Few would argue that teaching as a job could turn into a real money-spinner. However, teaching can be a highly rewarding career.
"The most precious reward for teaching is not money, but a sense of deep, long-lasting job satisfaction," says Ma Siu-leung, recently promoted to principal assistant secretary for Education and Manpower. For years, he has been instrumental in promoting and facilitating the adoption of IT both at the department and in local schools in the position of principal education officer, Infrastructure Division, Education Department.
Mr Ma started out as an assistant education officer teaching physics at the Jockey Club Government Secondary School in 1969 after he graduated from the Chinese University of Hong Kong with a degree in mathematics. He was promoted to education officer in 1974.
"Looking back on the past," says Mr Ma, "society at large was less complex than today, and people more innocent and trusting." However, he continues, "with society now rapidly changing, traditional values and beliefs are weakening. One can no longer assume that the need to treat one's senior with respect is always the order of the day. Instead, teachers must earn the respect of their students by setting their hearts on teaching them well."
"Love and patience can help ease frustration. Only when these qualities prevail can self-satisfaction be derived from teaching because students will some day reward their teachers not with money, but genuine appreciation and respect."
Mr Ma became a Senior Education Officer (Head) at Tin Kwong Road Government Secondary School in 1991 and later the Principal at the Tang Siu Kin Victoria Technical School in 1992. Subsequently, he took up similar positions - which led up to his job with the Infrastructure Division in the Education Department in 1999 and his promotion to principal assistant secretary in January 2003.
While a university qualification has become a prerequisite for teaching nowadays, a great many practical skills are also indispensable for working in the field. Among these, being conversant with students' family backgrounds and being able to communicate effectively with parents is of growing importance. Mr Ma explains, "Unlike the previous two decades, recent years have seen a surge in the number of single-parent families, due to a high divorce rate along with different kinds of familial conflicts." To complicate things further, the sluggish economic conditions have also left many parents with no option "but to work harder and put less time and effort into taking care of their children," he adds, arguing that the responsibility for discipline has now been shifted more to the educator.
Thus, training in aspects that extend into the family domain is not only a trend, but also necessary for preparing teachers to begin facing problems that are increasingly threatening to test the limits of their knowledge. Mr Ma asks, "If young teachers don't have any parental experience, how on earth are they going to discern the problems this generation of parents or students face?" He hastens to answer, "Training comes into play to help them deal with such problems as they arise."
Moreover, teaching demands a great deal of love and patience. Some teachers are devoid of such qualities, and, as a result, they often get frustrated when students have not made good progress with their learning curves. "Love and patience can help ease frustration," he says. "Only when these qualities prevail can self-satisfaction be derived from teaching because students will some day reward their teachers not with money, but genuine appreciation and respect."
The real challenge
It is the perception that Hong Kong students' English standards are falling short of the general expectations of employers and teachers. Some argue that the decline in proficiency is a serious indictment on the bewildering education system in Hong Kong, while others disagree. If anything, Mr Ma maintains that many top students who have achieved the best results in school exams "remain very talented, and proficient at mastering English."
"Undoubtedly, however, there is also a considerable proportion of students who don't perform as well. But we cannot attribute their lower levels of performance to the failure of the education reforms. [As the government] is determined to popularise university education, it is clear that not only will there be more university graduates but also wider variations in their performance levels."
With this in mind, he cautions that those who have disappointed some employers' expectations and still want to choose teaching as their career must improve their English proficiency on the one hand and sharpen their Chinese language skills on the other, while keeping abreast of the latest developments in the field they intend to teach.
Teaching is a career that "makes teachers young at heart," Mr Ma jokes, provided that they "get to mix with their students." "Yet," he admits, "this career can also bring to bear the greatest pressure on teachers. The real challenge of teaching is not what to teach, but how to teach every time to the best of your ability. You're likely to do more harm than good if you're just a light-hearted person, as the future of many youngsters depends heavily on you as a teacher."