Henry Ho: EDB’s guidelines on teachers’ conduct are timely, necessary

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The Education Bureau recently promulgated the Guidelines on Teachers’ Professional Conduct, which stipulates eight norms of behavior required of teachers, including upholding professional beliefs, honoring the rule of law and being a role model. In particular, the document pointed out that teachers should “consciously safeguard national security, social order and public interest” and “support and promote national education actively” to enhance students’ sense of belonging toward the nation.

The guidelines’ emphasis on safeguarding national security and promoting national education again shows the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government’s strong commitment to preventing further riots like the social unrest in 2019, especially those involving educational professionals. According to a report from the Education Bureau in June, from 2019 to 2020, there were 269 complaints about alleged engagement of teachers in the social unrest, of which 161 were substantiated. As of June, the bureau had disqualified five teachers, and issued reprimand letters to 50 teachers as well as warning letters to 52 teachers.

The release of the guidelines is timely and necessary. Importantly, they set forth how a teacher’s behavior can help instill the correct moral values in the younger generation, as a teacher’s mission is not only limited to passing on knowledge to students, but also includes cultivating values and nurturing people. Therefore, it is natural that teachers are required to strengthen their self-discipline, continuously improve their professional skills and uphold high moral standards. The participation of teachers in illegal activities reflects misleading and immoral conduct and confuses right with wrong, and may result in students’ lack of legal awareness. The guidelines set out both the moral and behavioral requirements for teachers, which will help them better understand their responsibility and obligations.

Compared to similar codes previously introduced, such as the Code for the Education Profession of Hong Kong, the guidelines are expected to be more effective, as they set out the mechanism for handling alleged professional misconduct of teachers. Apart from the general description, the guidelines detail the do’s and don’ts for each code with examples. For instance, the code “Honor the rule of law” stipulates that teachers should not “organize, plan, commit or participate in any acts that violate the Basic Law, the National Security Law for Hong Kong or any Hong Kong legislation”, nor should they directly or indirectly encourage students to engage in illegal activities. The code also stipulates that teachers should report to the school management, police or the departments concerned as appropriate if they identify any potential illegalities or irregularities on campus.

In addition, school sponsoring bodies may make reference to the guidelines and give directives to the school governance authorities under their sponsorship, while school governance authorities may make use of the guidelines to devise measures for staff behavior management, professional development plans as well as commendations for teachers with excellent performance. Moreover, the Education Bureau will also refer to the guidelines when reviewing the teacher’s registration in the future. In the worst cases, teachers who have committed serious acts of misconduct may face lifetime disqualification. All these efforts are likely to create a deterrent effect, which will help practically to regulate teachers’ behavior and minimize the negative impact of bad teacher conduct on students.

There are worries that the promulgation of the guidelines will affect the teacher-student relationship, especially when it comes to mutual trust, since teachers will have a responsibility to take action against any suspected illegal activities on campus. People who have raised these concerns have obviously ignored one crucial fact — that the duty of a teacher is not to please students or simply maintain a good relationship with them. Instead, the main and the most important role of a teacher is to educate students on correct values and prevent them from going astray. Would it be right for a teacher to stand aside and allow students to breach the law, just because they want to protect so-called mutual trust? I doubt anyone would agree that it should be that way.

Meanwhile, some have argued that the guidelines will turn teachers into political megaphones, blindly repeating whatever the authorities say out of a need to protect themselves. Such a claim is also untenable, since the guidelines do not target any specific teaching materials or place limits on what should or should not be taught. The document simply sets a baseline for educational professionals’ conduct. And this baseline — which is to safeguard national security and enhance national education — is also universally recognized. In Singapore, elements of national education are incorporated into the curriculums for primary, secondary and higher education via subjects like Social Studies and Character and Citizenship Education. Japan has made “moral education” an official subject in primary and junior high schools since April 2018 and April 2019 respectively, thereby promoting national education. It is time for Hong Kong to have its own national education courses — something that should have been done long ago.

It is delightful to see that nowadays an increasing number of schools and universities have already made national education courses mandatory. In July, the University of Hong Kong announced that all students will be required to complete a noncredit online course —Introduction to the Constitution, the Basic Law and the National Security Law for Hong Kong — in the academic year 2022-23. Similarly, the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology will roll out a new compulsory self-learning online course covering the Constitution, the Basic Law, the National Security Law for Hong Kong and the Hong Kong legal system. Hong Kong Baptist University, the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, City University of Hong Kong and Lingnan University also launched national security education courses at the start of the 2022-23 academic year. These courses are expected to raise young people’s awareness of the importance of national security more effectively, and thus help maintain long-term social stability.

In conclusion, the involvement of education professionals in the 2019 social unrest exposed to some extent the severity of the indiscipline of teachers. The Guidelines on Teachers’ Professional Conduct arrive in a timely manner and will serve as a strong tool to rectify the misconduct of educational professionals. That will further help keep Hong Kong’s education system on the right track.

The author is founder and chairman of One Country Two Systems Youth Forum.