Pressuring students, both young and old, to always be perfect leads to disappointment, and sometimes worse. Here’s what I learnt about success and failure in high-pressure schools in Hong Kong.
From preschool all the way to university, students are told to aim for perfection. Success means getting straight As and failure? Oh no, we don’t do that here! Unfortunately, these unrealistic expectations do not ultimately enable students to do well in life. Do we not realise that high-pressure schools in Hong Kong are problematic and destructive? Why is Hong Kong so obsessed with academic performance?
“If you don’t get into a good university, you’ll become a construction worker.”
I remember one teacher, in particular, from primary school. Even today, I am still shocked by her attitude, which she also tried to instill in primary school students. This one sentence she said still haunts me, “If you don’t study well and make it into a good university, you’ll become a construction worker.” She said this pointing to the street. Not only was this racist (given that the majority of the students in the class were of South Asian descent), she also undermined the hard work and contributions made by construction workers. After all, Hong Kong’s famous skyline would be nothing without construction workers.
And it only gets worse in secondary school…
Although students feel the brunt of the pressure, teachers also suffer as a result of unrealistic expectations about their students’ academic performance. Many evaluate their own professional success – or are measured by others – by how many of their students make it into good universities. Because–let’s not forget–you have no future if you don’t attain a degree. That is the refrain that will echo throughout your student experience, from the first day of school to the last. And if that wasn’t enough, there’s additional pressure from parents and relatives. Students are basically drowning in the fear that they’re never going to be good enough.
Woe betide any student that challenges the ideology that success means good grades. They are automatically dismissed as a deviant or trouble-maker, or simply too lazy to study. Only students who earn perfect grades are praised and validated. How about the ones constantly striving to make an improvement, no matter how small? Or how about the ones who are working on being more empathetic and kinder to themselves and others? Ultimately, it all comes down to good grades.
So I didn’t make it into university on the first go, but so what?
I was silently battling anxiety growing up; it affected how much I could concentrate. I did better in my HKDSE than my teachers had predicted but it still wasn’t good enough to get into the university program I wanted. It’s not the end of the world, people.
I decided to go for an Associate Degree at HKU SPACE, all the while feeling like a complete failure. During our graduation ceremony in secondary school, all the high-achievers were given certificates and even money as a reward for getting 5* and 5**. What did I get for trying my best? Nothing. Just judgment for going to community college. I avoided my friends who made it into university through JUPAS. And I despised relatives that judged my potential based on the fact that I was going for an associate degree.
Failing is okay. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
I learnt so much from my two years of doing an associate degree. While I worked hard and genuinely enjoyed what I studied, I also worked on improving my confidence and self-esteem. I made it into my third year at City University of Hong Kong and felt relieved that I didn’t make it the first time. Because if I had, I may not have learned that failing is okay.
Is there ever a light at the end of the tunnel?
I recently read about an 11 year old boy – one of the youngest to sit for the HKDSE – who scored the third highest grade this year. But he was upset with his performance and plans to retake the exam because he’s aiming for perfection on his second go. Whether it’s his own will, or due to pressure from his parents or teachers, it doesn’t matter. It’s this constant obsession with wanting to be better that leaves us with little to no satisfaction. Wondering why we’re surrounded by grumpy faces in this city? Our happiness index is nowhere near the top, but our IQ tops it, and that’s what matters right?
The Hong Kong education system may or may not eventually address that failure is okay. But as students, parents, teachers, and even friends and relatives, we have the responsibility to educate each other to know and recognise burnout, and what it does to our mind and body. Many students’ early lives will still be shaped by stress from high-pressure schools in Hong Kong. But we can try to release some of that pressure by not frowning at second chances, by showing more interest in arts than academics, and by not pushing everyone to pursue a bachelor’s degree. Some may just learn better outside the classroom.
We have the potential to do better, Hong Kong.