The recent suicide of a secondary school teaching assistant (TA) with a master’s degree has once again raised public concern about the woes plaguing tens of thousands of TAs in Hong Kong.
Over the years, there have been calls for improving employment conditions, working benefits and career prospects of TAs. These are entry-level positions in primary and secondary schools introduced in the early 2000s at the height of the education reform in order to support regular teachers, help them in class and share their administrative workload.
Unfortunately, for years both the government and most of society have remained largely indifferent to their predicament and unfair treatment by their employers.
At the beginning, most TAs were either secondary school or post-secondary graduates.
As the number of school-age children continued to shrink in the past decade, which has led to the shutdown of many schools, it has become increasingly difficult for teachers with bachelor’s or even master’s degrees to get a teaching job. As a result, many of them have ended up in low-paid TA positions.
To make things worse, not only are these over-qualified TAs stuck in poorly paid jobs, their escalating workload has also risen to a level completely out of proportion to their salaries.
Many schools have stopped hiring substitute teachers to fill in for regular teachers who are either on sick or maternity leave like they did in the past.
Instead, in order to save money, it has become almost an industry-wide practice for schools to assign their TAs to cover for their sick colleagues without bothering to make any overtime payment.
As a result, many TAs often have to work around the clock to teach lessons and to finish their administrative duties and their excessive working hours are not compensated by their schools at all.
In consequence, many TAs with teaching degrees are being paid much less than regular teachers in the same school to fulfill basically the same duties.
And it just gets worse.
Despite being de facto qualified teachers, TAs are like second-class citizens in their schools. Not only does their school management not recognize them as legitimate members of their teaching staff, sometimes even students don’t regard them as formal teachers either.
As a result, many of them just don’t get the kind of respect they deserve.
However, despite the unfair treatment and poor salary, many TAs still choose to hang on to their jobs in the hope that they may get a regular and permanent teaching post one day, although there is no guarantee when it will happen.
It is time for both the government and the education sector to reflect on the entire TA system and take solid steps to improve their employment and working conditions.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Dec. 15
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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