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Xavier studied aerospace engineering at university
29 May 2020

Opposites Attract: Aerospace Engineering to Teaching English

Chatteris’ own Xavier Tang discusses his aerospace engineering background and how this led him to teaching English in Hong Kong…

Differential equations. Turbomachinery. Fluid mechanics. 

The mere mention of these mind-boggling topics is typically enough to make anyone’s head spin. Yet, at the time I was drawn to them like Hongkongers were to toilet paper during the COVID-19 outbreak. So much so that I decided to immerse myself in aerospace engineering for four entire years… 

Jokes aside, I loved all aspects of the course: from its technically challenging modules and group projects, with the odd last-minute all-nighter to compile a 150-page report, to the practical, hands-on manufacturing workshops and labs that accumulated hundreds of hours of lectures to illustrate the incredible operational complexity of a jet engine. In short, I poured myself into the subject that I dreamed of studying since secondary school. 

Xavier studied Aerospace Engineering at university
Xavier studied Aerospace Engineering at university | Image by Xavier Tang

Yet as I sat down to revise for my last ever set of university exams in my academic career, I felt that deep down, something was missing. Perhaps I was reaching the point where I needed a new challenge.

One which did not involve fiendishly complex calculations. One which I could not forcibly solve through iterative improvements. One which would develop my skill set in ways beyond those seen in the engineering norms.

Being able to create cutting-edge technology is impressive, but what use would it be if you don’t have a high degree of self-confidence and public speaking skills to pitch these innovations to the masses?  Perhaps it was time for me to satisfy my itch to explore the education sector.

During my interview, I vividly remember being asked why I wanted to work with Chatteris. I answered:

“In engineering, you can design things to perform as optimally as possible, given the customer specification and requirements. But when it comes to teaching, you never truly have the same degree of control. You cannot forcibly teach students new material or change certain things about an individual. The best compromise is often to offer students your best advice and explanations. Even then, students can disregard things you say whilst others embrace the approach that you try to instil. For those who responded positively, great! For others, it challenges you to explore new approaches to engage with them. There is a hidden beauty in that sense which can make teaching so rewarding.”

Xavier with his colleagues, Aarohi and Ishmael, at a Halloween event for students
Xavier with his colleagues, Aarohi and Ishmael, at a Halloween event for students | Image by Xavier Tang

In truth, I didn’t know what I would be stepping into. Prior to joining the programme, I worked with underserved children through a council scheme and Air Cadets, but by no means was I a professional in the classroom.

As an engineer, I was taught to make reasonable assumptions given physical and mathematical confinements but this new chapter I began writing for myself defies such conventions. I found myself questioning many things. How must it feel teaching ‘kids’ that are nearly as old as I am? Will I be able to hide my ability to understand and speak the local language for an entire year?

I grew up in Hong Kong and had fond memories of the unique, bustling city. I was subjected to the rigorous local curriculum up to primary one, where at the tender age of 6, it would be the norm to spend 2-3 hours a day on homework and extra studies just to keep up with the academic demand.

So, in that sense, I was aware of and could relate to the challenge, expectations and ridiculous levels of stress students of Hong Kong are facing today. Little did I know that this life would soon be changed as the SARS outbreak in 2003 drove my family to move to the UK. Because of this, a part of me has always yearned to rediscover my cultural heritage. In my eyes, it has always been the place to be.

At the time of writing this piece, my year with Chatteris is drawing to a close. On reflection, I still stand by what I said in my interview.

Those who know me understand that I am not a particularly outgoing person, which was only one aspect of myself that I set out to challenge through a year’s work teaching.

The experience of establishing myself in a foreign culture both professionally and socially has and will continue to be invaluable. Add to that recipe a dash of political turmoil and ironically another viral outbreak and the end product is an unparalleled year for my personal and professional development.

So, does that mean my original ambitions in engineering were thrown out of the window? Not in the slightest.

Engineers are often praised for their hard technical skills, but often lack ‘soft’ skills, like public speaking, self-confidence, and interpersonal skills. These are what I wanted to develop during my time with Chatteris and I feel I have accomplished this goal.

The whole experience has been richly rewarding: from the time spent on campus seeing students grow, to exploring new methods of online teaching, and resource development during this uncertain time. 

Will I remain in the education sector? Or will I go back  to the world of engineering equipped with a fresh outlook and bolstered skill set? Only time will tell.

Chatteris welcomes tutors from a variety of backgrounds. Like Xavier, are you interested in teaching? We are hiring!

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