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Work pressure pushing teachers over the edge

Winnie Chong

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

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Education reforms are driving teachers to suicide and should be temporarily suspended, teacher representatives have warned. The call Monday follows the deaths of two teachers, who jumped from their flats last week after complaining about work pressure.

In separate incidents last year, three teachers killed themselves citing job- related stress.

But the government Monday rejected that the reforms led to last week's suicides.

"I believe there must be other reasons," said Fanny Law, permanent secretary for education and manpower. "Education reforms have being implemented in many schools. Why did only two teachers [commit suicide]?"

Education sector lawmaker Cheung Man-kwong, who is also chairman of the 70,000-strong Hong Kong Professional Teachers' Union, said the combination of a heavier workload caused by the reforms and a spurt of school closings is pushing many teachers to the edge.

Attempting to upgrade the city's education system, the Education and Manpower Bureau since 2000 has implemented a series of mandates, such as necessitating that teachers spend more time with students outside the classroom, adding exams for subjects like English and history, and ordering that teachers take benchmark assessments to prove their language abilities.

Adding to the stress, teachers are also worrying about their jobs because more than 50 SAR schools have been or are slated to close in 2005-06 due to gravely mistallied population projections.

Cheung contends there is little support to help the teachers cope with the added stress and responsibilities.

"It is not healthy and pleasant," he said. "The reforms should be stopped for a while, regardless of how good they are. The public needs to know that these policies are fulfilled by human beings. There should be priorities."

Choi Kwok-kwong, chairman of Education Convergence, laid some of the blame for the stress on undeserved criticisms by parents and the media.

"The government was too rushed in implementing so many education reform policies," Choi said. "These have put great pressure on teachers, while there are not enough resources to cope with so many changes."

He urged the bureau to examine whether some policies can be postponed and also give more resources to support schools.

A bureau spokeswoman said it is very concerned about the teachers' working environment and has implemented various measures to alleviate teachers' workload, including requesting they focus only on their specialized subjects, lowering the teacher-student ratio and providing subsidies to fund the hiring of additional support staff at schools.

Yu Kei-cheong, a 42-year-old primary school teacher who worked in the Sung Tak Wong Kin Sheung Memorial School in Tai Po, jumped from his Tai Po flat Saturday in front of his 14-year- old daughter. Yu had complained about being unhappy at work and had called his school earlier to ask for a day off.

Lam Hang-hong, a 54-year-old secondary school teacher at Kwai Chung's band-one Ho Fung College, leaped to his death in Tsuen Wan Wednesday. He had recently told his wife he was unhappy at work.

"If they cannot find friends to share their concerns while also lacking in ways to release their stress, they might break down," said Ho Hon-kuen, vice chairman of Education Convergence.


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