Celebrating a long service in education
Father Alfred Joseph Deignan never imagined his life would turn out as it did. As a young Jesuit, he was hoping to go to Zambia for missionary work, but was sent instead to Hong Kong.
Arriving in 1953, he settled down in Cheung Chau and started learning Cantonese. He fitted into the local community well and became a witness of the local villagers’ struggle against poverty. For support he had the community of the Irish Jesuits whose number was expanding annually, reaching its peak in 1964 with 86 members.
The Jesuits in Hong Kong were mostly engaged in social work and teaching at the time and, after two years on the language course, Deignan was assigned to teach at Wah Yan College.
“I was thrown into it at the deep end,” he says. “It wasn’t something I had chosen but, while teaching English and history, I realised that I liked teaching.”
Rich in experience
Deignan,90 this year, looks back on a life rich in human relations as well as insights into teaching and education in Hong Kong. He believes that teaching should provide opportunities for students to develop their talents and potential, and support their character formation and moral education.
“Respect, responsibility, kindness, forgiveness, and compassion are values you don’t get taught in the classroom. Teaching values that will guide you in life are missing,” he says, explaining that Wah Yan College puts much effort into teaching students these values.
Trying to expand on the Wah Yan spirit, which is the result of this kind of education and sharing the same values, Deignan finds it difficult to define.
“The spirit shows itself in the way we behave to each other. You can’t see the spirit but the evidence of it is in how students behave, in their cooperation, friendship, taking responsibility… Sharing the same values makes that spirit more concrete,” he says.
Constantly looking to improve teaching, Deignan introduced Portrait of a Graduate, a model of educational excellence, and Reflective Pedagogy_ which involves reflection on experience, and taught teachers about reflection, preparation, sharing and integrating ethical values into their self-reflection.
In spite of the many problems Hong Kong education faces, there have also been many improvements, and Deignan has witnessed this development during his long career. Training teachers at university level has seen great progress. Opening seven institutions of tertiary education, in addition to the one which existed when he arrived in 1953, has been another great achievement, as well as opening special schools for handicapped children with well-trained psychologists to take care of them.
On the other hand, Deignan believes schools could still do a lot to improve teaching, if they had larger budgets and the freedom to decide their own curriculum. He points to the direct subsidy scheme school system as an improvement.
“Today’s system should be reformed, it is much too narrow and limited,” he adds. “The curriculum should be widened to include all subjects and give students a choice. Parents should also have the freedom to apply to any school.”
But more than anything, he would like to do away with the three bands.
“You have students at different levels in band 1, 2 and 3. It is supposed to put them into compartments. Band 3 is very bad for the students: they look down upon themselves, and they have no self-confidence,” he says.
Helping the new generation
Deignan’s dream is for Wah Yan to have enough resources to maintain and expand some of the good teaching practices already introduced, and which are now in danger of being discontinued. These programmes for the two Wah Yan schools have been costing HK$5 million each per annum. A University of Hong Kong survey concluded that the programmes using small- class teaching, teacher development and support for activities were very valuable for the students' education and formation. They also brought the two Wah Yan schools closer together.
“It has made such a difference for the schools. It would be a disaster if we had to stop,” Deignan says.
The two schools’ generous alumni have a special occasion to get together and give their alma mater a helping hand, as they have arranged a 90th_birthday concert for Deignan. More than 300 students, alumni and teachers from the two schools will perform. Deignan’s 20 favourite songs will be presented by a choir made up of alumni and the two schools’ Chinese and Western orchestras. A 200-strong choir will also perform.
“We hope it will be a great success, and that people will enjoy the programme,” Deignan says, explaining that the money raised at the concert will be used to keep current programmes running, and for improvements, such as small -class teaching, teacher development programmes and organising student activities including sports, music, drama, debate and other activities.