To improve language standards in Hong Kong, get native English teachers to train local staff

Kelly Yang says whether we allow NETs to harness their creativity to help local educators or expand the current programme while raising local salaries, the goal is the same: to raise education standards as a whole

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 October, 2015, 12:16pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 October, 2015, 12:16pm

When it comes to teaching children using more creative forms of instruction, such as project-based learning rather than rote memorisation, there are no greater stalwarts than our city's Native English Teachers (NETs). All across Hong Kong, NETs are working hard every day to interject creativity and critical thinking into their lessons. For that, I applaud them.

However, the problem we face in Hong Kong of declining English standards runs far deeper than anything the NET scheme can solve on its own. On average, most local schools only gets one NET per school. No one teacher - no matter how hard working - can single-handedly raise the English standard of an entire school.

And if the NET programme, as it currently stands, can't bring up the English standard, then at HK$710 million, it's a lot of buck for not much bang. A better way for NETs to make an impact is if they help train local school teachers. NETs are valuable resources on how to teach creatively. If we can harness that expertise and spread it among all local teachers, we'd have a much better shot at truly raising the standard for not just English but the standard for teaching and education as a whole.

No one teacher - no matter how hard working - can single-handedly raise the English standard of an entire school

Post columnist Alex Lo recently raised an interesting question: why not just expand the NET programme? Instead of having one NET teacher at a school, why not, say, 35 per school? I like this idea in theory; however, I have two concerns. The first is the assumption that our local teachers cannot be trained to teach English properly, that we must import an army of foreigners to get the job done right.

That's not the way Singapore did it and I don't believe that's the way we have to do it; to say it is underestimates Hong Kong local teachers and their abilities. I've worked with local Hong Kong teachers, and I can say they are smart, caring and hard working. They also desperately want to learn how to teach English more effectively and innovatively - but we have to be willing to give those skills to them.

READ MORE: Let's admit it, Hong Kong's English standards will never rise

My other concern has to do with salaries. Currently, there's a great discrepancy between what a NET earns and what other local teachers make. Taking into consideration fringe benefits, many NETs make three times as much as a normal local school teacher.

In my experience as an educator, any time the discrepancy is that high between people who do similar jobs and teach all the same kids, you're asking for trouble. There is nothing more harmful in a school than the feeling of inequality. It builds resentment and animosity, neither of which is conducive to learning or teaching.

Recently, this blatant bias for foreign teachers manifested itself in one school openly advertising for a Caucasian teacher. I believe teachers should be hired based on quality of teaching, not ethnicity. I also believe that how much a teacher makes should be tied to experience, rather than country of origin. As such, if we want to expand the NET programme, which I am 100 per cent on board with, we need to first raise the salaries and benefits of local teachers to be on a par with NETs. It's only fair.

Ultimately, local teachers and NETs need to figure out a way to work together. Whether that's through NETs training local teachers or expanding the NET scheme while also raising local school teachers' salaries to eliminate the income gap, the end goal is the same: raising Hong Kong's English standards.

NETs have laid the groundwork; now it's time to build the house. If we sit back and waste all our time bickering, we will all lose.

Kelly Yang teaches writing at The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school centre for writing and debate in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School.