04 May 2020

My work in ELT: Hong Kong / Teaching

In the May 1998, I moved to Hong Kong with the plan of finding a job teaching English. A Native English Teaching (NET) scheme was set to start in September and I had hoped to be part of that. The problem was I didn't have an education degree or a certificate for teaching English as a foreign language, so the Education Bureau (EB) wouldn't even interview me. I called the EB and asked them to interview me, test me—whatever it would take to get my foot in the door. But no. I quickly learned Hong Kong is place where pieces of paper and no amount of experience would get me in the door without the correct degree. Understandable enough, I guess. 

So I started looking for students privately by putting up an advert in a local supermarket. Within a couple of weeks, I had a few students and it seemed all would work out. What I found, though, was that my arsenal of lessons from the US didn't work the same here. With private students in the US, I would start with a topic or situation or idea to get students to use the language they already had. My experience has been that students don't appreciate how much English they already know. For me, that was a way to develop rapport, build confidence, and find out where they were on the English ladder and make a plan accordingly. 

My private students in the US were from Central and Latin America and I often couldn't shut them up once they started talking, which was fine because there was a lot of 'content' to work with. In HK, I came face to face with the Asian attitude of students not wanting to speak for fear of making a mistake. Of course, I had come across this while teaching in Boston and was used to dealing with it in a classroom environment. But now the classroom had a student of one. I tried games, activities, videos, songs, but 95% of the time, students just weren't engaging. 

Teenage students (and their parents) were perfectly happy with me introducing a topic and handing out a grammar worksheet or a short text with questions and sitting passively by while they did they work. When they were finished, we'd talk through mistakes, form, meaning, vocabulary, etc. I tried introducing discussion then and had some success, but the student preference was for paperwork, clearly. I had no issue making or printing worksheets as I of course needed money, but it was terribly boring. And the adults were the same—they wanted to be fed. There's a saying here that says learning is like feeding ducks. So that's what I did. 

Luckily, I landed a couple of jobs that involved classroom teaching, one for Kaplan on Saturday mornings and the other at the Japanese International School as an English conversation teacher two mornings a week. With these jobs, I was able to save enough to take a CELTA course at the British Council, which was good fun. My cohort was a potpourri of people—people who had never taught, some retired seniors, but thought they could because English was their native language; people like me, who had some experience, and wanted to open up job opportunities; people in the NET scheme who had degrees in Education (with history or science backgrounds) but didn't know how to teach English. 

Teaching was moving along well enough as I took the course, but I still wasn't as happy as I had been in Boston. It was a big move and likely part of my feeling was due to culture shock. I slowly began to think that maybe I should for another type of work, but what. So one day in late October 1999 I asked Google 'possible jobs for an English language teacher' and ELT editor came up in the search results. I researched job descriptions for ELT editors and thought, 'Hey, that sounds like fun.'

I updated my CV, registered at some job databases, and started reading the classifieds. Then just as I finished my CELTA course in mid-November 1999, a job advert for an ELT Editor at Longman Hong Kong (now Pearson) turned up. I went in for a test and an interview, got a call back for a second interview (a first for me at the time), was offered a job, and landed at my first desk job on 3 January 2000.


  1. Another challenge of teaching in HK is to deal with students' parents

    1. Thanks for the comments.
      That is true. Parents can be very demanding of their children here, sometimes to the point of demeaning the good work they do. They also have high expectations of native-English teachers and sometimes believe we have special 'magic' to help their children learn more quickly. Still, on the whole, my experiences with parents have been positive.


Thanks so much.