A Hong Kong primary school teacher deregistered for life by the government for distorting the history of the first opium war has broken his silence, vowing to appeal against a punishment that he said was “disproportionate” to his mistakes.
While admitting he erred when he said the 19th century war was a result of Britain wanting to “destroy opium in China”, the teacher said the content only accounted for a small proportion of the 15-minute general studies online lesson.
The teacher from Ho Lap Primary School in Tsz Wan Shan, who prefers to use the pseudonym Chan, also said his school had originally intended to renew his contract – which ended in August – and he was praised for his hard work and passion in a performance review.
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“I wish to take this opportunity to apologise to my students and their parents over the mistake that I’ve made because of my relatively weak knowledge in history,” Chan said on Monday.
The incident came to light in April when a video circulating online showed his descriptions of the first opium war, fought between 1839 and 1842. He tells the Primary Two pupils the conflict was the result of “Britain’s attempt to ban opium smoking in China”.
Britain in fact sought to import large amounts of opium into China before the war, with officials from the Qing dynasty trying to eradicate the trade.
The video attracted widespread criticism including a commentary by state news agency Xinhua, while Chan was suspended from teaching.
He is the second teacher to be barred from the classroom in the past two months after a primary school teacher was deregistered in September over accusations a lesson plan spread pro-independence messages.
Chan, who became a registered teacher in August last year, said he was hired by the primary school the following month on a one-year contract and originally was only supposed to teach English and computer literacy.
He admitted he was “not too familiar” with certain areas of history he was told to teach and had not spent much time researching the opium war.
“I had an impression [about the war] from a long time ago,” he said. “I thought if I had already learned about it, and was pretty sure about that, I did not have to do further research on it.”
I’m still unsure what kind of job I will be able to do after this
Education officials said he also erred in telling pupils during another general studies lesson that paper was invented to “prevent the extinction of animals” as it replaced the use of turtle shells and animal bones as materials to write on.
Chan argued his lesson had referenced a video prepared by the Education Bureau from 2009, during which the narrator said: “If turtle shells were used every day for writing, wouldn’t turtles go extinct soon?”
The bureau maintains the line was said with a “humorous tone” and not stating a fact. Chan said he too was aiming for a lively and humorous way to hold pupils’ interest.
Education authorities last week criticised Chan as “incompetent”, saying he had made serious professional mistakes and completely neglected his basic duty of preparing lessons.
The school’s panel head of general studies was also reprimanded by education officials over what they called an “obvious lapse in supervision”.
Chan argued authorities were unfair to judge him based on a few examples related to areas of knowledge that were unfamiliar to him.
The school principal described him in an appraisal report in March as a passionate and responsible teacher, who often spent time after class to forge relationships with pupils. He was also “meticulous” in his marking and lesson preparation, the review said.
The Professional Teachers’ Union, which has been assisting with the appeal, said his lifelong deregistration penalty was “completely disproportionate”, a criticism echoed by Chan.
An Education Bureau spokeswoman, in a reply on Monday, defended its decision to strip the teacher of his registration, saying he had committed “serious mistakes” in class while expressing regret that he had chosen to “pressure the bureau” through other means.
“The teacher’s issue was about his basic competency and professional attitude. His mistakes had caused direct impact to students, which cannot be simply dealt with by a reminder, advisory, warning or reprimand,” she said.
“The bureau cannot let students learn under such a teacher, and we believe parents and members of the public will agree with us.”
Chan said he had not yet decided his next step apart from appealing. “Becoming a teacher has been my childhood dream, but I am not allowed to set foot on campuses [after being delisted],” he said. “I’m still unsure what kind of job I will be able to do after this.”
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