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Opinion
Can the silver-age plan help to improve rural education?
  ·  2020-07-15  ·   Source: NO.29 JULY 16, 2020
LI SHIGONG

The Education Department of the Shaanxi Provincial Government has announced a silver-age plan, intending to recruit 262 retired professional teachers below the age of 65 to help with school education in poverty-stricken counties in the province. The teachers must have attained a certain professional level prior to retirement. Headmasters, experienced teachers and teachers of specific grades are to be included. The volunteer educators will serve for at least one academic year, and those who meet the required standard will be encouraged to extend their contracts.

The plan is an effort to improve education in rural areas. Due to social and economic reasons, schools in remote, underdeveloped areas often lack qualified teachers and lag behind the teaching methods, facilities, and management of urban schools.

It is hoped that these veteran teachers can contribute rich teaching experience at these schools. They may choose to either give classes themselves or to evaluate and offer guidance to local teachers. Shaanxi is not the first province to launch this kind of program. Several other provinces have deployed similar plans, to positive effect.

Yet there is concern that these retirees will be unable to match their younger counterparts in terms of energy and ideas about education. They may be limited in their knowledge of modern teaching methods, particularly those involving the Internet. For now the silver-age plan is a matter of necessity.

A practical solution

Wei Ruishen (Beijing Morning Post): This is a farsighted scheme. Many teachers have to retire when they could still play a big role in school education, but they can't, as they have reached the retirement age. Some even feel depressed after leaving the lectern they love so much. Compared with other developed countries, elderly people have fewer opportunities to continue work in China, as there are fewer platforms which enable them to do so. In a sense, it is a waste of valuable experience and resources.

The silver-age plan targets impoverished counties, especially those in remote and economically underdeveloped areas. The shortage of educational resources is a major factor in the entrenchment of local poverty. This plan can offer help in terms of education, culture, science and other forms of knowledge. It can be understood in a broader sense as part of the country's poverty-alleviation strategy.

Meanwhile, the plan provides a platform for retired teachers who wish to devote their golden years to education, opening new opportunities for them. In retirement, many elderly people have little to do. This kind of life can be even distressing to some. With new places to go to where their experience and knowledge are required, they will feel much more valued than in a life at home.

The plan can not only help to alleviate poverty by improving education in rural areas, but can also give retired teachers a role to play. More retired teachers than headmasters and teachers of special grades should be given the chance. A diploma is not always the best gauge of someone's abilities.

Lian Hongyang (Guangzhou Daily): Retired teachers may not match their younger colleagues in terms of physical energy, but they boast richer experience, which is extremely valuable in the classroom. For the schools themselves the arrival of veteran teachers as part of the silver-age plan is important and timely help. Without good teachers, it is not possible to raise the quality of local education. In the worst instances, talented students may be overlooked by inept teachers. These veteran teachers can help to close the gap between education in rural and urban areas.

In addition to giving classes, these teachers can also help their local colleagues to improve their professional skills through guidance and by organizing workshops and activities. The quality of local teaching will be elevated to a higher level. This benefit will outlast the silver-age plan itself.

Cai Zhengqing (www.anhuinews.com): Teachers from rural schools are usually under more pressure and receive lower salaries than their counterparts in the cities, especially in remote and poverty-stricken areas. Many young teachers don't see the gain from such a job, and quickly leave for new pastures. As a result, there is a downward spiral in the quality of rural education in such places.

The plan can, to some extent, solve this problem of scarce educational resources. There may be concern that these retired teachers are too old to do a good job, but the selected individuals will have all undergone a rigorous selection procedure. They must meet a certain professional level and be physically capable of doing the job. In volunteering to relocate to these rural areas, they already demonstrate a commitment to the job and their enthusiasm for contributing their experience in rural schools.

However, the plan is ultimately a matter of expediency. These teachers are healthy in a general sense, but there is nonetheless a gap between their energy and that of young and middle-aged teachers. Local schools should take account of this and create a reasonable schedule for these teachers.

Challenges exist

Wang Shichuan (www.gmw.cn): Tapping into the potential of retired teachers will have many benefits. For the teachers themselves there will be opportunities to contribute their talents and passion to underdeveloped rural education. However, several challenges remain before the silver-age plan is ready to be put into action.

The first issue is how to find devoted veteran teachers willing to stay for a long time in rural areas. Most importantly, they must be paid on time. The Ministry of Education is offering a subsidy of 20,000 yuan ($2,857) per year, and if local governments have extra subsidies to offer, then they should freely use them.

This is not a large sum for veteran teachers. If money is their primary motivation for taking up a position at rural schools, such a salary won't be enough to persuade them. Only those passionate about rural education and who care about the progress of these areas will choose to go. The second question is how qualified teachers are selected. In order to ensure that these teachers are providing excellent education to students, it is necessary to set up reasonable assessment mechanisms.

In Shaanxi's case, these retired teachers can choose to give classes, evaluate other teachers' work, hold open lectures or workshops, give guidance and help schools to improve their management.

This flexible practice will help to utilize the specific expertise of these veteran teachers while meeting the real demand of local schools.

Shaanxi demands that recruitment focus on headmasters, teachers of specific grades, or 'backbone' teachers, those experienced and able to teach a core range of subjects. So far, almost all of the recruited retired teachers are top professionals. They not only give classes, but also help to improve the overall management of rural schools. Their rich experience in educational practice and management is something that these local schools must try to tap into.

Weiyangshusheng (www.rednet.cn): The silver-age plan is a very economical way to approach poverty alleviation, but it's not perfect and there are some striking shortcomings to the idea.

While the plan will help by providing experienced teachers for a time, it does nothing to fundamentally plug the gap. It will ultimately depend on the financial input of national and local governments to improve school facilities and increase teachers' salaries, so that rural schools can attract more young teachers willing to settle down and devote themselves to rural education. Injecting resources from outside is just an expediency. In order to transform the shortcomings of rural education, these resources must be produced locally by the areas themselves.

Besides, the teachers recruited under the plan are too old. They are used to conventional ways of delivering lessons and most of them are unfamiliar with modern teaching methods like online learning, especially compared with their younger peers. Some even rely on outdated ideas, dialing back recent reforms in education. Although they have a great depth of experience, this does not necessarily mean they will swiftly adapt to the rural education environment. It's hard to know whether their ways of teaching will be well received by local students or not.

Moreover, these retired teachers will not stay in any one school for long. In Shaanxi, the contracted term is one year, with teachers required to renew their service agreement once the year is up. It is quite possible that some teachers will stop working after just a year on the job, and this could ultimately prove disruptive to local schools' teaching arrangements. As a result, students will be forced to adapt to a new teacher having spent a year getting used to the methods of the previous one. These are some of the eventualities that might negatively affect local students and must be taken into consideration.

Copyedited by Laurence Coulton

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