Lessons from the heart at Hong Kong’s remote island school for juvenile delinquents

Teachers at Zheng Sheng deal with long hours, low pay and more, but say helping students and gaining their trust are worth the sacrifices

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 August, 2016, 3:27pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 August, 2016, 10:58pm

Keeping an eye on huge, loose rocks which threaten to roll down the surrounding hillside at any moment; sharing 10 portable toilets with more than 100 people; enduring freezing showers even in the coldest of winters and bearing the unrelenting summer heat with no air conditioning. All these are just parts of teachers’ and students’ daily lives at Christian Zheng Sheng College, Hong Kong’s only privately run school for juvenile delinquents.

Tucked away in Chi Ma Wan, a remote bay on Lantau Island, the school is about an hour’s ferry ride from the bustling and glamorous Central district. It caters to students with problems such as drug addiction and violent tendencies, and is only accessible by private boat.

The wooden ferry that carries teachers, visitors, groceries and necessities to the campus from the opposite shore on Cheung Chau every day is the main mode of transport.

“I was shocked that there was a school here when I first came to visit with people from my church back in around 2000,” said Dennis Yeung King-yin, a liberal studies teacher at Zheng Sheng.

“I was wondering why the school’s facilities were so lacking and the location so remote, yet students still stayed for a long time and people were willing to come here to teach.”

Since missing out on a planned relocation to nearby Mui Wo in 2009 (local residents shot the idea down) the rough and primitive environment has mostly stayed the same. And so has the determination of 14 teachers and 26 staff who help the approximately 80 students turn their lives around.

Yeung, despite the shocking first impression at Zheng Sheng when he first answered a job advertisement, took on the challenge. He has been teaching at the college for more than eight years.

He felt “a calling”, he said, influenced by his Christian beliefs, to do something that could influence people.

“I knew I could get along with young people from my experience in church,” said Yeung, 40.

The tough physical conditions did not faze him. But there were bigger challenges, like dealing with students’ indifference and lack of trust.

He said he found it hard to build a relationship with the students.

Cheng Wing-kin, 36, a soft-spoken maths teacher who has been with the school for 12 years, said teachers sometimes have to be aggressive and even “ have a confrontation” with the students to form a strong bond with them.

World history and English teacher Veronica Choi Wing-yan, who used to serve in church ministries, also said it was different when it came to dealing with Zheng Sheng students.

“People outside [of Zheng Sheng] are more straightforward and rational. But for the students here, sometimes you have to keep repeating the same thing,” Choi said. “It challenges me to find different ways to help them, such as by singing a song with them or doing some sports when I realise the conversation isn’t going anywhere.”

Watch: Teachers of Christian Zheng Sheng College strive for students’ future

The college’s remote location means teachers can hardly strike a balance between work and their family. They work five and a half days a week, and those who are not married stay on campus overnight four days a week, while those who are married stay three days a week.

Yeung joked that not only were they teachers, they were also the students’ families, friends, and social workers. The students turn to them when they are not feeling well, physically and emotionally.

Married with a nine-year-old son and a three-year-old daughter, he said: “Every day I think of quitting for my family. I can’t [say] how long I will stay here, but as long as I’m here, I want to work hard to help the students.”

At the moment, he said he could still manage by going home immediately after work, and sometimes taking his children to the school to let them learn about his job.

Class time is only about two hours a day. Most of the time is spent teaching the students how to take care of themselves through cooking, cleaning and other skills such as sports and engineering.

Choi, now 28, recalled that she had trouble sleeping when she first started teaching at Zheng Sheng over four years ago.

“I was sleeping in the same room as the students and worried about them having problems in the night,” she said. “Some had side effects from previous drug use, while some would pee on the bed of students they did not like.”

Bill Suen Yuk-fung, an 18-year-old student, said initially he did not trust the teachers at Zheng Sheng. But after living with them, he realised they had a lot of heart in helping students, and began to open up.

“When we have accidents, Dennis [Yeung] will sacrifice his rest time or time with his family to come back to help us,” Suen said. “To me, he’s a big brother who teaches and protects us.”

Besides the long hours, another sacrifice the teachers have to make is financial.

Principal Alman Chan Siu-cheuk said teachers at Zheng Sheng only get 50 to 70 per cent of the salaries of public school teachers.

Taking into account the longer hours, Choi pointed out, their salaries would probably be more like 30 per cent of that.

“It’s not about how much you’re paid, but the contributions you’ve made,” Choi, who gave up a job in events management, said.

As the principal, Chan said he felt he owed the teachers more.

He recalled examples of when teachers could not go home to help with emergencies, such as when one teacher’s wife had stomach cramps, and another who accidentally locked herself in a room at home.

The biggest challenge Chan faces is hiring. When candidates apply for a job, he does not interview them first. Instead, he asks them to stay on campus for a night.

“Out of every 100 candidates, only one stays,” he said.

So what keeps the teachers motivated to stay at Zheng Sheng? Seeing the students change, they all agreed.

Maths teacher Cheng recalled a student who could not even take care of himself at the beginning. But since graduating, he has kept a job delivering distilled water for five years, and is not only able to take care of himself, but can also help out his family.

And the teachers said they in turn gained a lot from teaching the students.

“[Teaching here] influences how I educate my children, such as how to [instil] discipline, not waste resources, appreciate your family, and accept that not everyone can have a smooth-sailing life,” Yeung said.

Choi said she had become more understanding and patient.

The school has something to look forward to, with construction of three new blocks – with a canteen, toilets, showers, a workshop and an office for teachers – due to start in October and scheduled for completion in about two years. But Chan said it was still the school’s long-term goal to relocate.

A safe and hygienic campus, not a fancy one, is what Zheng Sheng needs, he said.