In a class of their own

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 June, 2012, 12:00am


Faced with a roomful of disgruntled underachievers and unruly teenagers, teachers might be daunted by the task of turning their young charges around. But Manda Ma Wai-man refuses to regard her problem students as lost causes.

The discipline mistress at Tung Wah Group of Hospitals' Mr & Mrs Kwong Sik Kwan College in Tuen Mun, Ma instead goes out of her way to give them a boost, spending considerable time after work to help them reconcile with estranged parents or catch up on studies.

'Our school caters to lots of children who need special attention. They might suffer from dyslexia or have a tendency to disrupt classes,' says Ma, a 13-year veteran at the college.

Although it takes a lot of extra time and effort to engage recalcitrant students, the satisfaction of helping them carve a path for themselves is what keeps her going, she says. She especially recalls a young troublemaker who eventually became a mountain biking champion.

Ma is among 25 educators honoured yesterday in the 2012 Outstanding Teacher Election organised by the Hong Kong Federation of Education Workers.

Awards are given in four categories: teaching, education management, national education and caring. A total of 173 teachers were nominated.

Held since 2005, the annual contest gives teachers a chance to reflect on their work and learn from their peers, says Christine Choi Yuk-lin, federation vice-chairwoman.

'Teachers entering the contest must be nominated by two others. They have to present a report spelling out how their teaching methods rouse students' interest in learning or how they nurture national identity among students. Candidates in the teaching category must record a lesson for the judges.'

There's a moving story behind each award, Choi says. 'Teachers recognised for their counselling work in the caring category think nothing of using their own time to help students in need.

'One winner in 2009 was a teacher who used art therapy to help a student with bone cancer.'

Ma's experience is equally inspiring. She first met the wilful boy when he was in Form One and immediately realised he would be a tough nut to crack.

'He used to be suspended from class all the time when in primary school. Every time he raised the roof during lessons, he would be taken away. His mother would be called to take him home from school, so he saw it as a way to skip lessons. When he played the same tricks in my class, I still called his mother, but he was not allowed to go home.

'If he was suspended from one lesson, he had to attend two extra lessons with me after school. He hated me for not leaving him alone and forcing him to study.'

Realising that he had no interest in reading textbooks, Ma instead helped him develop his sports talents. 'I went swimming and running with him on weekends. He baulked after a couple of times, but I continued to push him, telling him that exercise would bring endurance and perseverance,' Ma says.

'He later met a group of biking friends and fell in love with the sport. His mother was worried that he had taken up with delinquents, as he went cycling with them at night. So I opened a Facebook account to check on his biking friends. They turned out to be nice kids.'

Ma went so far as to persuade his parents to support their son's bid to take up biking as a lifelong pursuit.

'He wanted to buy a second-hand bike that cost HK$6,500. When his parents objected, he asked me to intervene. I believe that biking is his real passion. Once a wayward youth finds his real passion, he will stop mucking around and try his best to excel in it. I explained this to his parents, who finally relented.'

Ma's insight and faith in her student were soon vindicated. The boy won a citywide mountain biking competition while in Form Three and was selected to join the Hong Kong national team two years later. Now in Form Six, he's busy preparing to compete in a regional Asian competition.

Leung Lai-yee and Elaine Law Yuet-ying from Shek Wu Hui Public School in Sheung Shui, who won an award for the national education category, share Ma's dedication.

Anticipating that Chinese identity and citizenship would be a major component of the new curriculum, the pair stand out for devising a thorough exploration of it well before the Education Bureau's controversial proposal to introduce national education into local schools in the 2015-16 academic year.

Although critics have attacked the bureau's plan as a form of brainwashing, these students are learning about Chinese identity through modules incorporated into subjects such as liberal studies and Chinese history and language.

Under the new government plan, schools would each be allocated about HK$500,000 to introduce national education into their teaching programmes. They must set aside 3-5 per cent of lesson time, or the equivalent of two lessons per week, for the new subject. Law says many years of teaching civic education have prepared them to embrace the plan.

Indeed, their team devised a programme based on teaching traditional Chinese virtues as early as 2002. It covered master works such as The Thousand Character Classic, Three Character Classic, Tang dynasty poems and The Analects. Teachers made videos to explain classics in vernacular terms.

Every year, students from senior forms travel to the mainland to visit military academies, shipyards and historical sites. Each outing is based on a theme, and students are required to conduct extensive research before they go.

'This year our theme is military defence. We took students to Dongguan, where Weiyuan Fort in Humen served as a defence point in the first Opium War [1839-42],' Leung says.

'Students research the history of the war and Lin Zexu [the Qing dynasty official [whose fierce opposition to the import of opium triggered the first war against the British]. After the trip, students had to do a project on what they learned and shared it with their classmates.'

Although the government's plan does not touch on sensitive topics such as the Tiananmen Square crackdown of June 4, 1989, Leung says they strive to present an impartial picture of Chinese history to help nurture critical thinking.

As Leung and Law see it, national education isn't a matter of singing the praises of achievements like the recent Shenzhou space mission.

For instance, they discuss with students how the collapse of buildings after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake was caused by shoddy construction. Floods caused by poor government oversight or abusing the environment are also covered.

'Instead of promoting blind patriotism, we want students to develop critical thinking and have their own viewpoints,' Law says.