SCMP Saturday, November 25, 2000


'Don't give up on any student'


In opposing the English-language benchmark test and spearheading the campaign against it, Cheung Man-kwong, president of the Professional Teachers' Union, has been criticised by several parents' groups for neglecting students' interests. But according to Mr Cheung, a veteran primary school teacher now representing the education sector in the Legislative Council, he has always had students' welfare in mind.
Such concern has developed from his years as a teacher, and before that from his own experiences as a student, which included being expelled.
After graduating from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Mr Cheung began his teaching career in 1979 as a supply teacher at Grantham College of Education Alumni Society (GCEPSA) Kwun Tong Primary School.
His activism in the education field, though, dates back earlier. In 1978, he took part in the Jubilee Secondary School Incident - a rally attended by 3,000 people and organised by the Professional Teachers' Union to fight the Government's decision to close the school in Homantin. Teachers and students from the school staged a sit-in demanding an explanation for the school authorities' misuse of school funds the year before.
After this, Szeto Wah, then union president and principal of the GCEPSA Kwun Tong Primary School, invited Mr Cheung to teach at his school. Mr Cheung was assigned to be the form teacher of the class that had the worst reputation in the school.
"The pupils were notorious and no one was willing to teach them. Some were teenage gang members, " said Mr Cheung. "I didn't expect them to perform well academically in the short term. Instead, I tried to foster close relations with them by organising extra-curricular activities."
Every Saturday, Mr Cheung used to take his students to visit television stations, art exhibitions and cinemas and even McDonald's. "In the late 1970s, the living standards of most people in Hong Kong was still rather low," he said. "Many children had never been to McDonald's or the cinema. They were very taken with this and I was able to win their trust."
In 1980, Mr Cheung became the first university graduate to gain Education Department approval to teach in primary schools. "The Government required university graduates to teach at secondary schools because there were not enough graduates from tertiary institutions at that time." He also became a senior aide to Mr Szeto and was elected to the Legislative Council in 1991.
Mr Cheung knows only too well what is meant by "never give up on any single student" - a slogan put forward by the Education Commission. In his school days, he was a rebel and the education system almost gave up on him. But he was given another chance and made the most of it. "To me, it's definitely not an empty slogan. I'm a true believer in the spirit behind it," he said.
Mr Cheung's days of being wild began when studying Secondary Three in Heep Tong Secondary School in Tai Hang Tung. At that time, he took up smoking and gambling. "One day, I was caught gambling with 10 other students in a classroom. Everyone was expelled, except me. My form teacher told me to improve from then on, and my academic results did get remarkably better, but at the end of the school year I was expelled too."
His mother didn't let him abandon hopes of studying and encouraged him to find another school. "It was really tough. I often failed to even get an application form. I didn't dare show my report card. No school would give a chance to a child with a 'D' in conduct in those days."
Mr Cheung finally gained a place at the Lutheran Middle School in Yau Ma Tei. He finished Secondary Four with the best results in his form. "It is quite common for youngsters to make mistakes of one sort or another, and they should be given a chance to change," he said. " I swore that, as a teacher, I would not expel a single pupil."
He will never forget the teachers who inspired him during his later school years. While studying Secondary Six at SKH All Saints' Middle School, Mr Cheung's mathematics teacher, Lian Yizeng, took him and his classmates to the squatter area in Kowloon Bay where there had been a fire.
"We met the residents who had lost their home and were sleeping on the streets, and Mr Lian asked us how we could help them. Back at school, I organised a campaign to collect clothes for the victims," Mr Cheung said. From then on, he became concerned about public affairs and the plight of less well-off people. In 1974, Mr Cheung entered the Chinese University of Hong Kong and quickly became an activist in the students' union.
As a veteran legislator, Mr Cheung is still keen on teaching. After the Provisional Legislative Council replaced the elected Legislative Council in 1997, he returned to his school in Kwun Tong and carried on teaching there for a year.
Mr Cheung, a member of the Education Commission, was disappointed with the Government's refusal to reduce class sizes from 40 to 25. "The current education reform programme is not equipped with sufficient financial resources. I'm worried that the ambitious blueprint may fail to materialise," he said.
The PTU was founded in the aftermath of the 1973 teachers' strike to fight salary cuts of 15 per cent. The union now has 75,000 members, including teachers from universities, secondary schools, primary schools and kindergartens.
"We play the role of trade union, educational body and social concern group simultaneously. We want to extend teachers' rights, and have also been calling for the Government to enhance education quality," he said.
As the Legislative Councillor representing the education sector, Mr Cheung visits schools that are adopting innovative teaching methods every two weeks. This week he has been to six village schools in the Tai Po area. "The facilities and premises in these schools are definitely sub-standard. The Government must speed up improvement projects for them," he said.
The union is also keen to campaign for social justice and democracy in Hong Kong and the mainland.
Mr Cheung, who has a 14-year-old daughter, recalled the last paragraphs of Romain Rolland's Jean-Christophe to sum up his view of the role of the teacher: of Jean-Christophe crossing a river with a child on his shoulders, of almost falling and of his joy at reaching safety.
"Every teacher has a batch of students on his shoulders," Mr Cheung said. "When he arrives at the other shore, the joy is beyond description."