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Wednesday, Jan 20, 2021

Hong Kong protests: school principal hoping to bring warring sides together one sharing session at a time

Meeting with a former student inspired Li Kin-man to conduct forums involving pupils, teachers, and barristers. The secondary school head plans to invite police to session in January

When a student protester told principal Li Kin-man in August that young people needed their voices heard, the idea of conducting sharing sessions between teachers and pupils was born.

Four months on, Li has conducted four such sharing sessions, inviting not only teachers, students, but also barristers, journalists, and social workers who helped at protests.

And now he is planning to ask police officers to join next month’s talk.

“I don’t expect to change a person’s view 180 degrees through a single sharing session,” he said. “Maybe some teachers have negative thoughts about police, and maybe some police officers have negative views about the education sector. But, it’s important to start a conversation as a first step.”

The Kwai Chung secondary school head believes that in the face of serious mistrust between different members of society, it is important to find common ground through a genuine exchange of views.

“Conversation is always better than confrontation, although it may not mend all hatred in a heartbeat,” he said.

“Let’s not focus too much on the differences we have but try to remind ourselves of what we do share in common. We are all Hongkongers who want the best for our city.”

Li said the sharing, which aimed to encourage teachers to listen to voices from across the political spectrum, and provide peer support to the educators, all started when he met one of his Form Six graduates who had taken part in protests triggered by the now-withdrawn extradition bill.

The protests, which started in early June, have morphed into wider and increasingly violent anti-government movement in which more than 6,000 people have been arrested so far, nearly 40 per cent of them are students.

“He [the Form Six graduate] had really experienced a lot this summer. And after listening to his sharing I felt uneasy and so I asked, ‘what can I as your principal do?’," Li said.

“The student told me that young people hoped adults would not only focus on what they did, but also look deeper into their rationale and thinking behind it. Even though some might not agree with their cause, they just want someone to listen to them.”

The 47-year-old, who started out as a social worker before becoming an educator 20 years ago, said to deliver his promise to the student, the first sharing session was held in mid-September with teachers as the audience, and a group of young people as speakers.

Nine students, including radical and peaceful protesters, as well as some who “did not entirely agree with the protests”, were invited to share their views in person at the venue or through video call, while more than 50 teachers and principals from different schools attended.

During the 90-minute session, teachers also got to ask questions or provide feedback after hearing from guests who felt they could speak freely behind closed doors.

“Some teachers were touched and some even wept after listening to [what the young people] had to say,” Li said. “I did not ask them why, but I also got teachers’ feedback thanking me for organising these sessions so they can understand more about young people.

“As education workers, we do have a need to hear different voices.”

One of the participants, secondary school teacher Tommy Chow Tsz-yan, agreed. He said after attending the first sharing session in September, he came to realise he should not jump to conclusions too quickly in classrooms.

“Students don’t like us giving them many instructions before we listen to what they really think. They would not listen to us this way,” he said.

Other guest speakers included journalists, social workers as well as emergency doctors who had treated injured protesters. The most sought-after session involved a barrister who shared his views on the controversial mask ban law, which more than 160 people attended.

Also a vice-president of the Hong Kong Association for School Discipline and Counselling Teachers, Li said he had noticed that teachers have felt more stress than ever, as they faced pressure from inside and outside school.

He said teachers and principals were often challenged by parents and sometimes outsiders over their political views, while they also had to handle students’ emotions.

He hoped that through the sharing sessions, teachers could show support to each other, while some volunteer education psychologists and counsellors were also put on standby in case teachers were in need of immediate emotional support.

Li was also among the more than 100 principals, teachers and social workers who entered Polytechnic University during a 13-day police siege last month, where they eventually persuaded more than 300 minors to leave the site.

Police declared the unrest at PolyU a riot and surrounded the campus on November 17 after protesters blocked roads and set fires nearby which led to violent clashes. More than 1,000 hard-core protesters and their supporters were inside during the siege.


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