UWC & HK flags

Three months came and gone since I’ve moved into LPCUWC as a chemistry/theory of knowledge teacher.  What was it like?  If I’m pressed for a one-word summary, it would be: intense.  With half the time, half the resources, we expect to accomplish twice as much — and we often do.  The string stretched tautest do ring brightest.

The work

My first realization of this came from course planning.  Coming back from an IB workshop in Singapore, I started laying out the plan for the year.  The academic term here is comprise of eight cycles, each with 5 x 1hr classes.  By midnight I had a large sheet of paper with stickies pasted on each of the 8 rows (cycles) of 5 slots (class) each.  Each sticky represents a topic in the syllabus, and where the syllabus calls for multiple hours, multiple slots were reserved.

Planning an academic term

Term planning with color stickies and big sheet of paper

Then came the heart attack.  Trevor (the resident chem/bio teacher) left me a schedule of what he did last year. Cross-checking against that, when I finish topic 2, he was finishing topic 4.  Oh, he  also finished topic 11.  Plus 6 labs.

It turns out that we teach the recommended 240 hours for the diploma Higher Level (HL) program in 160 hours.  While some at the Singapore workshop was talking about having December-March as revision time, we race to finish the options before the IB exams start — and we start sprinting from the gates in September.  (Which, for the kids’ sake, I prefer to not have to do — more on this later.)

Same story for Theory of Knowledge (ToK): the 2-yrs program is completed in 1-yr.

The time pressure, as I understand, comes from three places.  First, this being Hong Kong, we have holidays from the East (e.g., Chinese New Year) and the West (e.g., Christmas/Easter).  Second, our year runs short: 1st year students finish classes in April, whereas in some other schools their year flow into July.  And lastly, as a UWC, we ought to (and do) commit to service and education beyond the classroom, which means school days that are relatively short, as well as frequent irregular interruptions (e.g., China Week, Project Week).  All these contribute to the constraint schedule.

Jon-bound lab-books.

Being a non-profit, scholarship school, money is expectedly tight.  We are probably not as strapped as some other UWCs (Adriatic, alma mater mia, comes to mind), but there is certainly little resources floating around.  Activities with annual budget of $0 are not unheard of.  To afford the chemistry students lab note-books with page numbers, I would resort to designing, printing, photocopying, and binding the 5100 pages myself.  Madre di Dios.

And staff seems to (have to) take on much more in general.  I’ve heard that at other IB schools there’s separate residential staff, or that they would supervise 2 Extended Essays (EE) a year.  At LPCUWC our attention is expected on academics, residential life, as well as other activities, and there are colleagues loaded with 10 EEs.

I have a light load in comparison, with only 4 classes (5 regularly), 5 EEs, 2.5 activities, only one committee, and a tutor group with no letters of recommendation to write this year.  Even then, between the variegated commitments, being new to the IB curriculum, and my fatal worship of the Muses of Originality, I’ve been feeling the squeeze.  Most days stretch 0600-2200, with 0500-0100 days tossed in every now and then (with a nap in the afternoon).  (There is much to say about the teaching experience, and I’ll spin it off to another post.) (In August other teachers warned about getting run-down and sick whenever there are holidays, and that happened to me during this October break.)  My grandma is certainly wrong when she said “teaching is a lazy job”.

The people

Let’s start with the obvious (for those who know me): I’m hard to please.  I don’t dislike everyone, but there’s a small selection of people who I like, and I am demanding of them.  I want to spend my time with people who are well-meaning, competent, enthusiastic, kind, and open.  “Who I spend time with” was the major component in deciding on this job — and it (mostly) lives up to its billing.  (No small feat.)

There are 27 teachers in the College, and the ones I have contact with are friendly, well-meaning, and extraordinarily competent.  (I suspect the rest to be the same, but I have no direct experience as evidence.)  They are respected by the students for the work they do, and some are active in the broader IB community as well.

I was positively surprised by our lab technician Jack.  I’ve seen technicians who make the solutions, and keep the lab running, but is all motions with no passion.  That was my expectations, but that is not Jack.  He goes above and beyond the bounds of his job, and does so with a dash of eagerness.  The EE students are direct beneficiaries of his organization and machining skills, and the new demos I try out for the classes are possible only with his enthusiastic support.

I sit by the admin and maintenance staff tables at lunch occasionally.  The maintenance staff take a liking to me both because I spend time with them, and probably also because I’m much younger than the other teachers, and grew up “in the neighbourhood” (a number of them live 5 minutes walk from the public estate where I grew up).

Then there’s the kids, who intersects with my life most.  A quick introduction for those of you who are unfamiliar with the UWC movement: with the lofty ideals of fostering world peace, students were selected on merit from over 70 nations to live, study, and learn from one another.  The selection process was done by individual National Committees in each country, and usually takes into account both their values and abilities (academic and otherwise).  Between their drive, the environment, (and a bit from the high-quality teaching), the kids generally do well in the IB diploma.

The kids do OK.

I am of two minds with the IB results, and the prevalent peer pressure to apply to big-name universities in the UK/US.  On one hand their dedication is admirable, and I understand the sheer need for some to secure scholarships for further education.  On other hand, I can’t help but think that this hems the students into a “me, my grades, my university placement” mindset, a mindset of craving the extrinsic rewards and anxious worship of self.

With 1st-years, this applies pressure for them to choose subjects they’re “good at” and “easy to get a high grade in”.  They drop what was an intellectually stimulating subject to them, or try to find the path of least resistance (e.g., Language ab initio as opposed to B, math studies as opposed to SL, SL as opposed to HL). I feel they were doing their future selves no favors.   Not only because the “harder” subjects are often more upwind (open more doors), but also because every time one walks away from a challenge, all future challenges become more formidable.  All that potential; all the creative clocks running to their peaks and them being blissfully unconcerned about it.

With all students, there is a temptation to do the least so they can have most time for academics.  The least time-consuming services; or that cultural understanding takes a back-seat.

College announcements, with the movement values hanging behind. Have we tried our best living the values? This is probably doubly challenging with the Hong Kong UWC. Both because it’s located in one of the swirling materialistic center of consumerism, and because the public know LPCUWC as an academically elite institution without understanding/caring for its greater purpose.

These are, of course, universal phenomena.  It is the default mode for us flesh-bags.  But I dream that the kids can all be driven by intrinsic rewards and all to embody (to quote DF Wallace) “attention and awareness and discipline, and being able to truly care about other people and sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day“.

Unattainable expectations aside, most kids are fantastic.  Some are spectacular.  At university I’ve taught students who didn’t want to be there, and spent time with weary adults with spirits worn down by the vagaries of life.  It is refreshing to teach and model for (usually) earnest, (often) idealistic kids.  I am grateful to be teaching and live with these kids.  (Teachers live on campus, and there are upshots to living in such a tight-knit community.  I wanted to adopt a persona to keep some distance, but that is nary possible to put on.  You are who you are, and everyone knows who you are.  Small society ethics definitely apply here.  I’m strangely comfortable with it.)

The other parts of life

Mixed in with the schedule are regular and irregular activities.  My regular activities are circus, coral monitoring, and Global Issues Forum (GIF).  These are substantial enough that I’ll probably write about them another time.

ToK Art Day visit to the Osage Gallery.

Irregular activities occur as part of the tutor group, blocks (the buildings where the staff and students live), cultural group, and all sorts of other reasons.  With the tutor group it’s often casual snacks, dinners, and outings; block activity take up a full weekday, and have so far involved a walk and a hike at Dragon’s Back (龍脊).  We had outings to a gallery as part of the ToK art curriculum (blog entry for ToK Art Day here), and most impressively a Middle East South Asian (MESA) cultural week.  Then there’s music nights and triathlons, and probably much that I can’t think of now.  Lara from Germany maintains an active blog of all that happens at LPCUWC.

As for the all-important minutiae of daily life: we get pretty decent food at the canteen.  Memories are deceiving, but I’d say the veggie food is better than both Pearson and Adriatic.  I was very happy that there’s a new soup every day; it took two weeks before I clued in that it’s always potato soup (with a little bit of other ingredients mixed in).  It’s not great food, but then, regular indulgence makes one soft.  The canteen ladies, occasionally grouchy to students, are usually very nice with me… I baked muffins for them one Saturday morning (it just feels right to feed those who feed me every day), and now they’re duper nice.

All in all, I’ve been strung pretty taut the past few months, occasionally near the breaking point.  (The stream of coffee and heart palpitations!)  I get exasperated about the kids (and annoyed with myself) more often than is healthy, and should step back and put it in perspective.  It’s a very meaningful and challenging experience, and blessed are the few who get this as their life’s work.

That said, I can’t say if this is something that I want to do in the long term.  Reading, learning new stuff, practicing, failing, training, socializing (with adults!) have all been put off entirely.  I have no time to work on projects that I feel only I can do, including that series of educational comic book.  For this to be a sustainable career I’ll need to learn to create space for myself, and put self-care higher up the list.  We’ll see how well that works.