How can China convince teachers to move to the countryside?

Expert says teachers on temporary contracts and volunteers are only a makeshift solution

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 December, 2017, 5:18pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 December, 2017, 5:51pm

In a remote village on a mountain in Baojing county, Hunan province, volunteer Li Wei has been teaching primary school pupils for six years.

She teaches six classes a day: grade one maths and music for the whole school, which has only three grades and 34 pupils.

There are four teachers: one local teacher and three volunteers. Besides teaching, they prepare lunch for the pupils. They also hire a car on weekends for the 90-minute drive to the nearest town to buy food and everyday necessities.

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Li said the work was exhausting and life was boring, with no cultural or entertainment activities; very different to her rich home city of Suzhou in Jiangsu province. There was no regular water supply, no air conditioners or electric fans, and the village was only connected to the internet last year.

As a volunteer, she receives a monthly allowance of 600 yuan (US$90).

Li, a former public servant in her 40s, is one of hundreds of thousands of volunteer teachers across the mainland who have quit jobs and comfortable lives in China’s cities to contribute to rural education. They have been seen by the government and NGOs as a solution to a teacher shortage in the countryside. But experts say the situation in rural schools has not improved in the past two decades despite the authorities’ efforts.

The business world has also offered help. Alibaba Group executive chairman Jack Ma Yun announced the launch today of a 10 million yuan Normal School Student Initiative to reward 100 selected students at normal colleges – which train teachers – who promise to teach in rural areas. In the next five years, they will each receive 20,000 yuan a year for teaching in the countryside.

Ma, a former English teacher, has sponsored rural teachers before. Two years ago, his Jack Ma Foundation launched a Rural Teacher Award to honour 100 top teachers around the country each year, give them each 100,000 yuan.

Last year, the foundation announced a Rural Headmaster Plan that recognises 20 deserving headmasters a year, offering each of them 500,000 yuan – 100,000 yuan to lift their standard of living, 100,000 yuan to improve their leadership skills and 300,000 yuan to improve their school’s facilities.

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Alibaba is the owner of the South China Morning Post.

The number of low-paid rural teachers in China dropped from 4.73 million in 2010 to 3.30 million in 2013, China News Service reported. No more recent figures have been published.

To better “build a team of rural teachers”, the State Council, China’s cabinet, issued a Rural Teachers Support Plan two years ago.

“Because of factors such as the imbalance of development between urban and rural areas, inconvenient transportation in rural regions and poor hardware at rural schools, teaching in rural regions still remains unappealing,” the document outlining the plan said. “This blueprint is aimed at attracting talent to teach at rural schools.”

The plan lists comprehensive measures to recruit and retain rural teachers, and requires local governments to subsidise normal college students who commit to teaching in villages upon graduation. Rural teachers’ salaries should be raised, it said, and more lifelong employment contracts offered.

But the shortage of rural teachers had not lessened significantly, said Professor Yang Dongping, from the graduate school of education at Beijing Institute of Technology.

“Actually there are not many lifelong contracts for rural teachers and many rural teachers are hired temporarily, making this job less attractive for young people,” he told the Post.

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Yang said teachers on temporary contracts and volunteers were only a makeshift solution.

In the past few years, regions including Sichuan, Chongqing, Jilin and Hunan have trained teachers at normal colleges for free as long as they agree to serve in rural areas after graduation. They are required to teach in a rural area for five to eight years after graduation and those violating the agreement have to pay their tuition fees plus a 50 per cent penalty.

One government-funded programme at Hunan First Normal University in Changsha recruits graduates from junior middle schools, who are about 15 to 16 years old, and gives them five years of free training.

“It’s quite cheering that 97 per cent of our graduates serve in rural regions, with most of them working in backwater villages,” university president Tong Xiaojiao told the Post.

But Li Lei, founder of the Changsha-based NGO Angel Education, said many other graduates were unwilling to serve in rural areas and failed to fulfil such agreements.

One of his organisation’s missions is to find volunteers to teach at rural schools, something he said had become more difficult in the past few years.

“It’s because of the prevalent social mindset that young people should pursue a lucrative job,” Li Lei said. “In many cases young people applied to be a volunteer teacher, but in the end they didn’t go due to objections from their parents, who don’t want to see their kids work in hard conditions.”

Teacher Li Wei said she had grown used to life in the village in western Hunan in the past six years, but her fellow volunteers rarely lasted more than a year or two.

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“Students need some time to get along well with teachers, but then the teachers left and new teachers came,” she said. “It’s not good for the students and I think it kind of harms them.”

Yang said volunteers played a positive role in filling the teaching gap, but the government should not dump its responsibility on the public.

He said it was a good thing that more people were paying attention to rural education and offering financial aid to rural teachers, who were generally paid about 1,000 to 2,000 yuan a month.

But Li Lei said commercial support of teachers would jeopardise education.

“People work as teachers because of their interest, not because of money,” he said.