Will substitute teacher affect child’s development at Hong Kong primary school? Advice from a former teacher

Starting the school year with a replacement teacher might not seem like the ideal situation, but most children are more adaptable than we give them credit for

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 August, 2017, 7:02am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 August, 2017, 7:02am

My son was excited about the prospect of going back to primary school, only to find that his new teacher is off on long-term sick leave. The school has employed a substitute teacher for now, but it is unclear whether this teacher will stay on. The whole situation is very unsatisfactory and parents have been told very little so far. Is this likely to have an impact on my son?

This is not an ideal start to the new academic year and is disappointing for your son. Unfortunately, if a teacher has to withdraw from their job due to illness, or other personal reasons, suitable teachers can be difficult to find at short notice, especially if the position is not necessarily permanent.

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However, there are dedicated and high-quality supply teachers in Hong Kong who are willing to fulfil short-term contracts such as this (and, for example, maternity leave). Your son’s principal will be well aware that some parents are concerned about this situation, but it is hard to plan ahead at this stage if the length of your son’s teacher’s absence is uncertain.

Organising the staffing of a school can be complex enough under normal circumstances, but it can become particularly tricky when unforeseen difficulties such as this arise. You could certainly ask the school management team if they can provide any further clarification regarding the timescale of this projected absence. Be aware, though, that the information may not be available yet and they may be just as much in the dark as yourself.

Any change of teacher during an academic year is bound to have an impact on a child’s learning. Building positive relationships and strong bonds with pupils takes time. A good class teacher gets to know the learning potential and personalities of each individual, and consistent routines are very important for primary school students – especially in the early years when key skills are being developed.

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Of course, it is possible that your son may benefit more from the new replacement teacher than he might have done with the designated class teacher. It is impossible to predict how students will respond, either individually or as a whole class. The situation may not as dire as you imagine.

I’m sure your son’s school will try their utmost to replace the teacher quickly in order to provide the necessary stability for the class. In addition, senior or middle managers in these situations are often able to offer support for the new short-term teacher, both in the classroom and in planning sessions.

Teachers have different talents and strengths, and your son will bond with some teachers more than others throughout his academic life. If children like and respect their teacher, and find them inspiring, they are more likely to want to work hard, thrive and succeed. Try to help your son feel positive about this situation. Encourage him to get to know the new teacher and give him or her a chance. He may be in for a pleasant surprise.

Remind him that teachers are invariably stricter at the beginning of the year in order to set out clear boundaries for levels of behaviour and high expectations of work. It is essential for teachers to give out the right messages from the start. So even if the scheduled teacher was on duty, things may not have been entirely as he expected.

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Despite this unwelcome last-minute change and the usual anxieties about the transition from one year group to another, he can still have a happy and successful year. Your question is a fair and reasonable one, but do bear in mind that most children are more adaptable than we often give them credit for and they are generally resilient.

Whatever school life throws at them, students usually find their own level and quickly get used to changes of routine and the personality of any new teacher.

Julie McGuire is a former Hong Kong primary school teacher