As expected, the new guidelines on the professional conduct of teachers in Hong Kong, released by the Education Bureau, are more detailed than the previous version. It is feared that the new policy will reinforce the toxic culture of teacher-bashing, further eroding public confidence in the teaching profession in Hong Kong.
It is not a policy that everyone likes. But it is better to frame the “red lines” more explicitly. After all, teachers have the right to know what is meant by “being professional”.
Teacher professionalism is not a policy issue unique to Hong Kong. The world has experienced “pedagogical panic” over teacher professionalism in one way or another, although the reasons are different.
In Australia, due to the declining student performance in international standardised tests, politicians became anxious over “teacher quality”. So the federal government has introduced a suite of reform initiatives over the past decade, including the development of Australian Professional Standards for Teachers in February 2011. But the policy has bred new challenges.
Australian teachers need to grapple with more red tape and scrutiny than before. They feel that their work is becoming more tightly controlled, and their autonomy to innovate pedagogy is diminishing. The achievement gap between rich and poor children is widening. This is the sad reality in many state schools in Australia.
To be fair, we can’t jump to the conclusion that the new policy in Hong Kong will lead to outcomes similar to what has been seen in other jurisdictions. Most requirements spelled out in the new guidelines are quite sensible and I believe most Hong Kong teachers abide by them. That a teacher is intentionally teaching wrong things to students is beyond the pale.
A more important question that remains unanswered is: can the policy restore public confidence in the teaching profession and enhance our awareness that everyone, not just teachers, is responsible for creating and defending “good education”?
One strange thing about the idea of “teacher professionalism” is that it only expresses our ideals, while the contradictions, challenges and turbulent emotions in teachers’ work cannot be fully captured in this idea. In one case example given in the new guidelines, a teacher was described as “mishandling student discipline” because he/she had “failed to control his/her emotions [and] pulled the student by the collar and asked the student to leave the classroom”.
It is a less than positive way to handle student discipline. We all know how to criticise this teacher and call him/her “unprofessional”. Rarely do we probe further.
Why was that teacher so emotional? What was the disruptive behaviour exhibited by that student in this case? How do different stakeholders, including managers from school-sponsoring bodies and school board members, provide appropriate measures of support for teachers?
Can a utilitarian educational culture and school governance policy enable teachers to teach with authority and respect, and not with abuse of power? What is the legal basis for teachers to exercise punishment in school, according to other policy documents such as the guidelines on student discipline?