Hong Kong is a place of contradictions. It is by turns incredibly beautiful, frustrating, motivating, insane, loud, congested, rewarding, peaceful and stressful.
Spend any amount of time there, and you will know where to look for each of these aspects of this fascinating region. Education in Hong Kong follows the same trends; at times you will feel like you are banging your head against a brick wall, but this feeling will be eclipsed by a huge sense of satisfaction when your students come up with the goods and outperform your expectations with hard work and dedication.
This article aims to take you through some of the highs and lows of teaching in Hong Kong, and is intended to be an honest reflection on the experience as seen somewhat from the outside of the industry.
I trained teachers in Hong Kong for three and a half years, and saw the full range of motivations, experiences and needs in the trainees who came through the doors of the centre. I visited many schools in Hong Kong and Macao to observe English teachers in their classrooms, so I had the golden opportunity to reflect on what I saw objectively.
Here are my top seven reflections on the industry as it exists in Hong Kong now:
1. Exam culture rules all
In Hong Kong, as in most of East Asia, the primary focus of education is to prepare students to pass exams. The stress and long hours of exam preparation show great results in knowledge-based subjects such as maths and the sciences, as is proven by the high performance in these subjects which is typical in the region. However, language is not only a knowledge-based subject, but requires confident performance of a range of cognitive, social and linguistic skills. This means that the strong focus on test results above all else often has a negative effect on language learning.
In terms of linguistic performance, stress is one of the biggest negative factors for learners, so a teacher with the ability to deliver fun, engaging classes which also address the necessary skills for success in the raft of language examinations which students have to take in their school careers is a boon to any school. In order to achieve this, it is necessary for language teachers to do some research into the TSA and HKDSE exam suites, think about what students are required to do for them, and work this into their teaching.
As reading and writing are the more ‘testable’ skills in these exams, and therefore prioritised by students and teachers alike, the skills of speaking and listening are key areas for development, so a good teacher in the Hong Kong context will endeavour to improve their students’ confidence with speaking and face-to-face communication.
2. The school banding system is alive and well
A few years ago, the tiering system for Hong Kong secondary schools, ranging from band 1 (at the top end of the scale) to band 3 (at the other end), was abolished as it was seen to be discriminatory against areas of Hong Kong with lower socioeconomic backgrounds. However, the categorising of schools into these three levels of quality persists, and the same implications are implied by judgments of a ‘good’ school (or the opposite).
Be aware that in lower-band schools, there is a tendency for more discipline issues, lower levels of motivation and higher incidence of social issues. Of course, this is not always true, and some of the most valuable and rewarding teaching is possible with the students who need it most, and can therefore see the greatest progress.
It is worth being aware of the amount of personal investment that is needed when working in what were lower-band schools.
3. Students who leave their comfort zone succeed
More than anywhere else in the world I have worked, Hong Kong students commonly exist in a protected comfort zone, often enabled by doting grandparents and domestic helpers.
Children are typically required to do very little for themselves, and as a result are often reluctant to move beyond the limits of their status quo. This is especially important for their language learning, as in language performance, having the confidence to try out new things, make mistakes and learn from them, and speak your thoughts assertively are all essential factors in a strong language user.
Developing these skills in learners who are reticent to speak out, make mistakes or try new things is a definite challenge, but with some creative classroom management and activity design, this is definitely possible. Those students who engage with this style of language learning go on to fly in their exams and in their general communication skills beyond their high-demand schooling.
4. Tough love works wonders
In contrast to the approach taken by grandparents and helpers towards guardianship of kids in Hong Kong, in the high-stakes, exam-oriented school environment, teachers can be very disciplinarian.
Kids are often pressured to work harder, not better, with extra tutorial classes, huge amounts of homework from a very young age and strict school guidelines about behaviour and performance. When students from this strict background enter the communicative language classroom (as are many classrooms run by foreign teachers in Hong Kong), the new setting is often perceived to be much less disciplined, and more of a laugh than a learning experience.
This view can be encouraged by the amount of game-based and discursive activities that language teachers use, which do not feel like ‘real’ education as they do not practice specific exam skills which will be assessed directly at the end of term.
This situation can result in discipline issues in the classroom as students don’t perceive the value of the lessons taught using these methods. To compensate for this, an amount of imposed discipline and classroom management techniques are necessary to keep learners on track and working to task.
Look into methods for dealing with large, mixed-ability classes and think about how you can enforce use of English in the classroom through focused activities and behaviour management. Teachers who can ensure their students are working well on the necessary language and skills are more valued by schools, and generally have an easier time of it in their day-to-day teaching.
5. Stay on the school’s good side
With the focus on exam success, and the very deeply embedded ideas about what education should (and shouldn’t) be, some schools in Hong Kong can be very proscriptive in how they ask their teachers to work. For this reason, it can be easy to cause problems if you do things differently from expected.
There are some ways of avoiding this kind of educational culture clash, however, which will stand you in good stead from the beginning of any teaching job in Hong Kong.
Also Read: Living in Hong Kong as an English Teacher
6. Be honest at interview
Job interviews for teachers can be very in-depth, and schools often require teachers to have a good knowledge of the assessment systems in Hong Kong, demonstrate a knowledge of teaching approaches which are effective in the Hong Kong context, and to show that they can adapt their teaching to the local requirements (meaning the specific features of the school).
As long as your aims are focused in student success, and you can demonstrate how your methods will bring this about, most schools will understand that you know what you are doing, and give you some leeway with how you run things in the classroom.
Be careful not to promise the earth, or to toe the school’s line too closely, as that is the expectation that you are setting with the school’s management, so if you deviate from that, or if that doesn’t bring the results you predict, it can cause problems for you down the line.
7. Respect the systems in the school
Different schools will have different ways of running their timetables. Some will have teaching assistants present in your classes (for better or worse), some will insist on translation and rote-learning as a method to be followed, and others will ‘teach’ through repeated test practice rather than language skills development. In each case, it is important that you respect that that is the way things run at the school, and keep a positive mindset about these factors, whether you intent to follow them or not.
There is often a middle line where a range of communicative, task-based or more student-centred methods can be employed without causing too much conflict between your teaching style and that of the wider school.
Be honest, and be open to different ways of doing things, and if you understand the nature of the teaching setting you are going in to, the results from your students will speak for themselves.
All in all, teaching in Hong Kong can be a challenge, but finding a school which is open to different methods, which has clear goals for its students that you can work with, and that doesn’t put too much pressure on teachers for results will help you to move in to a positive environment where both you and your students can work to your best advantage.
This article was originally published on May 29, 2019 and was last updated on November 22, 2020.