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All in the Family

June, 2008
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They say being a teacher is the most demanding job in the world – next to parenting. So what if mom and dad are both teachers? Tania  McCartney talks to the Ng family, who prove that having two teachers in the family is a very rewarding thing

  When I first arrive at the Ng family home, seven-year-old Christopher Ng is in the garden helping a beetle flip back onto its scurrying feet. Inside, Christopher’s sixteen-year-old brother, William Buck, is taking a break from his school work and joins us for a chat in the living room, dotted with pot-plants, interesting artefacts from the family’s travels and glass-fronted bookcases, jam-packed with books.

  This looks like the quintessential teacher’s house to me – intelligence married with creativity.

  Kim and Julie Ng are very warm and relaxed people. Both are teachers at the British School of Beijing’s Shunyi campus, where Kim teaches secondary math and ICT, and Julie teaches year 4. Julie actually wears many different hats at BSB – not only does she teach, she is a Key Stage II and CPD (continuing professional development) coordinator, provides in-service training for teachers, mentors PGCE students (converting degrees into teaching qualifications), and is also on the literacy team.

  “I’ve been teaching for more than 20 years and I’ve managed to stay a teacher this long because I love to learn,” says Julie, who also taught at an international school in Kuala Lumpur. “At BSB, I’m still learning, and the school continues to provide me with opportunities and roles that mean I have to learn.”

  The couple’s sons also attend BSB in Shunyi – William, year 11, and Christopher, year 2. While mom and sons are British, Kim is Malaysian and speaks five languages. The rest of the family are also language-savvy, with William learning Mandarin and Spanish, and Christopher speaking Mandarin. Julie, meanwhile, admits she speaks only ‘taxi Chinese’. all-in-the-family

  “I have had a lifelong wish to come to China,” she says. “Kim’s father left China when he was a child and, we wanted to be here because Christopher is half Chinese.” After a four-year stint in the UK, the Ng family had started to pine for the expat lifestyle they enjoyed in Kuala Lumpur. Kim and Julie also wanted Christopher to experience the childhood William had enjoyed in Malaysia. They began searching www.tes.co.uk – a teaching jobs and resources website that links teachers with career opportunities all over the world – and before they knew it, the family was Beijing-bound, arriving in August 2005.

  “The British School offered the multicultural population we were after, but also the diversity and creativity of curriculum that I like to teach,” Julie says of her desire to teach there. “Classes are smaller in international schools, and resources are usually greater, but it’s the cultural element that makes it so special to work in. You get all kinds of diverse perspectives and skills because you work with teachers and children from all over the world. It brings a global dynamic to teaching.”

  With both mom and dad in teaching roles, hours are long for the Ng family. Teaching at BSB requires similar hours and preparation work to UK schools but, according to Kim, extra-curricular involvement is greater due mainly to the multicultural component of the school. Along with BSB’s varied cultural days, the couple attend four or more planning and activities sessions a week. Both parents also dedicate several hours at night and on the weekend to lesson-planning, so balancing a home-life can be challenging.

  In order to cope, Kim and Julie draw on each other’s expertise and talents. “If Kim is teaching year 7 math and I teach year 6, we might bounce ideas off each other,” says Julie. “Overall, though, my strengths are advising him on kids who are struggling to learn, and Kim is an ICT specialist, so if I want to zap up my lessons electronically, he can teach me how to do it.”

  Skill-sharing is certainly vital, but there are other benefits to working together at BSB. “We recognize the demands placed on each other, and are better able to deal with potential problems,” says Julie. “We try not to not ‘talk shop’ too much outside school. We may sound-off at dinner but then we stop, or we could end up talking about it all night!” she laughs. Working together is also advantageous for William and Christopher because the couple know how to ensure the best possible education for their sons. “And we have the same holidays and time off, so we can travel as a family,” Kim adds.

  The disadvantage of working at the same school, according to the couple, is that if one of them is affected by something, the other is also affected. There are sometimes privacy issues, too. As Julie is part of the management team, William’s life is sometimes in focus. “Sometimes William can’t sneeze without me knowing about it!” laughs Julie.

  While Kim and Julie believe that teaching at the same school benefits their own family, they also believe it’s an educational bonus to other students at the school. When Julie’s primary school children continue on to secondary, for example, there is continuity when they are taught by Kim. “We also get to know who the students are, and are better informed of their needs,” says Kim. The couple say their multicultural marriage brings the benefit of both Asian and Western perspectives to their teaching, and ultimately to their students.

  Acquiring equilibrium at school is not the only challenge the family face – there’s home-life to consider, too. A typical school day in the Ng household is jam-packed and starts early. William is usually up just before 6 am. He makes coffee for mom, who joins him for a chat. Kim wanders down soon after, before Julie pedals off to school at 7 am. William is out the door at 7.20, leaving Kim and Christopher to eat breakfast before their car arrives at 7.50 – and the family’s busy schooling schedule officially begins.

  At the end of the day, Christopher takes the school bus home, Kim arrives just after 4.30 pm and William not long after. Julie usually cycles in around 6 for dinner. “It’s a time we can we sit together as a family and talk about the day,” she says. William then goes to the gym or does homework while Christopher does his readers and piano, and mom and dad catch up on work, before settling in for the evening. Almost by osmosis, the couple have perfected a bedtime routine for Christopher, where the least-busy parent tucks him in and reads a story. Then it’s usually more school work, with Kim often still immersed when Julie heads to bed before 10.

  “On the weekends, we have one day where we do something as a family,” says Julie. “Saturday is usually domestic duties, shopping and finishing up any work. William goes out with his friends, then we all meet up and have a meal together.” Sunday morning has traditionally been Starbucks and then the family might go hiking, try a new restaurant or even have a weekend away, exploring a new town.

  With so much focus on education in the Ng household, perhaps the teaching bug has rubbed off on William and Christopher. “William is right into science and math,” says Kim. “He wants to be a doctor. Christopher is an archaeologist,” Kim laughs, indicating the potted greenery around the family’s living room. “The plants are all his. He loves nature and art, so will probably follow that path.”

  Meanwhile, the Ng family are committed to another year at BSB. “We don’t have any definite plans for the future,” says Kim. “We do want to stay in Asia. Towards the end of next year, we’ll discuss things and see what our family’s dynamics are then.” Julie agrees, adding that the family are just focused on continuing to balance their teaching and family life, and to enjoying their time in Beijing. “We love it,” she says. “It’s a great ride.”

By Tania McCartney

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