Published: 23:51, October 5, 2020 | Updated: 15:25, June 5, 2023
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Teachers and parents must be students’ life coaches
By Ho Lok-sang

Teachers are not just teachers. Because students look up to them, they need to set a good example for their students. Because in Hong Kong, students interact with teachers almost on a daily basis, sometimes even more than with their parents, given parents’ long working hours, teachers exert considerable influence on the character and the personal development of their students. Thus, all teachers, regardless of the subjects they teach, must be ready to serve as life coaches as well. Indeed, this is what is meant when we say teachers are educators. I am sure many in my generation can recall past teachers who had served as great life coaches.

I have long objected to the notion that when students encounter any problem that has to do with their mental health and various life challenges, teachers should simply refer them to the school social worker or the school counselor.

Teachers are front-line workers. They interact with their students almost every day. They should have this sense of caring for their well-being and for their personal development. While I do not object to the idea of each school having its school-based social worker and a designated counselor selected from among the teachers, I do object to the notion that teachers should merely focus on teaching the subjects within their teaching assignments. All teachers must also serve as a role model for their students and help them develop their character holistically. 

Oct 5 is World Teachers’ Day, designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in 1994. As UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay and her colleagues stressed in their 2020 joint statement on the occasion:

“This year’s World Teachers’ Day has an even greater significance in light of the challenges that teachers have faced during the COVID-19 crisis. As the pandemic has shown, they make a crucial contribution to ensuring continuity of learning and supporting the mental health and well-being of their students.” The second sentence in that quote must be emphasized: A teacher of English should not just teach English; and a mathematics teacher should not just teach mathematics. Teacher must be qualified as educators too, and they must also care for their students’ well-being. 

As an educator ... teachers cannot use hate speech in social media and say this is their right to freedom of speech. Teachers must be responsible citizens who respect the rights of other fellow citizens

I am appalled by the fact that many teachers cannot manage their own lives, and that quite a few teachers have been charged for their roles in the social and political unrest over the past year. We have a senior liberal studies teacher who expressed hatred for the police and extended his curse to the whole family of “black police”. One of the latest developments is that former HKSAR chief executive Leung Chun-ying has filed a judicial review asking the secretary for education to release the names of teachers and those of their schools found to have committed professional misconduct associated with the recent social unrest. Thus far, the secretary of education has held the line, and said that withholding the names and schools related to those cases was in order to give the respective teachers an opportunity to reflect over what they have done and to amend their ways. 

Leung says that according to what he knows about human behavior, it is highly unlikely that the teachers would change their political beliefs and their behavior. Moreover, he says the public has a right to the information, because parents need the information in order to make an informed choice over whether to send their children to a particular school. 

Regardless of the court outcome, the Education Bureau and school principals need to have this understanding about the roles of teachers: Teachers cannot shirk the responsibility of being simultaneously life coaches for their students. We do not want teachers who mess up their own lives but are “superb teachers” at teaching specific subjects. For this reason, I would implore that all teachers and would-be teachers have a good exposure to life education — apart from whatever subjects they are going to teach, so that they will master the basic skills to managing their own lives, including their emotions. As an educator, and not merely a “teacher of English”, a “teacher of chemistry,” or the like, teachers cannot use hate speech in social media and say this is their right to freedom of speech. Teachers must be responsible citizens who respect the rights of other fellow citizens.

Asking teachers to be also life coaches is not asking too much. Actually, parents should also be life coaches for their children. Students and children must be seen first and foremost as human beings going on a life journey of personal development. Parents cannot say: “It is enough for me to provide my children with financial support. I can just leave personal and emotional development to the experts.” By the same token, teachers cannot say: “It is enough for me to ensure that my students get good examination results in the subjects that I teach.” No! Teachers and parents are role models for our youngsters. If they are not good role models, they need to learn. Perhaps the school social worker and counselor can help. 

The author is a senior research fellow at Pan Sutong Shanghai-Hong Kong Economic Policy Research Institute, Lingnan University.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.