(Above) Zhang Yugun teaches a class at the Heihumiao Primary School in Zhenping County in Henan Province, on March 20, 2018 Zhang Yugun attends a photo exhibition themed Role Model of the Times in Beijing on May 30 (XINHUA)
Having been a primary school teacher for two decades, Zhang Yugun, 41, still remembers the moment that he decided to give up the chance to work in a city and return to his hometown to teach.
That was in August 2001, when he set foot into the classroom of the Heihumiao Primary School after his graduation from a college. Upon seeing the ramshackle desks, unpainted cement podium, and the eyes of the dozen innocent students, he made the decision.
Twenty years have passed, and he still believes the decision to have been the right one. "My happiness comes from helping the children see a bigger world and change their destiny," Zhang told Beijing Review.
Where it all started
The primary school is located deep in the mountains of Heihumiao Village, Zhenping County, Henan Province. On the map, it is merely 70 km away from the county seat. However, the village is surrounded by layers of mountains, and the rugged road made it all the more difficult to travel within the village, letting alone leaving the area without a vehicle.
After graduating from a normal college in Nanyang, Henan, in 2001, Zhang planned to venture out to better-off regions to get a job. When he was packing up at home in Heihumiao, the then headmaster of the primary school Wu Longqi came to his door, explaining to Zhang that the school was in desperate need of teachers and expressing his sincerest wishes that Zhang could stay and teach there. It was not the first time that Wu had come to Zhang's home for the same reason. Touched by Wu's perseverance, Zhang decided to take a look at the school.
Zhang found the school was in the same shabby state he had left after finishing his primary school there. "I know how hard it was living and pursuing studies in the deep mountains, so I couldn't bear to leave the students there. I decided to stay," Zhang said. That is how he became a substitute teacher with a slender income.
A rundown two-story classroom shed, a dormitory, and three bungalows constitute the campus. Although the school is located in the middle of the village, it takes students who live far away up to three hours to get there on foot.
Before each semester, Zhang needed to go to the township to purchase textbooks for his students. On the way he needed to climb a 1,600-meter-high mountain, along a narrow winding footpath that allows for one person only to pass at a time. On the way back, he carried the books in sacks hanging from a shoulder pole. The round trip would take him up to 12 hours. In the wintery snowfall, it would take him longer due to the icy roads. One time he slipped and almost fell down the mountain if it hadn't been for a rock blocking his rapid descent.
There are other hardships that made Zhang want to quit and leave the mountain village, but he didn't have the heart to leave behind the children. Most of the students at the primary school were left-behind children whose parents went to work in big cities for bigger earnings, leaving them and the elderly back home. Besides being a teacher at school, Zhang was also a caretaker, visiting them at home or the dormitory and helping them cook, mend clothes and answer their bewilderments with the assistance of his wife. He also helps to pay the tuition of hundreds of poor students. Since Zhang's arrival at the school, no child has dropped out for poverty-related reasons.
Due to the substandard conditions, teachers came and went. Although inspired by Zhang, several retired teachers returned to the school and resumed teaching, yet the staff was still far from enough. Gradually, through self-learning, Zhang was capable of teaching multiple courses including Chinese, mathematics, English and science. He and other teachers also handcrafted their teaching aids. To cope with the lack of proper sports facilities, during PE classes, he would take students to go hiking and explore nature.
In 2018, Zhang was awarded the title Role Model of the Times for his dedication to teaching. The title was conferred upon him by the Publicity Department of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee. Since 2014, individuals and groups awarded the honor have been selected from all walks of life—frontline workers, village teachers, drivers, medical workers and scientists. Their stories are reported by the media on various platforms for the public to read and learn about them. This year, Zhang was also nominated as a candidate for the outstanding Party member accolade. Only some 400 individuals were nominated for the honor nationwide.
"I would like to be like a moon, enlightening my students' winding road and leading them out of the mountains," Zhang said. Before Zhang taught at the Heihumiao Primary School, the entire village had only one person who had attended college. Now, that number has increased to more than a dozen. Some were enrolled in elite national universities or even got their master's degrees.
Zhang Yugun attends a photo exhibition themed ”Role Model of the Times" in Beijing on May 30 (LU YAN)
Making a change
With Zhang's story now known to more people nationwide, the school became the focus of attention. With the help of the local education department and philanthropic enterprises, conditions at the school have continued to improve. With over 50 students currently enrolled, the school now has new dormitory buildings, a canteen, a sports field and computer classrooms. New teaching tools and facilities, such as LCD Blackboards, are available as well. Students can attend distant-learning classes via computers.
China eliminated absolute poverty in 2020 and many local students and their families in Heihumiao, too, now enjoy better living conditions. In 2006, a highway was opened to traffic. Zhang bought a motorcycle and it has now become far more convenient for him to travel into the township to buy textbooks and school supplies for the students.
Nevertheless, Zhang, now the school's headmaster, has new concerns. The number of teachers at the Heihumiao Primary School remains below par. In 2018, Zhang was elected a deputy to the Nanyang Municipal People's Congress, the local legislative body. He suggested to the local government that the teachers' income and other aspects of management should receive further improvement. He also suggested establishing more fine art and musical courses at schools in rural areas. "I especially cherish the position of deputy, and I will try my best to convey the aspirations of students and teachers alike at the primary level," Zhang said.
To constantly hone their own skills, currently Zhang and other teachers are participating in various online and offline training courses. Zhang pursued further studies and obtained a bachelor's degree in education science.
"My plan is to form a stronger teaching team and enable my students to enjoy the same educational resources as students in big cities. Witnessing the changes across the decades, I'm very optimistic about their future and that of the school," Zhang said.
(Print Edition Title: Beyond the Blackboard)
Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon
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