Huang Jiaju, a rural teacher in Hubei Province, posts her students’ goals in her office so that she can better understand and help them achieve their ambitions (XINHUA)
In the heart of the mountains in Enshi Tujia and Miao Autonomous Prefecture of central China's Hubei Province lies Liufeng Village. Liufeng Primary School, where Huang Jiaju works, is located in the village, which is more than 1,100 meters above sea level.
Six years ago, Huang, then a fresh out of college, arrived at the school to find shabby classrooms in disarray and a muddy playground. She was there to work as a volunteer teacher. The school had fewer than 100 students, most of whom were left-behind children whose parents worked away from home. They were taught by nine teachers aged between 46 and 59 years old.
"I had prepared myself for this before coming, but I still felt regretful upon seeing all of this," said Huang, who grew up and received education in Enshi, capital of the remote and underdeveloped prefecture whose landscape is dominated by mountains.
Nonetheless, the children's precious smiles and aspiration to learn and explore the world outside of the mountains kept her at the school.
Though her major in university was information science, Huang teaches several subjects, including English. She looks the words up in a dictionary to make sure she has the right pronunciation and meaning.
Under her instruction, the students have made impressive progress. She was moved to tears after her sixth-grade students all received excellent scores in a major examination in the spring of 2010.
Huang also organizes extracurricular activities for the students, teaching them dancing, singing and performing. She acts as much more than a teacher, though, taking care of boarding students after school. Huang has won numerous county-wide awards and a national award for her courses and essays on teaching. Today, she acts as deputy headmaster at the school.
Students at a rural primary school in Xinxiang, Henan Province, at class on September 8 (XINHUA)
Huang is one of China's 3.3 million rural teachers, most of whom serve in primary and junior middle schools. At present, more than 100 million students study at rural schools across the country.
In a speech on September 8, prior to Teachers Day of China on September 10, Premier Li Keqiang said that rural teachers spread knowledge to every corner of the country, so that rural children can receive the same quality of education as their urban peers, which is key to narrow rural-urban gap and realize all-inclusive prosperity.
Xu Tao, Director of the Teacher Education Department of the Ministry of Education (MOE), said that rural teachers encounter far more difficulties than their counterparts in urban areas, including heavy workloads and harsh living and working conditions.
Huang has seen her fair share of difficulties working at Liufeng Primary School.
A classroom's walls suddenly collapsed because of heavy rainfall in the spring of 2010, thankfully while her students were playing on the playground. She had to turn her dormitory into a temporary classroom for the 14 students.
Because few markets are accessible in the area, Huang cultivated a piece of land near the school and taught herself to grow her own vegetables.
Despite these difficulties, she chose to stay. Huang simply couldn't bear to leave her students behind. But the challenges have proven to be too much for many rural teachers who quickly depart for pastures fresh.
The number of rural teachers in China dropped from 4.7 million in 2010 to 3.3 million in 2013, according to data from the MOE. Put another way, 30 percent of rural teachers quit during those four years.
"Schools in the county proper are in better conditions than schools in the towns, so if I had the opportunity I would like to leave," Zhang Ling, a teacher at a primary school in Yugan County, east China's Jiangxi Province, candidly admitted in a recent interview with China News Service.
Zhang started as a volunteer teacher at a primary school in Shangrao County in Jiangxi in 2011, but two years later she moved to her current school, which has more than 100 students and nine teachers.
A teacher at the school needs to be a jack-of-all-trades. "In addition to teaching Chinese, math and English, we need to teach physical education and music," Zhang said.
She is unsatisfied with her salary and the school's working and living conditions. The school doesn't have dormitories for the teachers, so they have to live either in local farmers' houses or in their offices.
Zhang's monthly income as a volunteer teacher two years ago was 1,300 yuan ($205). Today she makes 1,900 yuan ($300) per month and earns a 7,000-yuan ($1,104) annual allowance, but she said that it is still far from enough to live on.
More than three quarters of rural teachers had an annual income of less than 30,000 yuan ($4,731) in 2013, according to a study by Lei Wanpeng, a professor at Central China Normal University in Wuhan, Hubei.
Ma Min, an administrator at the university, said that during his recent visit to Enshi Prefecture, a rural teacher told him while their income had increased, it was still not comparable to those in other trades.
The anonymous teacher said that their income used to be two to three times that of migrant workers, yet now--owing to a significant increase in migrant workers' income--an average rural teacher's income was only one half or one third that of an average migrant worker.
Improving salaries is one piece of the puzzle in attracting and retaining rural teachers, Xu from the MOE said. Another piece, he stressed, is improving their social status.
Fenghuang County in Hunan Province is doing just that and seeing results. Starting in 2009, the local government granted an allowance in the hopes of retaining rural teachers. Today local teachers get a 1,400-yuan ($221) monthly allowance.
The county had a difficult time filling rural teaching vacancies before the policy was put into effect, but now some urban teachers are competing to fill the positions, according to Xu.
He revealed that a special rural teacher recruitment program launched in Honghe Prefecture in Yunnan Province 10 years ago has also succeeded in recruiting rural teachers. Under the program, fresh college graduates can teach in a rural area and receive a living allowance, and after three years, they can choose to continue teaching in rural schools or apply to teach in urban schools, which will give them better prospects than other candidates. They can also change to other jobs.
About 500,000 college graduates reportedly have participated in the program over the past decade. A third-party study showed that 90 percent of them chose to continue teaching three years later.
In 2013, the MOE and the Ministry of Finance announced the Central Government would provide funding to local governments in economically underdeveloped counties to issue living allowances for rural teachers.
China News Service reported that 604 poverty-stricken counties in 21 provinces and autonomous regions gave an allowance to rural teachers in 2014, benefiting 949,000 recipients in 67,000 schools.
Last year, rural teachers in poverty-stricken counties received an annual average of 307 yuan ($48) of living allowance in addition to their salary, according to Xu.
In July, the State Council, China's cabinet, released a five-year plan to support rural teachers, which aims to narrow the gap between rural and urban teachers' skills to ensure children in rural areas have equal access to a quality education. The plan spells out a string of measures to increase rural teachers' living standards, improve their teaching ability, expand recruitment channels and promote career development. It states that the incentive system should be reformed so as to reward teachers working at the primary level and in poor conditions.
Copyedited by Jordyn Dahl
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