Education is about character, values, and identity, not just how smart kids are, teacher says

Linda Taira standing in a room: Christine Ma-Lau, founder of JEMS Character Academy, in Hong Kong. Photo: SCMP / Xiaomei Chen

Christine Ma-Lau, founder of JEMS Character Academy, in Hong Kong. Photo: SCMP / Xiaomei Chen

Nature and nurture: My parents first met in high school in Hong Kong. Years later, when they met again in Toronto, Canada, they married. I was born there in 1981 and we moved to Hong Kong in 1985.

I went to kindergarten at an international school, which wasn’t a good fit for me. The teacher liked students who were outgoing, expressive, proactive and would sit at the front of the class and put their hands up. Aged six, I wasn’t like that. I was timid and would sit at the back of the room and take things in and observe but not actively participate. I was weak at maths and sport and felt left out at school because this teacher didn’t think highly of me. I didn’t enjoy school and didn’t want to go.

I found out years later she had told my mom I was, in her words, passive and didn’t engage, too shy, terrible at maths. My mom asked what she could do to help, and the teacher said, “It’s hopeless, that’s just the way she is.” I’m so thankful my mom didn’t believe her or give in to her; had she believed the teacher and come back and started scolding me I think I would have turned out very differently.

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I’m thankful I had a mother who nurtured me in other interests so I could develop confidence elsewhere. Today when parents ask me what’s a good school, I say there’s no such thing, there’s only a good fit. It’s whether it’s right for your child.

a woman standing in front of a mirror posing for the camera: Ma-Lau wearing her Glendower school uniform. Photo: Christine Ma-Lau

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Ma-Lau wearing her Glendower school uniform. Photo: Christine Ma-Lau

Out of my shell: My dad was in finance and, in 1989, his work took him to London. My mom went ahead of the move to scout out schools. She came across a tiny prep school in Central London called Glendower. Although the school was out for the summer, she knocked on the door and persuaded the headmistress to see her. Thanks to the power of a persistent mother, a position opened up for me.

In the first week of school, the music teacher, Mr Sanderson, sat at a grand piano and said, “Today we’re not going to learn about music, I want to get to know you.” He gave us each a piece of paper that asked for our name, age, what we are good at and not so good at. I filled in everything except I couldn’t think what I was good at. He said, “That’s OK, we’re going to discover that together.”

I spent two years at that school and really came out of my shell. I wrote a lot, was part of sports teams, built relationships and felt seen and nurtured. I’m still in touch with Mr Sanderson.

Learning ABCs: I cried when we left London. It was a struggle to come back to Hong Kong. I went to Bradbury School and then the German Swiss International School. It was a social learning curve for me, and I had my share of struggles in high school. When I was 16, I went to Wycombe Abbey, an all-girls schools between London and Oxford. I loved the opportunities that came with living on campus.

In Hong Kong, learning the piano was drudgery, but at Wycombe Abbey after school I would go to the music room and practise. Everyone was doing it; they were all so cultured. I would play the piano, then play squash, go swimming and play tennis just because it was all there. In Upper Sixth, we were encouraged to cook our own dinners.

When you live with people you become better friends because you go through so much together. I loved it, but I felt a lot of pressure, especially in the last year. It was a running joke that when you got your test results A stood for “acceptable”, B for “bad” and C for “catastrophic”.

I’m thankful I had parents who said, “Just try your best, we didn’t send you here because you have to get the top grades or go to a certain university.” The pressure came from myself. When you are with people who think that A is acceptable it colours your view. I got two As and a B in my A-levels, and one of the As was in maths. I couldn’t help thinking about my first-grade teacher – I guess you can’t determine what a child is like when they are six.

Intelligence is just a tool. Character determines how you use that tool

Christine Ma-Lau, founder, JEMS Character Academy

Summer school: I went to the London School of Economics and studied economics and philosophy. I didn’t love it. What I found most rewarding was summer internships and learning through those. I interned at a law firm and a bank, and in my final year I asked my parents if I could do some teaching. They agreed, saying it was my time to explore.

I spent the summer helping out at a kindergarten and a primary school. It was the most strenuous, exhausting, physically taxing summer I’ve had, but also the most rewarding, refreshing and meaningful. After that summer I was quite sure it was the direction I wanted to go in.

I was a little nervous about what my dad might think of me wanting to go into education, but he was supportive. He said, “Do what you are passionate about because in every industry there will be people who stand out because of the passion they have and the dedication they have to what they are doing.”

Life lessons: I went to the University of Pennsylvania to do my postgrad in education. When I came back to Hong Kong, in 2003, I taught psychology at an international school, taught English at an education centre and helped out at the Youth Ministry at the International Christian Assembly, helping teenagers at our local church.

Ma-Lau reads to a student at JEMS Character Academy. Photo: Christine Ma-Lau

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Ma-Lau reads to a student at JEMS Character Academy. Photo: Christine Ma-Lau

In 2008, I started thinking about where I wanted my life to go. I knew education was my calling. Having grown up in Hong Kong and met a lot of students in an education and a church setting, I knew Hong Kong kids are really smart.

They are being shuttled around to learn English, maths and science and five instruments and four sports and getting trophies and certificates and getting portfolios put together, but are they being taught what resilience is? Are they being taught what it means to persevere towards a goal? Do they know what respect means? Do they know how to build relationships with other people? Do they have their own sense of identity? Are they contributing to the community? Those things are the most important in life.

So much focus is put on intelligence, but if you have intelligence without character, you could use intelligence in the wrong way. Intelligence is just a tool. Character determines how you use that tool.

Character building: In 2009, we opened JEMS Character Academy. We had a small team and wrote our own curriculum. We said there are three things we believe in: we want to help kids determine what their identity is, what their values are; help them build relationships with friends and family; and, ultimately, have them contribute to the community. We started with 35 students and we’ve taught over 8,000 students. We’ve also been invited to run our programmes in schools.

Karen Dalton posing for a picture: Ma-Lau with her husband Kevin Lau, in 2011, the year they got married. Photo: Christine Ma-Lau

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Ma-Lau with her husband Kevin Lau, in 2011, the year they got married. Photo: Christine Ma-Lau

Heart and soul: When I opened the academy, a friend asked if she could bring along some friends who were interested in education. She brought along a medical doctor, Kevin Lau Chung-hang. We became friends. We held workshops on Saturday for the kids and invited speakers. We had a Pixar artist talk to kids about illustration and I said to Kevin, “You’re a radiologist, why don’t you do a session about X-rays.”

He taught the kids about the things you see in an X-ray. I remember a seven-year-old kid looking at an X-ray of a human heart and asking why it didn’t look heart-shaped. Kevin and I married in 2011.

Strength in numbers: In 2015, I came across “Character Day”, which started in the US. I emailed the organiser and said they had no representation in Hong Kong. There is strength in numbers, so I rallied together a bunch of educators and we came together and hosted Character Day for the first time in Hong Kong in 2016.

It was a success, 200 schools signed up, and on the strength of that we established the Character Education Foundation, which my father (Frederick Ma Si-hang, former chairman of the MTR Corporation and former secretary for commerce and economic development in the Hong Kong government) will co-chair with me beginning in January.

What we’ve learned at JEMS is valuable beyond those four walls

Christine Ma-Lau

Parent support: Kevin and I had our first child, Christian, in 2016. When I was pregnant with him, people said, you will understand children a lot more now you are having your own. When I had him I realised, I don’t understand children more, I understand parents more. There are so many things to consider as a parent, I’ve certainly grown in my empathy after having my own children.

After Christian, we had twins, a boy and a girl. I’m now pregnant with our fourth child. What we’ve learned at JEMS is valuable beyond those four walls. We want to reach more people in Hong Kong, help more people in the community.

This foundation has three main goals – advocacy, training and resources. The dream of all this is that character and its education will permeate every school, every learning community, every home. We aren’t there yet but I’m hopeful as I see more people come alongside and work with us. We are moving in the right direction.

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (, the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

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