Teaching talent shuns rural schools for big-city rewards

SONG WEIGUO, a first-year student at Beijing Normal University, isn't put off by the low pay and basic living conditions in the countryside. When he graduates, he plans to teach in a rural school.

A native of rural Yunnan province, the teaching major understands the lack of qualified teachers outside major cities and especially in western China.

To help the community, he said he would work in the countryside for up to two years before seeking an urban job that paid better, something his parents would like.

'There aren't very many people who want to do this. Many would rather be government workers,' he said.

Most are more like Beijing Normal University chemistry graduate student Xu Chuan. Although two of the 48 people in his 2005 undergraduate class took jobs in the countryside, he wanted to keep studying. He says teaching in the countryside would waste his knowledge.

It's hard to live in rural China, Mr Xu said, and the monthly pay of 500 yuan to 600 yuan would not help pay off student loans or fulfill parental aspirations. Urban jobs pay at least 1,500 yuan per month.

Since the China Communist Youth League and individual universities began pushing graduates to take rural teaching jobs in 2003, about 10,000 people have taught at schools in relatively poor rural villages of central and western China.

They teach for a year or two to prove their skills in a competitive national job market which will see 4.13 million new graduates this year, to get points toward master's programme admission and, especially for countryside natives, help fight poverty. Party members also may be urged to help develop impoverished western China by teaching in its schools.

'There are some young people who have a sense of responsibility. They think the countryside needs them, so they can get some practice there,' said Wang Changjiang, general manager of Beijing Haozhu Headhunter. 'They also go if they can't find other work.' Villages may be accessible only by dirt trails. Classrooms are sometimes separated by plastic membrane partitions with slabs of wood laid across brick stacks for desks.

Principals usually hire local adults with a middle-school education and no teaching background for core classes such as maths because they can't find teachers outside the village. Schools in more than 1,000 counties have hired untrained teachers on salaries of 200 to 300 yuan per month, said Tang Min, chief economist with the Asian Development Bank in Beijing. He suggested China give university graduates more incentives to teach in rural schools.

Ministry of Education spokesman Wang Xuming said that 1,300 graduates from Hubei province, which he visited this year, had taken three-year rural teaching jobs since 2004. They got 5,000 yuan per year and the benefits of state administrative personnel, he said. Many graduates in Beijing and neighbouring Hebei province had also gone to the countryside.

Returning rural teachers could enter graduate programmes without taking national exams, he said.

The Ministry of Education very much encourages going to the countryside to become a teacher,' Mr Wang said.

Central China Agricultural University student Xu Benyu, 24, a native of rural China, spent two years in Dashui Village in the mountains of Guizhou province after graduating from his Wuhan-based college in 2003 because he was 'moved' when he was a student intern in the village in 2002. Against his family's wishes, he taught English and maths to fourth and fifth graders.

'The teaching was tough, but there was a sense of happiness,' he said. 'I knew everyone there. They were really warm.'

Fellow Guizhou province teacher Cao Jianqiang, also from Central China Agricultural University, said his students were diligent learners. He helps some at home after class. He took the job in July with hopes of automatic admission to a master's programme.

Before Xu Benyu left the village last summer to begin graduate school at his alma mater, pupils gave him an emotional farewell ceremony. China Central TV also did a special on his life in the village. The school had since hired three other university graduates, said principal Wang Chengfan.

'These volunteers have a new way of thinking, new ideas,' said the principal. 'They can give the students a very comprehensive education.'

University students generally say rural school jobs sound interesting but that after four years of study they must pay back tuition loans or give part of their salaries to parents who covered the tuition and who see a child's university education as a way out of their own poverty.

Fan Weimin, a student at Central China Normal University in Wuhan, said: 'If you qualify for a university, you don't want to end up going to a poorer place.'

But Chen Xiaoling, a junior at the same university, said she and her classmates studying to be teachers would consider rural schools.

'If there are people who are willing to go, it could be because the job market pressure is so high,' she said.