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Teaching Tony

He just kept saying “Goodbye Mr. Sanders” over and over again. With every goodbye, he was getting more emotional. He started crying and buried his head in my stomach. I hugged him. He was going to Secondary School next year.
I’ve taught Tony off and on since P1 (first grade). He wasn’t the strongest or the best student, but he was always happy to see me. He’s the biggest reason I teach and why I love what I do. He’s also why I find my job frustrating.
He liked being around me and was excited. In P1 he struggled and couldn’t remember my name even though I was always in his class. The P1 homeroom teacher would invite me in for non-English lessons just so the kids could be around me. Near the end of the year, I would talk to him at the beginning of the school day and just go through some phonics sounds and such. It helped.
In P2 he struggled a lot but he liked me and I used it to try and help him. Every morning, I’d read to him. He’d make sound effects or get overly excited. I’d ask him questions, and he would use words, not sentences, to answer. What I would remember was how he would add very very to everything. The book is “very very very exciting” or “very very very sad.” We spent months, and his speaking would get better but his exams and written work wouldn’t. There was confusion over letters (b and d), sounds, and how to use different words like have and has.
The family background, like many of our students, was a struggle. The mother and father worked long hours. I never met them. They never came to the parent-teacher meetings or the open houses. They lived across the border in Mainland China and life was hard.
From P3 on, I wasn’t involved. He was always in trouble for not having his homework done. Sometimes it was the Chinese teacher, other times it was the maths teacher. He was always busy with trying to finish his homework or being punished for something done in class. He was pulled out our English lessons for drilling grammar points – all done in Cantonese. He’d still get excited to see me but couldn’t speak as much. What we worked on before was lost as I had less time with him.
Written work, worksheets and exams, are important to get through the Hong Kong Education system. It is the focus of most English lessons since they measure how good a school is and determines the secondary schools the kids go too. It is not how language is not learned. We learn through speaking first, through reading and listening to give us enough information so we can speak and write it. Yes grammar is important for learning but it is not the only thing.
Focusing on grammar and writing kills the motivation for students to learn the language since some can’t get it. Examples through reading can’t be provided since there isn’t enough time to get through the other stuff. Grammar points are just drilled, explained in Cantonese but not shown in interesting story books. Drilling grammar makes for dry, boring lessons.
As Tony was hugging me, I got emotional not because it was his last day but because I worried about his future in secondary school and beyond. I worried future teachers won’t see the spark I saw in P1 & P2. I worried how he is not fully ready for it and will get further and further behind.
There were many students who were leaving who are exactly like Tony.

Published in Hot Takes Profile & Personal