Teaching English in Hong Kong: Madeleine’s Story

I’ve always loved travelling and learning about cultures different than my own. As a teenager growing up in the UK, I visited mainland Europe often but was always curious about Asia. Throughout university, I immersed myself in learning European languages, and even studied abroad in Italy, but I couldn’t shake off the feeling that I was missing out on something more.

During the last few months of my final university year, I decided to finally go and experience Asian culture for myself. Teaching English abroad seemed like the obvious choice, as I had always been interested in languages and thought that imparting knowledge on my native language would be exciting and challenging at the same time. Several of my friends had already taught English in Europe and found it immensely rewarding, so I decided to give it a shot. I knew I wanted to go to Asia, but I wasn’t set on any country in particular, and deciding on a place was a hard choice.

While scanning websites for English teaching jobs in Asia, I found an opportunity to teach English in Hong Kong for ten months with an educational organisation. After umming and ahhing a bit, I decided to apply, and within a month of graduating I was flying off to Hong Kong, unsure of what to expect.

In Hong Kong I taught English through an NGO. The organisation placed tutors into schools in which the students came from low-income households. These students were therefore less exposed to English language opportunities outside of school. Although there are many different ways to teach English in Hong Kong (often for more money), I decided that a high salary wasn’t everything and that I wanted to work in an environment where I would be helping underprivileged students. In Hong Kong it is extremely important for teenagers to learn English – if they don’t, they will most certainly not get a place at university. When I saw statistics of how many students didn’t make it to university based on their English-language skills, I knew I had made a good decision in choosing to work for a non-profit organisation.

When searching for an English teaching job in Asia, I was not only drawn to working in schools with less-privileged students, but to working and living in Hong Kong itself. Often described as a place where ‘East meets West’, Hong Kong is known as a bustling city that is vibrant and fun, and offers its residents so much. There are many local people who live in Hong Kong and they are the heart and soul of the city, as they maintain the traditional eastern customs and way of life. However, there are also many foreigners who come to Hong Kong for work opportunities, bringing their different habits to the cultural melting pot.

Moving to Hong Kong is not as scary as it seems, because when you arrive, you are sure to meet a group of international friends like yourself, and many of them will probably be English teachers. There is a big English teaching community in Hong Kong, and I found it easy to meet both local and foreign people and build strong friendships.

The Hong Kong region is made up of many different islands that contain different and unique locations. There is the main island, a metropolitan area surrounded by beaches. Hong Kong island is full of high-rise buildings and an array of different bars and restaurants. Nestled amongst the local restaurants offering typical Chinese cuisine is an assortment of foreign eateries that serve food from all over the world. You needn’t worry about missing any home comforts in Hong Kong!

The main island can be a bit expensive as this tends to be where businesspeople and bankers go to socialise. However, the great thing about Hong Kong is that just like you can find a variety of food there, you can also find a variety of prices if you venture to different parts of the region – like Kowloon. Kowloon is another popular part of Hong Kong and is connected to the Hong Kong island via an underwater metro. It’s a great place to visit or live in if you want to experience a typical Hong Kong lifestyle without breaking the bank. If you want a more authentic experience regarding food and culture, go to Kowloon, as there you’ll find typical cafes, bars and shops which are great to explore on a Sunday afternoon.

I personally taught in Kowloon, and every day I learnt something new about this fantastic part of Hong Kong. I taught English in a secondary school, and many of my students would attend cultural English events I organised after school. My students came from a variety of backgrounds. Some were born in Hong Kong whereas others had moved there from Mainland China. Others came from different countries in Asia altogether. But they all shared one thing in common, which was that they were not exposed to English in their daily life. Being able to teach them during the day and provide them with extra opportunities after school was a great feeling, and seeing improvements in their language skills made all my efforts feel worthwhile.

Whilst I loved living in Hong Kong and enjoying all that this amazing place had to offer, I was also aware of the big disparity between the rich and not-so-rich. There is a wealth gap in Hong Kong and the varying levels of privilege can have a big effect on people’s lives. Although I felt I was making a difference to the lives of my students within my teaching job, I also wanted to help struggling communities outside of work.

As I mentioned earlier, English is a vital skill for people in Hong Kong who want to go to university. It’s a harsh reality for some teenagers who know that their options will be severely limited if they don’t have a B2 level of English upon leaving secondary school. So, when I was presented with the opportunity to volunteer at a young offender institute and help co-ordinate an English language programme there, I jumped at the chance.

Hong Kong island and Kowloon are surrounded by smaller islands that are reachable via ferries, and there is one tiny island in Hong Kong that is home to a young offender institute for boys and girls. The teenagers who live there are separated into two camps based on their genders and for the most part, they don’t interact with the opposite sex.

When I volunteered there, I was placed with the girls. Upon arrival to the island for the first time, after seeing the conditions that these teenagers were living in, I was shocked. The bathrooms and kitchens were outdoors and they shared a tiny house in which to sleep.

EFL teacher Madeleine leading a classI was concerned that the girls would be disheartened, due to their personal situations, and that learning English would be the last thing they wanted to do. But they were the exact opposite. They were so excited and happy to be taking part in an English programme and excitedly asked all of the volunteers many questions. It was an incredible opportunity to be able to take part in a programme like this, and to feel as though I was helping young people who were at a real disadvantage in life.

After ten months flew by and my time as an English tutor came to an end, I chose to stay in Hong Kong for an extra year. Deciding to stay was an easy decision. Hong Kong has so much to offer, from the busy city life, to calm relaxing beaches, exotic forests, and green hiking trails. But aside from this, teaching English in Hong Kong is a fun job and students are polite and respectful. They are also very interested in the lives of their foreign teachers and want to know all about our cultures and where we come from. What’s more, if you decide to work with underprivileged students, there is a lot of job satisfaction from knowing that your decision to teach English is helping young people.

During my second year in Hong Kong I changed jobs and worked in the offices of the NGO. During this time, I was able to help more underprivileged students by organising extra community programmes, which allowed me to make an impact on more lives.

I would recommend anyone thinking of teaching English abroad to do it. If Hong Kong is the place where you want to be, you’ll find an abundance of teaching opportunities. If you’re interested in making a difference in the lives of students, look into organisations that work hard to achieve this. Aside from the normal teaching companies and schools, there are many NGOs that offer English teaching services.

Even if Hong Kong doesn’t appeal to you, in every country there are opportunities to use your English teaching skills to help the community. English is a vital skill, and with the world becoming more global, it is now more crucial than ever for people to be able to speak this language. If you go abroad and teach English, try to find ways in which to give back to your local community. It will definitely make you feel rewarded, and you’ll be doing something beneficial for your new area.

Read more TEFL experiences and get inspired to start your own TEFL adventure! 

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