Even teachers face a steep learning curve
With local courses mostly aimed at Hong Kong-born teachers, native-English-speaking teachers (NET) in the city often have difficulty finding a suitable postgraduate course to further hone their skills. Many opt for correspondence and distance learning courses offered by overseas universities.
Richard Treleaven, who has been teaching in a primary school in Sheung Shui since last year, is one of the local NETs who have signed up for overseas online master's courses.
'I am studying a master of arts in teaching English to young learners offered by the University of York in the UK,' he said. 'I signed up for the course to keep myself competitive. To even native-English speakers, the concept of ESL is nebulous. Nobody knows what ESL really means. You have to learn about pedagogies to really know how to teach English in a classroom.'
Pauline Tax, an NET who has been teaching in Hong Kong for more than five years, said native speakers needed specialised knowledge and expertise to be an effective language teacher in a foreign country.
'A recent report said that nearly 39 per cent of new primary NET recruits are not qualified teachers,' she said. 'Proper teaching qualifications are very important for the profession. My local colleagues often ask me about my teaching qualifications.
'I enrolled in a master's teaching course at the University of Technology, Sydney, several years ago. I did part time for a year-and-a-half before I left for China. I did the remaining half-year online in Nanjing.'
Ms Tax, who is teaching in a primary school in Ho Man Tin, praised the master's programme for strengthening her teaching skills. 'The University of Technology, Sydney, is the best place to do ESL studies. There was lots of useful content about language acquisition in it. Their many ESL researches gave me a good grounding in the subject. One of the great parts of my master's was the course on phonology. Grasping phonology is critical to teaching students in Hong Kong.'
Compared with face-to-face teaching, Ms Tax said online learning demanded more motivation and discipline.
'E-learning is convenient as you can set your own learning schedules. However, nothing beats attending lessons in person part time as you have lecturers to personally answer your questions and discussion sessions with other students. For e-learning, you have to be extremely motivated for the learning experience to be fruitful. When you don't understand certain linguistic concepts, it's also extremely difficult for you to ask the lecturer for clarification.'
While online ESL learning presents obstacles for some, it suited Marysia Marchant, an NET at a Tseung Kwan O primary school since 2003: 'I got my master's of education in teaching English to speakers of other languages [TESOL] two years ago by correspondence at Deakin University in Melbourne.
'Distance learning was good for me as I got the chance to visit the online teaching forums which were frequented by other students of the course, who were all serving teachers from a wide range of countries like Saudi Arabia. This gave me the chance to compare teaching experiences and methodologies.'
Ms Tax added it was important for those who preferred distance learning to seek a reputable overseas university.
'Before you sign up for the course, it's important to compare courses offered by different overseas universities to find one that suits you particularly. There's also no need to go straight to a master's. You can build up a foundation by starting at certificate level first.'
For those who have signed up for a course that does not suit their needs, the whole experience could be depressing.
Mr Treleaven said the course he was studying now at the University of York could not give him what he needed.
'Many of the teaching references and materials are very old. The pedagogies I learned are also backward and way behind what are currently taught in North America. The university is among the top 10 in England. I did not expect them to use such dated things. For #3,660 (HK$ 45,000) per year, I expected to get more out of it.'
While local English teachers get government subsidises for their post-graduate learning, many NETs complain they do not get any support from the government to pursue higher learning. 'The bureau doesn't reward us for pursing more specialised teaching training,' Ms Marchant said. 'We don't get any salary increments after completing master's teaching programmes. We have to pay out of our own pockets to study. There are also not any financial incentives for us to sign up for teaching courses.'
Mr Treleaven said it was not compulsory for teachers to pursue further learning. 'In addition to the lack of subsidises from the education bureau, we don't get any recognition from the government for our master courses.'
Andy Kirkpatrick, chair professor of English and acting dean of faculty of languages at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, said: 'A new master's programme in teaching English as an international language aimed at foreigners will be offered next year. The course has a more global perspective ... we are working with the education bureau in designing a series of upgrading programmes for NETs which will give credit towards modules in the master's course.'
Professor Kirkpatrick added it was very important for native speakers to have relevant teaching qualifications.
'Employing foreigners as English teachers solely because they are native speakers is wrong. All language teachers must have proper qualifications,' he said.
Thomas Tang Kwong-wai, associate professor at the Open University of Hong Kong's school of education and languages, said a grasp of the local learning styles and curriculum was essential to effective teaching by native speakers.
'For language fluency, native speakers are excellent,' he said. 'However, they need to have basic teaching skills and understand how to conduct local classes, assess students' progress and design learning tasks suitable for local students.'
Barley Mak Chan Shuk-yin, programme director of MA in english language teaching at the Chinese University of Hong Kong's faculty of education, said teaching courses with an emphasis on the local context could stand NETs in good stead.
'Over the years, we have quite a few NETs in our classes. Personally, I have taught four NETs. They mixed well with the local teachers. Some of them might feel a bit lonely in their own schools, but there's a professional community here in our classes where local teachers and NETs share among each other their teaching experiences and methodologies.'
Matthew Bond, a NET who has been teaching in Hong Kong for nine years, is one of the NETs who have benefited from the master's course at CUHK.
'I got along with the local teachers really well, although I was the only NET then,' said Mr Bond who completed his master's programme last year.
'I teach senior secondary classes. One of the problems I often encounter is the lack of confidence in speaking English among local students. Some Chinese students get anxiety problems. Once, one of my Form Five students volunteered an answer in class, but his pronunciation was not spot-on and his fellow students laughed at him. I needed to coax him and deal with other students properly, otherwise I wouldn't be able to get answers from him in future. I was taught some of the common learning styles of local students which I found useful to my own teaching.'