How Ronnie Cheng rose from office assistant to Diocesan Boys’ School headmaster and Global Teacher Prize finalist
The elite school’s principal also discusses how the young see the Occupy movement, ‘do-or-die’ exams and why he prefers to keep a low profile
Unlike many of its high-flying alumni over the past 148 years, Diocesan Boys’ School headmaster Ronnie Cheng Kay-yen prefers to keep a low profile.
The elite school, with its exclusive campus boasting a football pitch and concert hall on the outskirts of Mong Kok, and a star-studded alumni roster from the founding father of modern China, Dr Sun Yat-sen, to pop singer George Lam Chi-cheung, plus many more of the city’s notable and influential people, such as film director Alex Law Kai-yui.
Law directed Echoes of the Rainbow, based on his school days in the late 1960s, which won best screenplay at the 29th Hong Kong Film Awards in 2010.
As the 10th headmaster since 2012, the story of Cheng is not an often told one of a successful old boy who took up the torch of his alma mater and worked happily thereafter.
“There is a Chinese proverb which literally means failure is the mother of success,” he said.
“I’ve stumbled a lot, but I tried and picked myself up from where I’ve fallen, and I learned from failures.”
A sudden fall in family fortunes posed a huge challenge for him throughout his secondary school years.
“We moved from Kowloon Tong to the New Territories and every year we moved further away from the city, at the end I couldn’t afford college,” he said.
To make ends meet, Cheng worked as an office assistant during the day and a private tutor at night.
During those difficult years, he looked back on previous headmasters as role models to motivate and inspire him when it was his turn to lead .
As a principal living on campus, Cheng and his staff are always vigilant when it comes to ensuring the 50,000 square metre site of the school is problem-free. But he sees a much bigger task on his watch.
“We are fighting to defend the school as a platform that remains neutral, open and truthful ... something handed down to us by our predecessors that we have to uphold,” he said.
Cheng has been selected as one of the 50 finalists shortlisted from 20,000 teachers from 179 countries for this year’s Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize that honours outstanding people in the profession. But the honour has brought contrasting emotions. He said he felt “humbled and honoured but also with mixed feelings”.
Why did you have mixed feelings about being the first Hongkonger to be among the last 50 for the prestigious global teaching award?
As an educator, my priority is to have an influence over the students, instead of drawing attention to myself. So I felt a little bit uneasy about it. I felt that the recognition should have been given to teachers who taught me and students.
Why do you think you’ve been nominated for this award?
There are two things that are particularly impactful in my life. Firstly, I am a product of Hong Kong education. I was an undergraduate in the United States, but did all my postgraduate training, my master’s at the University of Hong Kong, my teaching certificate at the Baptist University, and principal training at Chinese University, were all done here. So I feel that whatever I have today, I’m a beneficiary of the Hong Kong education system, including its rigour, its all-roundedness, and the mixture of Western and Chinese cultures. Secondly, I felt I’ve stumbled a lot. But I was given a lot of room in my student days to explore and to learn, a lot of times through failure. I’m thankful to the school and to the headmasters who provided me the opportunity to learn in many different ways.
How about the students now?
Students in this age, especially in the secondary schools, are under a lot more pressure. Now they have only one exam [the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education launched in 2012], that’s do-or-die, and you have to do well to get to the next level. That’s pushing the decision date three years earlier than before. In my student days, I didn’t have to face this until I got to upper six [Form Seven ]. Of course you have the cert exam [at Form Five], which matures you. By the time you’re in upper six, you’re about 18 years old. Now, because of the exam [at Form Six], everything you learn at Form Four and beyond would be tested, and you have only one chance to succeed. So what do we really want the students to do in their adolescent years? Do we want them to act on their curiosity, explore the world, and develop life skills, such as working with your team, interact with the community?
How do students cope in such a tough situation?
Being pushed to that do-or-die exam at a very young age, students find it very difficult to cope. A lot of the time they feel the pressure or tension inward, and sometimes they don’t know how to articulate it. It is manifested sometimes through rebellious acts, sometimes through depression. The stronger ones grit their teeth and keep ploughing on. But by and large even the strongest and the brightest feel the pressure.
What do you think of the recent spate of student suicides and what should be done?
The sad thing is that, a lot of the time most students do not know how to articulate the pressure they face day in and day out, and the sadness, or fear they feel. At the school level, we need to protect this environment where we strengthen the student not only academically but in an all-rounded way, meaning we need to strengthen their life skills through extracurricular activities such as music, leadership training and character building.
How do you handle the parents who want their children to excel in exams?
We are fighting a battle. Many parents have their own pressures out of worry for their children. So they want to take care of the exams first, and all the other things later. But you only go through adolescence once, and so much of our character and value is developed during that phase of life. They would be sacrificing a lot if they spent all these formative years on exams. There are also doting parents who desperately want their kids to succeed ... they give them a lot of attention and in the end they become victims of it.
What should we do with the exam system?
It needs to be fine-tuned in a way that gender equality comes into play, diversity in skills or talents needs to come into play too. It takes the Examinations and Assessment Authority, the Education Bureau, and the universities to work together to create a more ideal system for students to gain access to tertiary education. We could consider a more diverse curriculum where students could plan their studies that would best fit the general direction they would take at university. That would benefit universities too because students would be better equipped with the skills and mindset required in the faculty they want to enter.
Do you think young people are becoming more difficult to understand after the Occupy movement?
I think it is a good thing that young people are concerned about what’s happening in the community and they have a sense of justice. The challenge is how to funnel those convictions and energy in a more positive way. Questioning and challenging things is human nature, but we need to create an environment where young people can engage in genuine, albeit intense discourse. We also need to provide the space for them to contribute, allowing them to make a real difference in society. I believe a lot of the negativity currently on display comes from a sense that they can’t contribute or make a positive change.
Does your school prohibit students from discussing Hong Kong independence?
Have you tried ordering young people to do or not to do certain things? It would just encourage them to go more in the opposite direction. As educators, our concern is not just their political views, but also their emotional well-being, academic abilities, and life skills. We don’t want to brand students with a certain label. Young people, especially boys, as they grow up, are often prone to taking extreme viewpoints, which they take and then interact with others, and gradually move towards a consensus. To us, the key is to engage in dialogue with them, let them know that the school will continue to care for them and trust their judgment.
Many young people seem to be against authority more nowadays. How do you build trust with them?
Challenging authority doesn’t necessarily mean they are not looking for one that they can trust, interact with and move forward with. Respect is a function of trust, and trust is a function of care. If they can feel that you care about them, there will be a natural trust between both sides . On the basis of trust, respect will be built that is conducive to dialogue, discourse, and debate.
The quirky side
What do you do in your leisure time?
It depends. When I am mentally very tired, I will bring a book to my favourite cha chaan teng in Mong Kok and read at its mezzanine floor. My leisure reading ranges from biographies to Hong Kong martial arts novels and comic books. I am now reading a biography of John F. Kennedy. As for exercise, I like running on the campus before school or at night. I also like tennis.
Why go to the hustle and bustle of Mong Kok to read when you live on a green campus?
It is indeed a pleasure to live there, especially at night, which is quiet and peaceful. I am there all the time, including weekends and holidays. Even during typhoon season my colleagues and I will walk around the campus to see if there has been any damage. Just because it is so accessible, I need to get out to feel fully relaxed.
Were you involved during the shooting of Echoes of the Rainbow on campus in 2009?
I was then deputy headmaster but I wasn’t involved. Director Alex Law is an old boy and told his story through the younger brother in the film, which I think reflected quite truthfully the school in the 1960s, including the naughty side of some of the boys. How the school worked its way with society in those turbulent days and with the family against adversity is a good inspiration for young people nowadays.