Positively charged

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 February, 2012, 12:00am


Professor Chung Yue-ping of Chinese University smiles a lot. It's not because he is one of eight recipients of the university's latest Outstanding Teacher Award, though. That's just the way he is.

Since working as a primary school teacher in the early 1970s, he has made a point of focusing on his students' strengths rather than their weaknesses, so he is not easily frustrated in his work. His open, non-judgmental style made him popular with students of all ages, some of whom are now school principals and even professors.

'Regardless of age or race, everyone wants to be praised,' he says. 'There is a positive side to everyone. Once they know what their strengths are, they will put an effort into developing them further.'

With the four-year undergraduate curriculum being introduced in September, local universities have fresh impetus to ensure students enjoy a fruitful learning experience, rather than just bolster the their rankings with pass rates and research citations. Teacher awards, in which students get a chance to rate their instructors, are one initiative to help them achieve this.

'It is up to teachers to explore students' potential,' Chung says. 'When evaluating a master's thesis, for example, you can just point out the many inadequacies in it, or you can mention the good points, too. Students will be more willing to further explore the areas they have done well in.'

Chung, a professor of educational administration and policy, recalls how, when he was a secondary school biology teacher, change came to a lazy student who cheated in tests and was rarely given praise. Chung allowed him to re-sit a biology test, hoping he would feel grateful for his forgiveness. Then, when he saw the student helping with decorations for an exhibition, he praised his ideas.

After that, the boy changed, Chung says. 'He stopped cheating. His academic results remained so-so, but he graduated from school and developed an interest in plants and gardening. He later worked as a government gardener.

'I often tell student teachers to look for areas worthy of praise, keep an open mind and remove any prejudice. If one observes carefully, one will be able to find some good in others.'

Like Chung, teacher award winners at other universities have friendly, supportive relationships with their students. Many maintain an open dialogue on Facebook. Two-time teaching award winner at Baptist University and prominent poet and writer, Wu Yin-ching, shares her thoughts on the social media website when she is not meeting up with her students.

Every month, a group of her former students gathers at her home to share their thoughts on various written works. Inspired by Wu's Chinese creative writing courses, a number of them have developed a passion for words, including year-three business administration student So Ho-yin.

'Wu introduced us to modern poets, both local and overseas,' says So, who joins the monthly gatherings. 'She knows so much about them that they are like friends to her and us. She never looked stern in class but was playful. She helped us see that there could be a lot to write about.'

Wu, an associate professor at the Baptist University Language Centre and a teacher of 26 years, never tires of trying to instil hope in students who lack confidence. 'They have strong learning skills. As a teacher, I just try to keep motivating them and give the weaker ones extra support. I am optimistic that most of my students will feel confident about themselves.'

Wu gives her students plenty of personal attention. Before they submit an assignment, they have meetings with her in groups of five to get feedback on their drafts. It's also a chance for them to learn from one another, Wu says. 'They can identify their own strengths and weaknesses.'

A common characteristic among award-winning teachers is the joy they get from their work.

'One graduate, who is a kung fu master, asked me help him develop his students' characters, as he wants them to be virtuous and not just able to fight,' says Dr Annis Fung Lai-chu, an assistant professor at City University's department of applied social studies.

City University's award winners are subject to stringent criteria - they are selected after class observation by members of a judging panel, and student and departmental recommendations. Teachers must also give a presentation on teaching pedagogy to the panel.

Most of Fung's students are working adults taking master's courses in counselling, and she normally begins by gaining an understanding of their backgrounds.

To prepare students to be effective counsellors, she asks them to write a family journal to uncover hidden influences on their personal development.

'My teaching philosophy is to begin with the individual. Personal attitudes and beliefs affect the future counselling process,' she says.

Of course, Fung must create a secure environment for her students to recount their family history, so confidentiality rules are strictly observed.

On a personal level, the therapist enjoys a close relationship with her students, having meals or chats with them. Some former students who have become professional social workers also share views and problems at work with her via Facebook.

A three-time award winner, Professor Vivian Lee Wing-yan, an associate professor at Chinese University's School of Pharmacy, puts an equal emphasis on applying knowledge. In 2009, her students helped her launch an internet platform linking people with questions about drug use to pharmacists. Called Ampoule (Ask My Pharmacist! - Online University-Led Drug Enquiry), it has just added a web-conferencing function, enabling patients to have live chats with a pharmacist.

The bilingual platform would not have been possible without the help of her computer-savvy students, Lee says. 'I am a computer idiot and was lucky to have had the support of my students, who turned my idea into reality.'

Her desire to help the ageing population stemmed from her experience running summer workshops to educate elderly residents in Wong Tai Sin on the safe use of drugs. She became driven to find an educational tool after finding widespread ignorance. 'We do not recommend drugs but only gather information about them.'

She sees immense benefits in involving her students, whom she describes as working partners. 'It gives them training outside of the regular curriculum, like collecting information about common diseases and communicating with different people. Hong Kong students are trained to pass examinations, yet the most important [thing] is to be able to apply what they have learned.'

While high ratings from her students helped Lee win the award, they also know they can rely on her for support.

'[I help them] when they need my input on their career or academic plans. They are the future of the pharmacy profession. I hope that they can continue my work and serve the community to promote safety in medication.'