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The aftermath of Hong Kong's teacher flight

September 02, 2023
topic:Freedom of Expression
tags:#Hong Kong, #education, #democracy, #China
located:Hong Kong, China
by:Vanesse Chan
As experienced teachers depart, Hong Kong students are affected and new educators navigate a heated political situation with limited mentorship.

On 19 July this year, as many students in Hong Kong hoped for good news, 17-year-old Bernice Chang returned to her secondary school to check her university entrance exam result. Unfortunately, she received a level 2 score in English, which didn't meet the university admission requirement.

Her dreams of pursuing her desired degree were shattered, and the bespectacled girl attributed this setback to the disruptive changes in teachers.

"Just when I started noticing progress in learning, I had a new teacher. Then I needed to adjust to the new teaching method." Chang said the frequent change of teachers was "messy," claiming it had negatively affected the quality of teaching.

Chang was one of 48,762 candidates who sat for the DSE exams, which required years of dedicated study as students competed for coveted university spots.

"We could only rely on ourselves," Chang told FairPlanet, adding that students were not given adequate support as they prepared for the exam. She believes she would have performed better if there hadn't been such a high turnover rate during the most critical years of her education.

Over the past three years, Chang had a total of 12 teachers for her four core subjects: Chinese, English, mathematics, and liberal studies. One of these teachers only taught her class for a brief three-month period before departing from the position, citing a "difference in ideology with the school."

Her situation reflects the broader consequences of the wave of teacher departures in the city under Chinese rule. Since the 2019 pro-democracy movement and the pandemic, Hong Kong's education sector has been struggling as experienced teachers are leaving their positions while new teachers struggle to find mentorship as they enter the profession.

According to local media reports citing official data released in April this year, approximately 6,500 teachers resigned from their positions during the previous academic year, contributing to a total of nearly 12,000 resignations since 2021.

Since Beijing imposed a strict national security law in June 2020, Hong Kong has experienced a significant wave of emigration. Many residents were concerned that this law would grant authorities extensive powers to suppress vaguely defined political offenses. As a result, numerous teachers left the city under Chinese rule and relocated to countries such as the UK, Canada and elsewhere.

The Education Bureau, however, claimed the departures could be attributed to a wide variety of reasons including retirement, pursuit of higher education, transitioning to different types of schools and pursuing employment opportunities outside the teaching profession.

Hui Wai Tin, a seasoned educator who previously taught at a university in the city, expressed concern that the high turnover rate in the field of education would hinder teaching and negatively impact students' learning progress.

"Teachers are students' mentors, providing guidance and support for their learning and life," Hui, who authored several books on education, told FairPlanet. "If students cannot find such support and assistance in their teachers' absence, they may feel lonely, helpless and frustrated. This is unhelpful to their mental health and learning experiences."

the challenges faced by Hong Kong's teachers

24-year-old Melody Wong recently completed her placement at her alma mater and is set to begin her new job at another secondary school in Hong Kong in September as the new academic year starts.

The passionate young teacher has had a strong desire to excel in teaching since her teenage years. Even before graduating from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, one of the city's top educational institutions, she sought out various teaching opportunities. In her spare time, Wong volunteers at her church, offering her teaching expertise to those in need.

Speaking to FairPlanet, she said she remains committed to teaching in Hong Kong, despite being "absolutely deterred" by the socio-political changes in the city.

As China tightens its grip on Hong Kong, the authorities proposed to include a mandatory national security education curriculum and published guidelines for teachers requiring them to have a "correct understanding" of the national security law and Basic Law constitution.

In 2020, a primary school teacher was accused of promoting pro-independence concepts in the classroom. The teacher’s licence was revoked by officials despite having been cleared in the school’s internal investigation.

The city’s then-leader, Carrie Lam, had pledged to weed out what she termed "bad apples" in the education system, but critics warned of a subsequent chilling effect on freedom of speech in schools.

Three years later, many educators in Hong Kong continue to feel uncertain about the boundaries they must navigate and express concerns about the ambiguities of the guidelines given by the officials.

Wong is concerned that classroom discussions, even those without political context, could lead to complaints. While she, as an English teacher, has fewer worries, she notes that History and Chinese teachers may have more concerns. These subjects often touch on sensitive topics, including contemporary Chinese history, like the Tiananmen massacre in 1989, which saw Beijing cracking down on pro-democracy activists.

Wong did recall a moment in which she felt a slightly threatened during her placement. "The students were curious and they asked me about the social movement [in 2019], and what happened at that time."

Feeling hesitant, Wong refused to answer the student’s question at that time. "At that moment, I was thinking about whether it was alright to answer that question. But I think the way I answered it is more in line with the guidelines [given by the Education Bureau]," she reflected. 

"Only an open-minded environment would lead to a fearless space for people, not only for teachers. Unfortunately, our society is heading in the opposite direction. And this is not limited to politics," Wong said.

In addition to the diminishing classroom freedom, the 24-year-old noted another challenge faced by new teachers: the absence of mentorship, which has become more pronounced due to the departure of experienced educators. In her own alma mater, for instance, over two-thirds of the teachers have left since her graduation from the secondary school.

Wong highlighted the importance of having an experienced mentor to guide the new teachers and insisted it would make a big difference. "In my first year of placement, I had no idea how to teach nor did I know how the school operated. I would have been so lost without a mentor."

teachers’ exodus: the aftemath

After 17 years of teaching in Hong Kong, Kit Lo decided to quit her job in 2021 and moved to the United Kingdom, where she is now working as a substitute teacher at a grammar school.

During her career in Hong Kong, Lo taught thousands of students, some of whom she keeps in touch with. Leaving her hometown was not an easy decision, but the shrinking freedom in teaching prompted her resignation, as well as the deteriorating political environment.

The 40-year-old feared that as a teacher, she could become the "next target" of the authorities.

In March 2021, officials renamed the subject Liberal Studies to Citizenship and Social Development. The change introduces new curriculum elements focusing on patriotism, national development and adherence to the law, a move that has been criticised by some as a significant overhaul in the education sector.

The revamped subject will now encompass just three themes: Hong Kong, the nation and the contemporary world, a reduction from the previous six themes. The modification was prompted by allegations from pro-establishment lawmakers who accused the existing core subject for senior secondary school students of inciting violence among young people during the pro-democracy movement in 2019.

In the latest guideline for schools regarding national security, the city’s Education Bureau states that "as far as national security is concerned, there is no room for debate or compromise." The document issued to schools also emphasises that teachers should adopt "appropriate sources in teaching," and  stipulates that students may be punished if they are found to have breached the rules.

Officials further said that teachers should not be concerned about crossing the "red line" if they love the country and teach in a "fair and unbiased" manner. However, as a Liberal Studies teacher, Lo said the revamp of the subject left her "no choice but to quit." Given the current changes, she doubts she can continue fostering independent thinking among students on social topics.

Lo mentioned that at least four other teachers at her school who were teaching alongside her also left for the UK. With experienced educators departing and new teachers entering without proper training, she emphasised the significant gap within the education sector.

"The teacher who I was mentoring had just finished their placement when I left Hong Kong," Lo recalled. "As a mentor, you can provide lots of support for the new teachers when they enter a new school.

"This is a big problem because many teachers, with more than 10 years of experience, have reached the age of having children who were just about to enter schools, and they have decided to leave."

Lo said around 70 teachers left her school over the last three years. While some emigrated or opted for early retirement, others left for better opportunities.

She explained that when veteran teachers left, junior teachers had moved up the ladder and began searching for better opportunities, which in turn catalised a butterfly effect and shook the entire demographic of the city's the education sector.

While some teachers expressed fears of crossing the red line, some like Kenneth Cheu are not too worried about it. Having been teaching for five years, Cheu said he doesn’t think teachers would be accused of committing crimes related to national security under "normal circumstances."

"On a personal level, I am not too worried about it, but I understand that some educators may be worried," said Cheu.

Hui Wai Tin also added that the "new school normality" has become prevalent in most schools in the city, and they have effectively adapted to the guidelines provided by the authorities.

"For those remaining in local school services, most of them will be far from touching the red line."

Image by Catgirlmutant

Article written by:
Vanesse Chan
Hong Kong China
Embed from Getty Images
“Just when I started noticing progress in learning, I had a new teacher. Then I needed to adjust to the new teaching method.”
Embed from Getty Images
“We could only rely on ourselves,” Chang told FairPlanet, claiming that students were not given adequate support as they prepared for national exams.
Embed from Getty Images
“Only an open-minded environment would lead to a fearless space for people - not only for teachers. Unfortunately, our society is heading in the opposite direction, and this is not limited to politics."