Five years teaching at the top of the world

Tibetan primary school headed by Qimei Ciren is at a higher altitude than Everest base camps

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 May, 2017, 6:30pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 May, 2017, 1:46pm

The primary school in Puma Jiangtang, Tibet, is the highest classroom on Earth. It is sited at 5,373 metres above sea level – higher than both base camps used by those attempting to climb Mount Everest, and the average annual temperature is colder than minus 5 degrees Celsius. The harsh conditions spawn ailments including hypoxia (a lack of oxygen), plethora (a florid, red complexion) and arthritis. Not surprisingly, it scares most teachers away. But Qimei Ciren, 37, has stuck it out for more than five years, the last two as principal.

Why did you come to the school?

I had the chance to stay at university or work as a journalist after graduation but I had dreamed of becoming a teacher and wouldn’t miss the chance if one arose. I applied for the position and became a teacher.

I grew up in a single-parent family. We were poor, and I almost abandoned my studies several times. But a primary school teacher kept encouraging me and I persisted. He inspired my dream to become a teacher.

How different is your school and those on the plains?

The school is located on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau. It’s a cold area but the average altitude is higher than other cold places, reaching 5,373 metres, so there is less than 40 per cent of the oxygen found at sea level. As the air is so thin, hypoxia can attack human organs, including the brain, and people age faster. We have 10 months of winter and just two of summer, when it can also snow.

What’s your biggest difficulty at the school?

We are short of teachers and our pupils all live at the school. Our teaching load is heavy and education outcomes are not that obvious. The oxygen-poor environment makes us easily distracted. Some teachers did not graduate with education majors and have little chance to receive related training, although the education department gives us a quota for training every year. Teacher’s abilities need to be improved.

Some parents come to visit their child just once a semester as they live in grazing areas on the high plains. Teachers need to wash clothes, tidy dormitories and fold quilts for pupils.

Describe your typical daily routine at the school.

I get up at 7.30am in summer but 9am in winter, because it’s too cold. I wake the pupils up later and say good morning to them. Then I will follow them in the dormitory or in the place where they wash themselves before we eat breakfast. At 9pm, I will check that they’ve gone to bed.

What special activities are offered at the school?

Every school has its own features and we also have ours – a greenhouse that was funded by the government last year. Now we’re making use of it and have turned it into a classroom of sorts. Our greenhouse is special, with a double layer of cover. In summer we can eat seven to eight types of vegetables grown in the greenhouse. This helps pupils learn the merit of work. In winter, we usually reap three to four kinds of vegetables.

The vegetables we harvest serve both pupils and teachers. It is meaningful as it is green food grown by our own hands at that high altitude and it can provide more nutrients to the pupils, although it is not enough.

We have a reading room that was built by a kind-hearted person. We’ve made good use of it to let pupils know how to appreciate and broaden their horizons. Wednesdays and Thursdays are our open days for the reading room. We also have extracurricular activities including calligraphy, painting and soccer to nurture pupils’ interests and expand their outlook.

How do you preserve Tibetan culture at the school?

We’ve made it easier for pupils to accept school by finding a place for traditional culture in our daily courses and practices. We have a Tibetan-language course and some courses, including science and morals, are delivered in Tibetan. The Chinese course is taught in Putonghua and Tibetan. For fitness, we make use of the national, unified radio callisthenics course, but we also have a native one. We include Tibetan calligraphy in our extracurricular courses.

Have there been times when you thought of giving up?

I sometimes think of giving up at the end of every December, when it’s snowing and blowing a gale. Looking outside, it’s a depopulated area. I miss my family and want to give up and go back when the wind is howling. I wrote several entries detailing my experiences on WeChat in 2012: “Spring breezes never blow across the campus and the pupils have never seen peach blossoms; the freezing winter lingers and a hot summer is something we long for. The children here carry my hope.”

I stay because I see many teachers leave and the teachers here have a lot of work. I’m also reluctant to leave the pupils. If I left, could the school keep other teachers who love them like I do in the future? I stay because I worry about this.

What does the future hold for the school?

Due to some factors including the high altitude, the authorities have confirmed the school will merge with a primary school in Nagarze county this year. We will move once construction of the new school buildings is finished.

Limited by resources and the environment, including the frigid weather, the school poses a threat to pupils’ intelligence and physical development and teachers’ health. It will be better to relocate to a lower altitude.