9 Things I’ve Learned From Teaching in Hong Kong

Teaching English is a common profession for people looking to work overseas. Depending on the type of institution you work at, this sometimes means you have to teach kids from kindergarten all the way to grade 12. Here are ten things I’ve learned working at a centre that provides mostly one-on-one tutoring lessons!

1. There’s a lot of learning on your feet.

Trinity GESE exams, inter-school speech festivals,  phrasal verbs…etc, what are all these!? Don’t worry, you’ll pick it up soon. Dig into resources, such as exercise books, past papers, and the Internet to navigate through this maze. Kids in Hong Kong are encouraged to participate in as many competitions as they can in the hopes that the more awards they can obtain, the better chances the children have at getting into high-ranking schools. Their English textbooks also heavily focus on grammar, which isn’t something someone who has studied at a predominantly English-speaking country would likely be exposed to.

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Phrasal verb= verb + preposition. For example, “look into“, and “look after” mean completely different things.

Do you ever pull out chunks of your sentences to study their individual meaning instead of focusing on the overall message? Yeah, me neither. 

2. Stationery is power.

So is the floor of the apartment you live on, apparently! The higher the floor you live on and the cooler the stationery you own, the cooler YOU are. This is especially apparent among younger girls, but it can also be observed in some boys. What do you mean you don’t have a Pikachu mechanical pencil purchased in Japan and a huge pencil case with more compartments than you need?

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Smiggle: A Smile Makes a Giggle. Memorize this to score some brownie points. 

3. They have exams every few months.

The six-year-old student who has holes where his front teeth used to be? He has just finished his Chinese exam and has General Studies, English, Putonghua, and Math exams coming up.

4. There is a ranking system for all the local schools in Hong Kong.

A Primary 4 student walked into class crying.

Me: “Hey… what’s wrong?”

P4: “I got 84% on my English test! My mom just yelled at me because it isn’t in the 90’s!”

The best schools belong in the “Band 1” category, the good schools belong  in “Band 2”, and the not-so-good schools are in “Band 3”. Almost all parents want their kids to get into Band 1 schools, believing that the better the schools their sons and daughters are in, the brighter their futures will be. Aside from getting stellar report cards, most children have to go through interviews for primary school, high school, and even kindergarten (that’s right).

However, there are differences in terms of curriculum between schools. For instance, Heep Yan Secondary School tends to base the grammar their students have to learn on the novels in their syllabus, whereas Ying Wa College is considered to be more of a traditional school with their set grammar textbooks.

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“Winning at the starting line” is a popular saying among Hong Kong parents who think that 1) they must start by getting their kids into a well-known kindergarten 2) they must make sure that their kids have all the help necessary to maintain or reach their As, and 3) sign their children up for extra-curricular classes early. 

5. The HK government urges parents to let their children play freely for “at least 30 minute a day”.

Ergo, many parents DON’T let their kids play freely for 30 minutes a day. The message, as broadcasted on the city’s major TV channel, continues, “academics are important, but childhood should be a time of happiness”.

I’ve had similar conversations on this topic with a couple of my students too.

Me, to my 5-year-old kindergarten student: “I’ll let you play once we finish this last worksheet, yeah?”

Throwing a tantrum, 5yo:  “I’m so tired, I just had fencing class and I always have Math or Putonghua [tutor] class after and then I have to do my homework! I have a lot and when I finish it’s so late and I never get to play!”

The same Primary 4 student as above.

Me: “It’s the weekend! You can take it easy a little bit right!?”

P4: “Of course not! It’s because it’s Saturday that I have a lot of [extracurricular] classes to go to!”

This brings me to my next point…

6. Assure your students that they aren’t their grades.

Yes, grades are important but so is their mental health! It may be counterintuitive for you, the tutor/teacher, whose success relies on the fact that they get the good results their parents have paid for. However, understand that most are under tremendous stress from school, parents and that some don’t even get enough sleep having to wake up at 6 a.m. just so they could catch the school bus.

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My boss says that one of the advantages of small classes is that you can talk to them individually and become a companion to them as well.

Well, I’ll like to think that I have succeeded in that somewhat if they ask me questions about puberty.

7. Believe the kindergarteners when they say they need to go to the washroom.

The fact that they absolutely cannot hold it in comes as a surprise to me since I haven’t had much (i.e. any) experience especially with teaching young kids prior to this job.

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Instead of trying to convince them to hold it in for “just 5 more minutes”, use that time to round every kid up and do a group washroom trip. Trust me, you’ll thank me for this.

8. Older kids have a Whatsapp group for their class.

“My friend got her cell phone when she was in Primary 1 [6 years old]!” my 10-year-old student stated heatedly at the unfairness of her situation.

They usually use the Whatsapp group specifically made for their class to ask each other questions about their assignments. Sometimes, their homeroom teacher is included in their chat too.

Of course, we must never forget to mention the constant meme spam.

I’m only sorry that this is an old one.

9. Most HK kids are brought up by domestic helpers and/or their grandparents.

Living in one of the most expensive cities in the world is not easy. Especially if you have children and have to pay for their school fees, swimming lessons, violin lessons, and Math classes…etc. Many parents are very busy working to make their ends meet. Hong Kong’s working hours are also notoriously long!

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In comes the heroes who would swoop in to make sure their kids get fed and chauffeured to all these classes on time.

Kids tend to be quite attached to their helpers and grandparents as a result.

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