Teachers' comfort zone challenged

Editorial | Mary Ma 11 May 2021

If a well-established local teachers union was accurate in its finding that about 20 percent of its members were actually drawing up plans to give up teaching in Hong Kong because of the prevailing atmosphere, this surely would be alarming. But some critics say that, while an exodus is expected in the teaching profession, such a high number looks to be exaggerated.

That's because, according to the Professional Teachers' Union survey, many of those said to be planning to quit were experienced teachers, having been in the profession for 20 to 30 years.

Without proper guidance, inexperienced teachers - not to mention fresh graduates - will take longer to mature and the experience vacuum could be profound.

However, it is difficult to say for certain at this stage whether the worst-case scenario is going to happen as suggested.

If the PTU's pro-Beijing rival, the Hong Kong Federation of Education Workers, polled its members similarly on whether they would quit due to political pressure or immigration reasons, the latter could very well come up with opposite findings.

Nonetheless, it shouldn't take long to know the truth. The current school year will wind up soon and teachers need to inform their schools in advance if they are not going to continue in the new school year.

The situation will be clearer in summer.

The PTU said 1,178 of its 90,000 members responded to the survey and 40 percent of those responding had been contemplating giving up their jobs, with half of those not having made up their minds.

Here is a grain of truth. As with the civil service, teaching is also a huge comfort zone that offers attractive wages. Any teacher contemplating leaving the profession will have to sacrifice the comfort of certainty for uncertainty.

Apart from those who can retire early, many might well end up discovering that they simply don't have the courage to face uncertainty - even if they answered "yes" in the PTU survey.

Former chief executive Leung Chun-ying criticized, on one hand, the PTU for playing up the figures while, on the other, welcoming the findings.

He claimed, perhaps sarcastically, that it would not be a bad thing if many of those affiliated to the pro-democracy association left schools. He knows only too well that there is a huge supply of new blood willing and ready to fill any vacancies left by the tired blood.

Teachers in Hong Kong are very well rewarded, with starting salaries of about HK$28,000 a month, and Leung's stance seems to be: "If a downpour threatens, then let it be."

But, as stated, the problem would be in filling more senior positions, where years of experience cannot be easily replaced.

This is a pressing issue that needs to be addressed in very clear terms.

If Leung's successor Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor made a Freudian slip when commenting that people leaving the SAR were all fugitives - a remark that had to be clarified by a government spokesman later - Leung laid bare the thought that is probably mainstream within the establishment.

He stopped short of elaborating, but it is clear that Education Secretary Kevin Yeung Yun-hung has been given the task of reforming education to bring teachers and students in line with Beijing's design.

If teachers affiliated to the PTU leave the sector, will there be less resistance to the ongoing reforms from within schools? In this light, Leung's comment was not a Freudian slip at all.

Yeung's office is predicting a normal wastage this coming school year. Perhaps they are so confident because they know that quitting the comfort zone is often easier said than done.

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