The Quite Revolution
by Jim Pollard
Hong Kong is unique, yet what makes it different from the rest of Asia? From my perspective, the answer is the education system. Now there are major criticisms to Hong Kong public education; some of which are fully justified—but it is not all bad. For many years now, there has been a quiet revolution going on in classrooms all over the city as frontline teachers are realising the importance of reading literature over a spoon-feeding style education. Despite almost zero support from upper administration, regular teachers are finding ways to supplement their lessons with more useful learning practices. This education “revolution,” though small in size, has had a deep and lasting impact upon many youth of Hong Kong.
In 2004, I chose to enter the Hong Kong public primary education sector. Modelled after the English system, children here are required by law to attend six years of primary and at least three years of secondary. One of the core tenets of this education system is the learning of great classical English literature. I must confess, however, that the rhymes and stories of Dr. Seuss and Road Dahl are more the norm in my classes. But regardless of the subject matter, the intent is the same—to instil a love of the written word and all of the wonderful possibilities that come from reading.
My first primary school in Hong Kong is well known throughout the city. The majority of parents are from the upper crust of local society, and as such, their children generally lack for nothing, at least physically. My time there was a mixed bag blessing and an eye-opening experience. As one of the flagship public schools of Hong Kong, VIP visits were common. Surprisingly, I witnessed some questionable practices in order to make the school look more “prestigious.” There was blatant disregard for the truth from the highest levels of both the Education Department officials and the administration and senior teachers of the school. And I saw up close the horrific working environment for local teachers. Frankly I am surprised there are not more teacher suicides. However, I also saw local teachers who went far beyond the extra mile for their students. Teachers who used part of their reading lessons to build strength of character, cultivate free expression and enhance their students’ critical thinking through the sharing of quality literature. These attributes absolutely cannot be quantified by any means of standardised testing. At this famous school, we produced numerous students who have gone on to form the backbone of the young, highly educated, professional workforce of this city.
Ten years ago, I changed to a new school located in a public housing estate. The parents at this school are from Hong Kong’s hardworking “grass roots.” Most of them speak very little English, yet all desire a better life for their children. Over the years, I have cultivated a strong relationship and rapport with my colleagues, parents and their children. As I also reside in the same community, many of them are my neighbours and have become my good friends. Though my overall experience with a more “humble” local school has been very rewarding, the problems facing the students, teachers and parents are generally the same. There is still too much focus on test taking skills and repetitive rote memorisation. Currently, the senior administrations of many public schools are trying to raise test scores by setting unrealistic goals and practices. The frontline teachers try their best, but we all know that such goals are not only unobtainable, but downright harmful to the mental growth of children. Neither the class teachers nor the parents want these unreasonable expectations for our children, yet our voices are ignored.
So what can we do? Quietly and secretly, we find other ways to influence our students beyond the required endless dictations and rote memorisation tests. We push them to learn poetry, to join both solo and choral speaking competitions to enhance their self-confidence. We push them to read during recess, to take home storybooks and read to their parents, regardless if they understand or not. We create simple classroom dramas and encourage them to write and act in their own creations. We push them to expand their minds through all available literature. In short, we frontline teachers use any means necessary to build up our students into passionate lovers of learning.
Unfortunately, as great as the students’ desire to learn is, today there is a different sad reality to their story. On 2 September 2019, the first day of public school, hundreds of former students came to visit their favourite teachers. I found myself in the company of several of my “babies” that I had taught since first grade. These youth did not approach me to speak about their upcoming DSE exams; they wanted to discuss the current political situation in Hong Kong. For two hours, I listened to these concerned students, who quite eloquently explained their yearning to be allowed the opportunity to express themselves freely without interference from government influences. Many confessed to their active participation in the current protests around the city. As they finally took their leave, each student solemnly hugged me and expressed thanks for being their teacher. I saw this same situation play out all over the staffroom that afternoon. It was a truly humbling experience, of which many of my colleagues shed more than a few tears.
I am not claiming that our collective teaching is the source of the current protests, though the irony is that Beijing does indeed blame Hong Kong teachers for “brainwashing” the children. Yet it is my opinion that the corruption and incompetence at the highest levels of our schools and government education department reflects the same overall problems with the rest of government—a total disconnect with the reality of regular people. The voices of teachers too are ignored by those in power. So in this regard, my colleagues and I all feel that we have no choice but to continue with our own “quiet revolution.” We will continue to encourage our students to read, to explore and to express themselves without fear. Are these not the very qualities that all educators should aspire to for their students? If this is brainwashing, then yes, we are guilty.
(Photograph © Alex Ogle—AFP/Getty Images)
Originally from rural South Louisiana, Jim Pollard has spent a lifetime reading about nearly every subject imaginable; in particular young Jim loved reading about far-away lands and cultures. Though there are still plenty of unexplored countries left to visit, Jim has seen a great deal of the world and is grateful to currently reside in Hong Kong and enjoy life as a public Primary school teacher. Besides traveling and reading, he also enjoys music through singing and piano, as well as writing short stories and haiku.