Reflections: why teachers make good role models for young people

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 March, 2014, 4:30pm
UPDATED : Monday, 10 March, 2014, 4:30pm

For a long time, I have felt there is a dearth of role models for our young people. There are plenty of pop idols - from Canto-pop's Joey Yung Cho-yee and Eason Chan Yik-shun to the actor-cum-entrepreneur Nicholas Tse Ting-fung.

But when it comes to examples of people who are models for how to live a fruitful and meaningful life, it's hard to come up with names. Li Ka-shing, Asia's richest man, once topped the poll for the public figure most admired by young people.

His entrepreneurial success is beyond doubt. But a society needs more diverse talents than those who have succeeded in striking it rich. In reality, anyway, only a handful will become billionaires.

Teachers have not enjoyed a very high social status and deserve more respect

Hong Kong's examination-oriented, high-pressure education system does little to encourage deviance from the norm, which is to study hard, achieve good grades, and get into a good university to secure a well-paid job.

Such a pragmatic approach undermines the spirit of inquiry, which is indispensable for blazing new trails. Without the courage to think differently, none of the Nobel laureates would have earned that honour.

But my thinking changed recently following an encounter at the SCMP Student of the Year awards ceremony. Sixth-Former Tam Pok-man, from Sing Yin Secondary School, won the grand prize for his all-round development and passion for physics.

He was surrounded by teachers equally enthusiastic about the science, including principal Kwok But. One of his students had returned to the school to teach physics, inspiring another to follow in his footsteps.

Even in a society inundated with commercial films and television, and a media scene sometimes bent on sensationalism, there are sources of inspiration nearby. For youngsters, it is likely to be within the walls of their school.

But because of a modest salary, teachers in Hong Kong have not enjoyed a very high social status. Neither is teaching a coveted profession. A notorious workload has deterred many from joining the field but, given the significant impact they can have on young minds, they deserve more respect.

Of course, there is dead wood as in other professions, but as in the case of the Sing Yin team, those dedicated to their work can be a great influence.

Principal Kwok says he was inspired by Tsang Tsz-kwan, a blind graduate of Ying Wah Girls' College, who scored 5** and 5* in five subjects in last year's Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education examination. She lost her eyesight during early childhood and has been hearing-impaired since Primary One. Now a translation major, she read Braille with her lips because her fingers were not sensitive enough, setting an inspiring example of perseverance. As time passed, her marvellous achievement seemed to fade from the public memory.

But there are still role models around, though less visible. They are likely to adopt a low profile, says the principal of an elite school. To avoid undue publicity, or misreporting by the media, these quiet achievers prefer to lie low, she says.

As shown in Tam's case, many role models could already be on campus.

It is never too late to realise that the teachers, professors, and lecturers who spend hours interacting with youngsters could be the ones to point them in the right direction in life.

Their role should not be underestimated.