Life as a Kindergarten English Teacher in Hong Kong
16 July 2016
Can you believe it’s been 11 months already? Today was one of my last days at work (I still have to do a couple duty days next week, but the kids are finished now) and this year feels like it’s gone so quickly. I’ll be updating you all soon on my plans for what’s next, but I thought I’d share a bit more about my experience this year, specifically my experience with my job (I’ll do a more general post about this year soon too), which may be interesting for anyone else considering a similar job. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this year, and am very glad I did it, but of course, not every experience can be perfect. I would never put anyone off coming to do what I’ve done, but I want to give a realistic idea of what it was like. I will stress also, that everyone’s experiences are unique. My school was very different to the schools that some of my friends here worked at, so this is just a taste of what Hong Kong kindergartens are like.
The students – If you can’t list this as a pro, you probably shouldn’t be working as a teacher. I adored my students, and saying goodbye to them on the last day was a bit emotional. Yes, they can be exhausting and drive me up the wall some days, but most of the time they are funny and silly and so, so cute. I taught the nursery for the most part, the 2-3 year olds, which some of my friends hated because you can get next to no response from some of them, but I found them to be so entertaining, and they develop so quickly at that age. Many of mine were very bright anyway, and for the most part, at that age they are so excited to learn that motivated them isn’t hard. Of course, they all have different ability levels, and some just aren’t good at English, but I was having conversations with many of them by the end of the year. And nothing gives your mood a boost quite like them running over to hug you, or walking into class to be met with cheering.
Workload – This one definitely varies from school to school. Some of my friends had to submit lesson plans every few weeks, or write hundreds of reports for all the students. However, my workload was much lighter than some others, and certainly lighter than I had expected. I didn’t have to submit lesson plans, and the curriculum was so straight forward, with many teaching materials ready for me to use, that my planning took very little time. And the class teachers wrote the reports, I only had to give them all grades during the biannual assessment weeks. Curriculums in most schools are very organised though, from what I can tell, as Hong Kong in general puts a lot of importance on academics (how many countries start school at age 2-3?), which makes things much easier to manage, and there’s still enough flexibility to put your own spin on lessons, as long as all the classwork and homework gets done (less applicable to my nursery though, as they can’t write!).
Co-workers – Again, very much specific to each school, and I know some people who argued with other staff, or who were more or less ignored by them, often due to the language barrier. I got lucky though, and my co-workers were wonderful. I had two other English teachers I worked alongside, which was great to start with purely because they were the easiest to talk to, but they also proved to be lovely people, and very helpful to me. The same is true for all the Chinese teachers there; I’m naturally quiet in new situations anyway, and a language barrier makes it even harder, but once we all got comfortable with each other, I really liked everyone I worked with.
Hong Kong – This one isn’t so specific to my school, but really I just want to emphasise that Hong Kong is a great place to come work, whatever that work may be. The job aside, I think it’s a great city to live in, with so much diversity amongst its people and its geography, and there’s so many options for things to see and do. It’s especially good if you want an expat community around you, as it’s full of them, but I still felt I experienced a bit of Chinese culture too of course! I made a lot of friends here, mostly other English teachers, because we all came to work here through the same agency, so we all met each other fairly quickly, and lived together in various combinations.
Travel & Holidays – The holidays you get as a teacher in Hong Kong are pretty good – 10-14 days each at Christmas, Chinese New Year and Easter, and 3-4 weeks in summer if you stay longer than a year. The private language centres don’t tend to give you as long, but the public and private schools do. There’s also about a dozen public holidays throughout the year, some of which have festivals to see, some of which extend your weekend. And because Hong Kong is so central in Asia, it’s very easy to do lots of travelling in your holidays. I’ve seen Cambodia and the Philippines so far, and have more plans forming for the summer. I could have gone to another country in Christmas too, but opted to go home instead, and I know people who did weekends away to places too.
Working hours – My average week consisted of 46 hours at work, which is not an obscene amount by any means, but trust me when I say you feel it, as did all my fellow teachers. I had a 45 minute commute on top of that, so I left home at 7.30am and returned at 5.45pm every day. I wasn’t allowed to leave the school at all through the day, not even at lunch, and by the time I got home most nights I was pretty tired. Doing anything in the evenings required a fair bit of effort. However, this would have been entirely manageable had it not been for the fact that I also had to work every Saturday morning (8.30am-12pm), usually doing very little real work, and you are expected to attend school events, which my school seemed to have more of than any other. If they landed during normal hours I didn’t mind, but I frequently lost my entire Saturday, working until 5pm, and even once the whole weekend when I had to work a Sunday too, with no extra pay or time off. I had at least a dozen events throughout the year, and after a while it just got frustrating and tiring, and since all teachers must attend events, we were usually overstaffed and most of us had not much to do, and we usually had to be there far too early and spend a long time waiting around doing nothing.
Workload and Co-workers – I just want to list these again in the cons section, as while they were pros for me, this isn’t true for everyone. As I said, some of my friends had very heavy workloads, with lots of marking and reports, and co-workers who treated them badly, or just plain ignored them. I will also add that the downside to my light workload was that I got extremely bored. I spent more hours not teaching, but still at work, than I actually spent teaching, and had to use that time to do very menial tasks in the school office (most commonly, colouring in pictures for new textbooks). Sometimes it was nice to switch off and do something simple, but a lot of the time I was bored, and wished I had more substantial work to do.
Educational Outlook – I had mixed feelings about the education standards of my school. When I first realised I was teaching children as young as 2 years old, I thought it was crazy that they should have to start school so early. And then I discovered that they have homework from the age of 3, and plenty of it at that. Thy have to complete a lot of classwork too, and while some children cope fine with all this, and it’s amazing to see what they can achieve so young, others struggle with it. And because there’s so much to get through, class teachers literally do not have the time to help the children who are struggling, resulting in them falling behind. It’s a system that works well for the smart kids, but not so much for the slower ones, or those with special needs. Many teachers are very strict too, and I’ve never seen such high behavioural standards for such young children. Again, some cope fine with this, but those with special needs can often struggle, and get shouted at for not listening etc, when I really don’t think they can help it. That said, compared to stories I heard from other schools, and schools in other countries, mine wasn’t too bad, all things considered, and all teh children seemed very happy every day.
Communication – Obviously the language barrier can be an issue at times, but since many of my teachers had good English, and one was entirely fluent in both Cantonese and English, and she translated most things for me, this wasn’t a huge issue for me most of the time. What was more frustrating was the lack of timely communication. I frequently had no idea what was going on, especially at the events, because I just wasn’t told anything. These events were usually very chaotic and disorganised too, because it wasn’t just me who had no clue! Or, we (myself and the Chinese teachers included) would be told things at the last minute. There were times when I turned up to discover there were photos or something being taken that day, so I had no lessons, even though I’d already prepared for them, or when I had to earmark whole days or weekends for events, and only be told the exact hours a day or two in advance. I definitely learned to go with the flow a lot more, and improvise a lot, especially in lessons, but if you’re not good with that, then it can be frustrating.
Money – The money here is good, don’t get me wrong. We were paid well for what we did, but it was irritating to know that our agent was taking profits from our wages. This is why most teachers only stay with that agent for a year to get settled, then find work directly with a school. However, while I love Hong Kong, it is one of the most expensive cities in the world to live in. While some things, like the public transport, are reasonable, housing and rent prices are very high, especially for the little space you get, as well as other things. It’s not uncommon, for instance, to spend several hundred HKD on a night out. Of course, our wages are proportionate to the living costs, and I was never caught short of money, but it’s something else to consider.
All in all, I had a very positive experience this year, and have absolutely no regrets about choosing to come to Hong Kong. I love the city, I loved teaching my students, I made some good friends, and I got to travel and experience so many amazing things. Was it perfect? No, of course not. Nothing is ever perfect. My lists look even here, but I would say that I felt the pros outweighed the cons most of the time. Yes, I’m choosing to leave my current job, but I would still encourage others to try working here if you’re considering it. Naturally, it’s not for everyone, and I know some people who loved Hong Kong but not teaching, or vice versa, but I also know a lot who are choosing to continue teaching here for another year, if not longer. All experiences are different, and all I can give you is my opinion. For me, teaching in Hong Kong was a great experience, and I’m so happy I did it, but I am now choosing to move on to other adventures…