Building a strong foundation in the wonder years

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 May, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 May, 2006, 12:00am

IT IS THE FIRST DAY at school. The bell signalling the start of class rings and she begs for one more hug. Tears stream down her face as the door closes. She has never felt so lonely. And that is just the mother.

Starting school is tough on everyone, and even more so for parents. A good kindergarten teacher should know how to deal with not only the children, but also their parents.

The scene described above could have played out at any of the 1,062 kindergartens and childcare centres in Hong Kong. Together they employ 11,400 teachers and educate 149,200 students. The Education and Manpower Bureau (EMB) has stipulated a teacher-student ratio of 1:15 so that young students get more individual attention.

Although the number of local kindergartens has fallen slightly in response to the falling birth rate, the number of international kindergartens has grown.

A spokesman for the EMB said the demand for teachers in the future might remain stable.

Kindergarten teaching seems like an easy job but it cannot be learnt overnight. According to Etta Hiang, group school supervisor of Sunshine House International Pre-school, those considering a career change should seriously think about whether being a kindergarten teacher is the right choice.

'We have had CVs where the applicant was in marketing or something totally irrelevant to early childhood [education]. But if they have had even some experience, we will interview them. They want to change their career, so we need to give them a chance,' Ms Hiang said.

Jacqueline Chan, programme administrator of the early childhood education department at the Baptist University's School of Continuing Education (SCE), said kindergarten teaching was not for everyone and even those who were dedicated to the job needed to have the right qualifications in accordance with the EMB rules.

Since September 2003, all newly appointed kindergarten teachers in Hong Kong must have a qualified kindergarten teacher (QKT) certificate or its equivalent.

Degree holders may be appointed as kindergarten teachers on the condition that they must complete the kindergarten qualification or equivalent training in two years, unless they are approved by the EMB.

To be a kindergarten principal one must have a QKT qualification and a certificate in early childhood education or a certificate in kindergarten education. There are indications that this requirement may be revised but the government is yet to announce it.

Until last year, only the Hong Kong Institute of Education (HKIEd) offered periodic English-language QKT training. As a result, there were not enough teachers who were proficient enough in English to fill vacancies at international kindergartens.

This year the HKIEd has tried to solve the problem by allowing English-speaking kindergarten teachers who hold a recognised degree or equivalent to apply for a two-year postgraduate diploma in education (early childhood education). Those who speak Chinese can choose from QKT programmes at HKIEd or at the Baptist University's School of Continuing Education.

Besides the correct education, a kindergarten teacher must have the right attitude. The best are spontaneous and can think fast. Patience, leadership skills and the ability to talk to small children are important.

'If the children can't see you as their teacher and you don't have control in the classroom, there will be mayhem and chaos,' Ms Chan said.

Kindergarten teachers face a few challenges. They have to be creative all the time. Although a curriculum is usually provided as a guideline for teaching, the method and materials are left to the teachers to decide.

According to Doris Ng, principal of Discover Mind Kindergarten (DMK) in Discovery Bay, the need to adapt these teaching aids in the classroom is another unique challenge.

Even more important, if the activities do not go according to plan, one has to be able to scrap them and start again instead of forcing them on the students.

When choosing which school to apply to, remember that not all of them are equal. First, decide whether to work in a local school or an international school. An EMB spokesman said the difference between local schools and international schools was their student target groups and the curricula offered. International kindergartens catered to non-Chinese-speaking children and they might use a non-local curriculum.

There is also a difference in compensation between local schools and international schools. As all kindergartens in Hong Kong are privately run, they can decide on their pay scales for teachers. However, according to the EMB spokesman, all schools that take part in the kindergarten and childcare centre subsidy scheme should base the teachers' salaries on the scale recommended by the government.

At a local school, the recommended monthly salary for a QKT qualified teacher ranges from $11,900 to $21,900, while at an international school the range can be much wider.

Many kindergartens hire teachers throughout the year, but most recruitment happens in April in preparation for the next academic year.

One way to get into kindergarten is as a supply teacher. Teachers who excel in this substitute position are often offered the job when a full-time vacancy arises.

Those with the experience and an ability to manage people could eventually be promoted to a head teacher's position, which includes managing administrative tasks.

The future of education in Hong Kong is optimistic. Many educators believe there has been a breakthrough in recent years, with less emphasis on rote learning.

'[These days] children are asked to express themselves and speak freely. There are a lot of experiments and explorations going on,' Ms Hiang said.

The surge in popularity of bilingual education in Hong Kong has meant more jobs for teachers who speak English and Putonghua.

Ms Ng, whose school offered Putonghua as a language of instruction, said there had been a definite increase in demand for learning Putonghua.

Parents are also influencing the curriculum. In international schools, there has been an increased demand for a fun, creative learning environment coupled with tangible academic development.

The competitive nature of primary school admissions and parents' desires to get their children into the school of their choice is driving this change. Children are expected to develop social skills and achieve certain academic milestones for the primary school admission interview. In response, kindergartens are preparing their five- and six-year-old students with a more demanding curriculum.