in different settings, and came to understand their motivations, the nature of their work and their experiences as education professionals in various types of school and learning centre.
A multifaceted region
Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region of China, and so enjoys more international freedoms than is possible in most of the Chinese mainland. This means that visa regulations are not so strict (especially for UK passport holders), there is more familiar western-style infrastructure and administrative tasks can be achieved relatively easily in English.
This is true down to the street crossings, signs, fences and street furniture; the cars driving on the left and even the double yellow lines will be familiar to British people arriving there. However, these are the legacy of the British custodianship which ended in 1997, and Hong Kong is now in its 20th year of transition before it is fully returned to mainland China in 2047.
This means that the colonial British-ness is a thinner veneer than it may at first seem. Hong Kong culture (as with the rest of Asian national cultures) is ancient and incredibly strongly clung to, and although Hong Kongers pride themselves on being part of an international business and commerce hub, some very traditionalist views affect every aspect of life and work, education in particular.
A closer split can be felt between the area encompassing Hong Kong Island, Kowloon and the surrounding city, as compared to the New Territories further North, which run all the way to the border with mainland China and another special economic zone: the city of Shenzhen.
The New Territories are much more traditionally-minded than the Island, although many of the region’s international schools are located here, and many expats live further North to escape the crippling prices and stress of the city. The towns further North are more heavily influenced by the larger mainland Chinese population, and tend to be much less cosmopolitan than the island itself. So what does this mean for the aspiring teacher who comes to Hong Kong to live and work?
Realities of the education system in HK
The education industry in Hong Kong is at first sight quite diverse, with a range of different types of work in different kindergartens, primary and secondary schools, colleges, universities and private language centres around the region. With the exception of the large international schools, and perhaps the more progressive university departments, however, the traditional ethos of high-pressure, high-intensity, exam-oriented study reigns supreme.
Achievement is everything for kids and especially their parents, with children as young as two years old being encouraged to build a CV for entry into the competitive kindergarten industry. After ‘graduating’ from kindergarten, with ceremony, robes and all, this CV is taken around the most prestigious primary schools in the hope of securing a successful pathway to university by the age of 6. This level of pressure on the kids, their teachers and the schools where they work results in an enormous market in private tutoring, in which language education plays a huge part.
The effects of this high-stakes approach trickle down to the classroom appreciably, resulting in a typical language learner spending much more time on testable reading and writing skills as compared to communicative, oral/aural skills.
The pressure on students to achieve ‘correct’ answers in exam situations, and the typical teacher-dominated classroom found in public schools leads to significant issues with confidence (in language learning and in life in general), so as a teacher in HK you will have to get good at making language engaging enough to draw students out of their shells and participate actively.
A typical timetable for language lessons at a local school may only include one or two 40-minute sessions per week, which is not long to cover the depth of content that is required for students to not just pass their English exams, but to actually function in English at the end of their study.
A common frustration among language educators is the structure of the Territory-wide System Assessment (TSA) and Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE) exams, which are criticised for their lack of flexibility with language, outdated or questionable question examples and high-pressure preparation methods.
Within Hong Kong, these exams act as effective markers for proficiency in the wider system, and mesh with other aspects of the territory-wide curricula, but for incoming English teachers, they can pose many problems. For this reason, it is a good idea to get to know these exams well and give students global strategies for success which go beyond knowledge of grammar, and reach into more broader language skills.
In this way, students will be able to pass the exams with their functional knowledge of English, and still go on to perform well in secondary and post-secondary education, where they may well be taught entirely in English, depending which university they attend, and in which country.
Common educational settings
As mentioned above, the most common language teaching settings involve working with young learners, especially of pre-secondary age. This can be difficult work, and is not always well-reimbursed (again, depending on the school), and outside tutoring is a common choice for backing up teachers’ finances to be able to live comfortably in this expensive city.
Secondary teaching is often more rewarding financially, and in my opinion, professionally (though I much prefer teaching teens to young learners), with more tangible outcomes and more mature students to bring interesting ideas and views to the classroom.
Local government school teaching almost always involves teaching large classes of between 20 and 40 students of mixed language proficiency, all of whom are first-language Mandarin or Cantonese speakers. In this setting, it is a good idea to become familiar with typical language issues, learner preferences and the assumptions held by the students, the school body and the students’ parents, in order to target their respective needs in a sensitive and constructive way. This is not always easy, due to the local high-pressure educational environment described above.
There are many prestigious international schools in Hong Kong, which can offer attractive packages for foreign teachers. These typically require primary or secondary experience, a PGCE or registered teacher status, and depending on the subjects being taught, an internationally-recognised qualification in TESOL.
These schools operate iGCSE or IB curricula to an international standard, and mostly have the same stringent quality assurance and accreditation procedures as international education bodies elsewhere in the world.
This setting involves teaching multilingual groups, often with very high proficiency in English, using contemporary teaching and assessment methods
Private language centres (or learning centres as they are known locally) offer more freedom for language educators, with less reliance on fixed curricula, though much of the work done in these settings is tutorial or extracurricular language classes to support language provision in the students’ regular schooling.
Working conditions in these centres and school groups can be unpredictable from company to company, but there are some large international language providers operating in Hong Kong. The most prestigious of the non-government centres is the large British Council centre, which operates a lot of the region’s international ESOL examinations, teacher training and education projects in the area.
The British Council offers attractive packages for teachers, with reliable contracts, though the application process and day-to-day work can be bound down with a large amount of admin work, as it is actually an arm of the British government and works alongside the embassy and other diplomatic bodies in Hong Kong.
Universities in Hong Kong are run with a mixed medium of instruction, with programmes run in Cantonese, English and a growing number in Mandarin. With the continued requirement for university students to have a high level of proficiency in English, most universities in Hong Kong run language support classes and other student services which are open to language teachers.
Meeting local requirements
Getting into government-school education is made vastly more attractive by the Education Bureau (EdB)’s Native English Teacher (NET) scheme, which places teachers who have a high proficiency in English into government schools at a hugely increased rate of pay with a salary scale that can be very lucrative indeed.
In order to be eligible for this scheme, most teachers are required to hold a level 5 qualification in TESOL (Trinity CertTESOL, CELTA or similar) and a post-graduate certificate in education (for example a UK PGCE or similar).
Hong Kong University offers a local equivalent to the PGCE, called the Post-Graduate Diploma in Education (PGDE), which can be taken in conjunction with the Trinity CertTESOL, which is offered at two local centres, to provide full training and access to the EdB NET scheme after arrival in Hong Kong.
Be aware, though, that in order to be able to study either of these qualifications, you will need either a Hong Kong identity card or a student visa for full-time study.
Depending on the path you take, or the combination of the above settings where you work, it is likely that at least at the beginning of your time in Hong Kong, you will have to deliver classes at several different locations around the region.
It is not uncommon for a teacher to work morning classes on the Island then have to go out to a more distant location to a school in another district. Pubic transport is good, so this is more of a timing issue than an actual setback; the MTR (the local underground system) services most (though not all) major districts, so get to know where is easily accessible before signing a contract.
The cost of living in Hong Kong is high – there’s no getting away from that – and working hours including travel to and from work can be long, so if you are thinking of travelling with family, this can add extra pressure to an already quite stressful environment. The people I worked with who found it easiest were single, with few outside commitments, and could therefore afford cheaper accommodation and living costs.
Tax in Hong Kong is calculated from the second year of residence, which catches some people out, but there are payment systems which make the process quite simple, and from my own experience, the Inland Revenue Department (IRD) is staffed by very amenable, helpful people who are willing to go the extra yard to ensure that everyone gets a fair deal.
Due to the flexible approach taken to the economy by the CEO (yes, HK is run as a business rather than a country), tax rates can change year on year, so it is not uncommon to find yourself receiving a rebate in your second or third year, which is a welcome surprise.
Another consideration regarding finances is the government’s Mandatory Provident Fund (MPF), a kind of pension system whereby your employer pays a percentage of your salary (5% or HK$1500, depending on how much you earn) in addition to the paycheque that you receive into a pension fund, which is matched by a payment made by you every month.
This cannot be touched until you either reach pensionable age or leave HK permanently, at which point you apply to have this find released and transferred to your home-country bank account. This final process takes some time, so it is important to finalise this some time before you leave to avoid missing out on what can be a significant lump sum (a welcome HK$3000 per month worked) at the end of your time in Hong Kong.
As the name suggests, this system is mandatory payment, so if an employer attempts to refuse MPF payments, or defaults on this, they are in contravention of employment law.
- An honest reflection on teaching English in Hong Kong – A teacher’s perspective
- What is it like to live and teach in China? Getting there and setting up
In summary, working in Hong Kong can be stressful and frustrating, but it is a relatively easy way to live in Asia and travel in the region, and the opportunities for language educators are many and varied, if you are prepared to put the work in. If you choose to give Hong Kong a try, do some research and make sure you understand the bureaucracy for entering a long time before you travel – enough people get the paperwork shock too late and it can cost time and resources that don’t need to be wasted.
Go in with your eyes open, and it will be an incredible experience.
This article was originally published on February 12, 2019 and was last updated on May 22, 2020.