Hong Kong's native-speaking English teacher scheme needs an overhaul

Philip Yeung believes native-speaking English teachers will be at their most effective in raising students' language ability if they are given more support and training, and cultural exchange is encouraged

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 May, 2014, 2:53am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 May, 2014, 12:29pm

The native-speaking English teacher (NET) scheme has been a part of our local public school system for the past 15 years. It has grown into a HK$710 million, 900-strong operation, complete with its own mini-bureaucracy.

Despite the trappings of a fully fledged scheme, it has within it pockets of immaturity. Periodically, there are rumblings of complaint from both sides. Sweep these differences under the rug, and the programme may never live up to its promise.

The scheme was born of a desire to give our public schools a more English-rich environment. That is the narrower goal. The wider perspective is that we need fresh thinking in our system. Ideally, native English teachers can function as change agents. But change is a bridge too far if catalysts are few and far between.

Native English teachers used to have to split their time between several schools. Now each school has its own. But having one teacher per school, offering a single 35-minute English lesson per week, is like trying to douse a wild fire with a bucket of water. As the Cantonese saying goes, "you can't clap with one hand"; a single teacher can't produce the desired ripple effect. Acting alone, and subject to the vagaries of the system, the teacher's style is seriously cramped.

The figure of HK$710 million sounds like a lot of money, but spread so thinly, it tapers into a half-measure. At-risk schools need more than just a token foreign teacher. They deserve a critical mass, especially if they have cut their teeth on transforming students from challenged backgrounds.

Our education system is splintered. We have a full spectrum of schools, from the private to the public, and everything in between. Sadly, there is little traffic between them. Each school, whatever its pigeonhole, tends to do its own thing. They regard other schools either with apathy or a mild competitive antipathy.

If there is little inter-school co-operation, there is even less inter-system relationship. That is why the new chief executive of the English Schools Foundation, Belinda Greer, comes to us like a breath of fresh air. For the first time, the ESF's head is reaching out to local schools by offering to share its proven pedagogy and best practices. The government should take her up on the offer, with native English teachers perhaps being the go-between.

In return, it should rescind its decision to phase out the ESF subsidy, which may price out many mid-level expatriates attracted to this global city. With this partnership, the ESF would no longer be just another self-absorbed international school system. Native English teachers could also participate in the 80 professional development activities for ESF teachers. Together, they might just create public education's "perfect storm", and a partnership unique in world education.

To induct new entrants, there should be less focus on the mundane mechanics of "living in Hong Kong", such as how to open a bank account, and more on understanding what makes local teachers tick. The yawning cultural gap between locals and foreigners cannot be ignored. Both should leave their own comfort zone and befriend the other. Bear in mind that local teachers who don't appear forthcoming may only be shy or linguistically challenged. For the 15 per cent attrition rate to drop, native English teachers should be encouraged to embrace their local colleagues, if not the local culture.

Typically, local principals accuse NETs of avoiding paperwork, including correcting exercises. Coming from educational systems with an anti-clerical tradition, the teachers' logic is that people don't become teachers in order to be clerks.

Meanwhile, poor local teachers spend about one-third of their time doing paperwork and writing reports that nobody reads. But native English teachers must face the fact that, in this exam-driven environment, correcting exercises is a necessary evil. Granted, a school system where paperwork proliferates is a system that has veered from education's true purpose.

Native English teachers' greater challenge is to help students cross the cultural divide. Language education is never just about language alone, for language is a carrier of culture. The local curriculum is almost devoid of cultural content through reading, the strong suit of these teachers.

Trawling the internet with students for stories or articles that are entertaining or educational, or for lyrics of English folk songs, and sharing English-language movies with students, are all part of teaching them to grow an English tongue, if not an English heart. To deliver the scheme's promise, native-speaking English teachers need to get English into the students' bloodstream. Its practitioners must exploit their art and ancillary resources to the full.

Philip Yeung is co-founder of the Hong Kong Society for the Promotion of English and former speechwriter to the president of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. pky480@gmail.com