florencelpma [at] hotmail [dot] com
Ms. Ma: I was born and brought up in Hong Kong. I got my BA degree at the University of Hong Kong in 1985, majoring in English Linguistics. Among the units I took, I found Applied Linguistics particularly interesting and fascinating. In this unit, the lecturer introduced various types of English teaching methodologies, including the Communicative Language Teaching. I was amazed to find that there were so many different theories and methods behind English teaching and learning. In my final year, I had an opportunity to work as a substitute teacher for a friend who taught Chinese at an evening institute. Students were all mature and for various reasons did not have the opportunity to finish secondary school when they were younger. Most if not all of them had to work during the day and attend classes in the evening. Therefore, most of them looked exhausted and yet were highly motivated to learn. Although I only taught a few lessons, I was moved by their enthusiasm towards learning and decided to take up teaching as my future career.To better equip myself to be an English teacher, after graduation, I enrolled in a one-year full time Diploma of Education program at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The course was not just theoretical but included practical micro-teaching sessions and a practicum module. After completing the program, I started teaching English at a secondary school. After teaching for a few years, I took up the role of an English panel chairperson and supervised about fifteen English teachers, including one NET (Native English Teacher) . This partly accounts for my interests in the NNESTs issues. I had worked in two different schools for a total of fourteen years before migrating to Australia in 2001.In 2003, I completed my Master Degree in Applied Linguistics (TESOL) at Macquarie University, Sydney. Following this, I worked as an ESL teacher at NCELTR (National Centre for English Language Teaching and Research) in Macquarie University, teaching general and academic English to international students. I also taught various English programs for immigrants at two TAFE (Technical and Further Education) centres. Later, I obtained a Postgraduate Certificate in Linguistics Research. My research topic was on the investigation of the attitudes and uses of the L1 in supporting a group of Chinese adult immigrants enrolled in one of the AMEP (Adult Migrant English Program) centres in Sydney.In 2006, I decided to pursue a higher degree and I am now a PhD candidate in Macquarie University. My research project investigates the perceptions of LETs (Local English teachers) and NETs (Native English teachers) in Hong Kong from student and teacher perspectives, and examines the perceived and actual teaching behaviour of these teachers by obtaining data from questionnaires, interviews and video-recorded lessons in three secondary schools in Hong Kong.
Ana Wu: You have been teaching for 18 years, having also worked as a supervisor in Hong Kong, and finally gone back to a postgraduate program in 2001. You received the Vice-Chancellor’s Commendation for Academic Excellence for your Master of Applied Linguistics program at Macquarie University in October 2003, the Macquarie University Research Excellence Scholarship in 2007, and the Higher Degree Research Excellence (HDR) Award at the Human Sciences Faculty HDR Research Showcase in 2009 (This award is for an outstanding HDR student in each of the five departments in the Human Sciences Faculty at Macquarie University). Also, you were the 2009 TESOL Award for International Participation at TESOL award recipient. Since then, you have given presentations about NNEST issues at ALAA (Applied Linguistics Association of Australia), AAAL (American Association of Applied Linguistics), and TESOL.
a. What keeps you motivated and inspired? Have you ever been burned-out?
Ms. Ma: There are two things that keep me motivated and inspired. First, I am always impressed by those students who are eager and willing to learn. Their enthusiasm leads me to prepare my lessons better so as to create an ideal learning atmosphere for them. Second, I always like to reflect on my own teaching by discussing teaching methods with my colleagues. In this way, I can get some new teaching ideas. I found that I sometimes got so used to my own teaching styles and just stick to them. It is really inspiring to examine how other teachers teach in a different way.
When I worked in Hong Kong, the workload was very heavy. There were so much marking: student newspaper commentary, composition, dictation, workbooks etc. I was almost at the verge of ‘burning-out,’ but I don’t think I have ever really experienced being ‘burned-out’ at work.
I think some of my personality traits have helped me a lot along the way. I don’t think I’m a perfectionist but I always do my personal best in my study and at work. ‘Aim high and score high’ is always my motto. Also, I seldom give up whenever I meet some difficulties or challenges. I still remember how upset I was when I knew that I could not get permission from an institute to collect data for my previous PhD research topic. Since the topic was very specific, I couldn’t collect any data from other institutes. At that time, it was about six months into my candidature and I have already done a lot of literature review on this topic. However, I had no choice but to change my topic. It was a little setback for me but I think my persistent personality has helped me pass through such a difficult time. Looking back, I was glad that I had to change my topic because now I’m working on a topic about NNESTs issues, which I’m very interested in and fully enjoy.
b. You decided to pursue a master degree after having taught for 14 years. How did you feel at first being a student again? Did you have problems being among classmates with less or no teaching experiences, or being taught by professors with less professional experience than you?
Ms. Ma: I still remember how much I enjoyed the first lecture of my master degree program at Macquarie University. In the lecture, I just sat there feeling very relaxed as a student again and I think it was because I didn’t have to prepare lessons as a teacher. On the first day, when the lecturer started explaining the course requirement, it was only after half an hour that I suddenly realised that I should have taken out my pen and jotted down some notes. Having been out of university study for so many years, I almost forgot that I needed to take notes in a lecture!
The master program I enrolled in was for teachers with some English teaching experience. Being among classmates with less experience was not a problem at all because each classmate had their unique teaching experience with different types of learners in different contexts. Even if some did not have much experience, their own learning experience was still valuable and could be of valuable contribution to group discussions. Most of my lecturers had a lot of professional experience in teaching English in various places such as Thailand, Japan and Vietnam. Besides, they all had their own expertise in the field of Applied Linguistics such as Discourse Analysis, Pragmatics, Language Assessment and Second Language Acquisition. I have learned a lot from them.
Ana Wu: You immigrated to Australia when you daughter was 9 years old, starting a part-time study for a master degree in Applied Linguistics. What were your challenges and how did you deal with them as you immersed in a new culture, balancing family and studies?
Ms. Ma: One of the main challenges was that we had to settle down in a very short period of time since we arrived two weeks before the school year started. We had to find accommodation and a school for my daughter within those two weeks. At that time, we had no friends or relatives in Sydney. Luckily, my best friend in Hong Kong had a church friend living in Sydney, and he kindly offered to drive us around to find accommodation, enrol my daughter at a local primary school, and help us settle down.
Balance between family and study is always not easy to achieve. I have so many roles to play and they all take time. We used to have a domestic helper in Hong Kong and we did not have to do any housework. As a mum in Australia, I find myself also being a driver, a tutor, a chef, a laundry cleaner… There is so much housework to do and it all seems like an endless job! Luckily, my husband and I share the workload. We have some sort of a duty roster for each semester, but we are also very flexible and understanding. If I’m busy with conference presentations or meeting deadlines for paper submission, he’ll take up a bit more and vice versa.
Ana Wu: How do you compare being an NNES teacher in Hong Kong with being an NNES instructor in Australia, in terms of students’ and peers’ expectations, your lesson planning, and professional responsibilities? Also, do you feel you have more job security now?
Ms. Ma: When I first started teaching General English to international students in Sydney, I was worried that they would not prefer to have me as their teacher because I’m an NNEST. I thought that since they came over to Australia to study English, they would expect to have a teacher who had ‘blonde hair and blue eyes.’ To my surprise, I found that students did not seem to mind about this. With more experience, I found many students had some positive responses to my teaching. Although I do not have an Australian accent, I have had a lot of experiences as an English learner myself and these experiences help me understand their learning difficulties and I can become more empathetic with them. Sometimes, my colleagues would express frustration at the lunch table about how students could not understand even very simple things. I found that I was empathetic to students as I fully realised how difficult it is to learn another language, especially when the graphology and grammar rules are very different between the L1 and L2.
Regarding peers’ expectations, in Hong Kong, I found that teachers were expected to adhere to the scheme of work. There was a particular part of the syllabus that we had to cover or certain textbook chapters to teach within a certain period of time. However, in the English centre that I worked at in Sydney, there was more flexibility and freedom. I was given some learning outcomes that students had to achieve and I was free to use whatever teaching materials I found useful and appropriate for my learners.
The professional responsibilities are very different. I remember I had a calm and quiet tea break on the very first day of teaching in Sydney. In Hong Kong, I was usually surrounded by students at recess and there was usually a long queue of students who I had to see, chase some lazy ones with homework, discuss school activities with student leaders…no time for a break at all! As an English teacher working at a secondary school, I was not just a teacher, but also a role model for students, helping them to grow up as responsible citizens and independent young adults. When students have some personal problems, they always come to us to seek for advice.
Ana Wu: You have done research and given presentations on student perceptions of native English teachers and local English teachers. In terms of teaching style and priorities, how different are the NNES from the NES? What are the pedagogical implications?
Ms. Ma: In my research project, I collected some open responses from a questionnaire completed by 196 secondary school students in Hong Kong, and the findings showed that there are three main differences in the teaching style of local English teachers (LETs) and native English teachers (NETs). Firstly, there’s a difference in terms of teaching approach. NETs were found to be using more activities and games, putting more emphasis on interaction and developing students’ communication skills in teaching while LETs adopted a more traditional approach, focusing on teaching grammar (26.2% of all cited differences). Secondly, the difference lied in the classroom atmosphere. NETs’ lessons were considered to be more interesting, lively and relaxing than those of LETs (23.7% of all cited differences). However, interestingly, about 5% of all the cited differences stated the opposite. Some respondents thought that LETs could create a more interesting and lively classroom atmosphere. Finally, the difference lied in the language for classroom instructions. NETs could use only English for communication while LETs could have access to students’ L1 for explanations (18.2%).
As LETs and NETs have different characteristics of teaching and put emphasis on different aspects of language learning, collaboration between these two categories of teachers can enable them to learn from each other and improve teaching effectiveness. Additionally, learners may benefit more from learning English through both rather than one category of teachers. As LETs can access to students’ L1, this is a valuable asset to help their students enhance understanding in lessons through vocabulary and grammar explanations. Therefore, the role of the L1 in English learning should be examined further.
Ana Wu: Thank you for this interesting interview!
 Under the Native English Teacher Scheme in Hong Kong, each EMI (English as the medium of instructions) are entitled to have one NET and Chinese medium ones can employ two NETs. At the moment, there are about 900 NETs working in Hong Kong, teaching in both secondary and primary levels.