Bring­ing the best brains to ru­ral schools An NGO is help­ing to over­come a short­age of skilled teach­ers in some of China’s most iso­lated ar­eas, as Li Lei re­ports.

China Daily (USA) - - CHINA - Con­tact the writer at lilei@chi­nadaily.com.cn

In the past decade, a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion has been try­ing to re­verse an im­bal­ance in the qual­ity of ed­u­ca­tion pro­vided in ur­ban and ru­ral ar­eas. Since 2008, Teach for China has been send­ing grad­u­ate vol­un­teers from some of the coun­try’s top uni­ver­si­ties to teach in re­mote vil­lages and ad­dress a short­age of tal­ented teach­ers. The pro­gram is now be­gin­ning to reap real re­wards.

When He Liu ar­rived at the mid­dle school in Dazhai vil­lage, Yun­nan prov­ince, seven years ago, the lo­cal chil­dren had never heard of Beethoven, Chopin or other com­posers, and of­ten looked con­fused when their new teacher played a noc­turne in class or showed them DVDs of The Phan­tom of the Opera. For the stu­dents, any­thing from out­side their iso­lated vil­lage was en­tirely un­known, and there­fore hard to com­pre­hend.

“But as they lis­tened to more songs and watched more movies, I saw signs that they were en­joy­ing them­selves. Some would nod their heads to the mu­sic and pre­tend they were con­duct­ing,” said the 29-yearold grad­u­ate of Bei­jing Nor­mal Uni­ver­sity, re­call­ing the change in his for­mer stu­dents.

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing in 2010, He trav­eled to the moun­tain­ous re­gion to work as a his­tory teacher. He dis­cov­ered that most of the teach­ers in the vil­lage had grad­u­ated from vo­ca­tional schools and could teach lit­tle more than the con­tents of text­books. “In ad­di­tion, the par­ents, who had been farm­ers all their lives, or worked in big cities and left their chil­dren in the care of their grand­par­ents, could only pro­vide limited knowl­edge. Those fac­tors were tak­ing a toll on the stu­dents,” he said.

Feng Qingli, who was head teacher dur­ing He’s time in the vil­lage, said the iso­lated lo­ca­tion ham­pers the chil­dren’s progress. “Nearly all of them work hard, but the prob­lem is that they have limited con­tact with the out­side world, so their vi­sion is nar­row,” he said.

Zhang Yue, one of He’s for­mer stu­dents, fol­lowed in her old teacher’s foot­steps and stud­ied in Bei­jing, at­tend­ing Bei­hang Uni­ver­sity. She said He had helped to broaden her hori­zons and was a last­ing in­flu­ence on her life.

“When I was young, the vil­lage seemed to be the en­tire world to me. It was Mr. He who made me re­al­ize that our vil­lage is so small and that I could go out and see the world if I worked hard,” she said.

Ac­cord­ing to Teach for China, about 1,000 fresh grad­u­ates from China’s top uni­ver­si­ties joined its pro­gram in the pe­riod be­tween 2008 and 2016. In 2006, about 470 classes in­volved with the pro­gram na­tion­wide saw av­er­age marks rise, and more than 420 reg­is­tered a surge in the num­ber of stu­dents who reg­u­larly scored more than 80 per­cent in ex­ams.

Ur­ban-ru­ral di­vide

Since the re­form and open­ing-up pol­icy started in the late 1970s, China’s econ­omy has grown to be­come the sec­ond-largest in the world. How­ever, the down­side is that the coun­try’s rapid rate of ur­ban­iza­tion has widened the ur­ban­rural di­vide, and the gulf in the ed­u­ca­tion sec­tor is one of the most wor­ry­ing prob­lems, ac­cord­ing to ex­perts.

Wang Li­wei, a re­searcher at the 21st Cen­tury Ed­u­ca­tion Re­search In­sti­tute, a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion in Bei­jing that fo­cuses on ed­u­ca­tion pol­icy re­search and ad­vo­cacy, said the qual­ity of ru­ral ed­u­ca­tion is sig­nif­i­cant be­cause a high pro­por­tion of the pop­u­la­tion still lives in the coun­try­side.

“Poor ed­u­ca­tion in iso­lated ar­eas com­pro­mises the qual­ity of the ru­ral work­force, and that could ham­per the coun­try’s de­vel­op­ment. Peo­ple whose low ed­u­ca­tional sta­tus makes them un­em­ploy­able also pose a threat to so­cial sta­bil­ity,” she said.

In the past decade, the govern­ment has spent ever-in­creas­ing sums on up­grad­ing the in­fra­struc­ture of ru­ral schools, pro­vid­ing bet­ter build­ings and fa­cil­i­ties, and in­tro­duc­ing pref­er­en­tial poli­cies to at­tract skilled teach­ers to iso­lated ar­eas.

In 2007, the State Coun­cil, China’s Cab­i­net, im­ple­mented the Free Nor­mal Ed­u­ca­tion Pro­gram in six “nor­mal” uni­ver­si­ties, which are col­leges that train teach­ers for all lev­els.

Stu­dents ad­mit­ted to the pro­gram are ex­empt from tu­ition fees and also re­ceive a monthly al­lowance of 600 yuan ($90) while on cam­pus. Fol­low­ing grad­u­a­tion, they spend a spec­i­fied pe­riod teach­ing in re­gions where teach­ers are in short sup­ply.

In 2010, the Na­tional Train­ing Pro­gram for Pri­mary and Sec­ondary School Teach­ers was im­ple­mented jointly by the min­istries of ed­u­ca­tion and fi­nance.

Un­der the pro­gram, vil­lage teach­ers in Cen­tral and West China were given the op­por­tu­nity to take free re­fresher cour­ses or at­tend short-term train­ing ses­sions at top uni­ver­si­ties at the State’s ex­pense.

In 2012, cen­tral govern­ment spend­ing on ed­u­ca­tion reached 2.7 tril­lion yuan, sur­pass­ing 4 per­cent of na­tional GDP for the first time, ac­cord­ing ing to the Min­istry of Ed­u­ca­tion. The fig­ure has been ris­ing ever since, and last year it hit 3.8 tril­lion yuan, ac­count- for 5.2 per­cent of GDP.

The in­creased in­vest­ment means ru­ral stu­dents no longer have to worry about crum­bling school build­ings, while in­ter­net ac­cess and multimedia teach­ing fa­cil­i­ties are now com­mon­place.

“If you take a tour of the coun­try­side now, it’s amaz­ing to see that schools are al­ways the fan­ci­est build­ings,” An­drea Pasinetti, founder and CEO of Teach for China, said.

How­ever, ac­cord­ing to Wang, the re­searcher, de­spite the im­proved in­fra­struc­ture, some ru­ral ar­eas are still ex­pe­ri­enc­ing se­vere short­ages of skilled teach­ers.

“The lack of tal­ented teach­ers means the bet­ter-off par­ents send their chil­dren to schools in nearby town­ships and big cities, but, in re­turn, the loss of stu­dents ex­ac­er­bates the prob­lem of teacher short­ages be­cause they also grav­i­tate to­ward larger towns. It’s a vi­cious cir­cle.”

Mu­tual ben­e­fits

Pasinetti, a US-Ital­ian dual na­tional, founded Teach for China in 2008, bas­ing the or­ga­ni­za­tion on the model of Teach for Amer­ica. Its Chi­nese name is Meili Zhong­guo, mean­ing “Beau­ti­ful China”.

Un­like other ed­u­ca­tion as­sis­tance pro­grams, Teach for China does not ad­vo­cate a one-way street, whereby teach­ers be­come per­ma­nent fix­tures in iso­lated spots. In­stead, it em­pha­sizes the mu­tual ben­e­fits the two-year pro­gram of­fers both teach­ers and stu­dents.

Liu Pengze, di­rec­tor of the Bei­jing Lead Fu­ture Foun­da­tion, an NGO that pro­vides most of the fund­ing for Teach for China, said vol­un­teer teach­ing pro­grams are not a new phe­nom­e­non in China, which has seen the Hope Project and other ini­tia­tives, but nearly all of them ad­vo­cate a life­long de­vo­tion to teach­ing at the grass­roots level.

“The un­equal ac­cess to qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion is a re­sult of ur­ban­iza­tion, there­fore it’s un­fair to ex­pect these young tal­ents to travel to un­ap­peal­ing, iso­lated vil­lages and teach in them for the rest of their lives,” he said.

Be­fore they en­ter the class­room, each grad­u­ate on the Teach for China pro­gram un­der­takes a train­ing course that lasts four to six weeks. The course pro­vides in­tro­duc­tions to teach­ing meth­ods, man­age­ment skills and lo­cal cus­toms, and helps the stu­dents to hone their skills through mul­ti­ple trial lec­tures. Dur­ing train­ing they a given a monthly stipend of 2,200 yuan, but once they are in the field, they re­ceive 2,800 yuan a month.

Ac­cord­ing to Passinetti, although the fi­nan­cial re­wards are low, the grad­u­ates ben­e­fit greatly from the ex­pe­ri­ence. “Few em­ploy­ers would leave de­mand­ing tasks to new em­ploy­ees and let them as­sume huge re­spon­si­bil­ity, but in ru­ral pri­mary schools, our grad­u­ates are like the CEOs of each class,” he said.

He Liu, the teacher, said his ex­pe­ri­ence in Dazhai helped to for­mu­late a pat­tern of think­ing which he has re­tained: “The teach­ing process is ob­jec­tive-ori­ented and re­quires a clear plan. It molded my thought pat­tern, which I ap­ply to my ev­ery­day tasks.”

Sus­tain­abil­ity

Statis­tics sup­plied by Teach for China show that the grad­u­ates be­come more will­ing to stay in the ed­u­ca­tion sec­tor as they progress through the two-year pro­gram. “Ini­tially, only about 6 or 7 per­cent say they will stay in ed­u­ca­tion af­ter their place­ment, but the num­ber rises to 70 per­cent when they fin­ish the pro­gram,” Liu said.

Ac­cord­ing to the NGO, more than 50 per­cent of its grad­u­ate vol­un­teers ei­ther stay in the sec­tor af­ter fin­ish­ing their teach­ing stints, or they join non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tions sim­i­lar to Teach for China.

Now, the Bei­jing Lead Fu­ture Foun­da­tion is push­ing for­ward an­other pro­gram called Meili Xiaoxue, or “Beau­ti­ful Pri­mary School”, to of­fer op­por­tu­ni­ties to pre­vi­ous grad­u­ate vol­un­teers who want to con­trib­ute fur­ther.

The schools en­listed in the Meili Xiaoxue pro­gram re­main un­der the ad­min­is­tra­tion of the lo­cal ed­u­ca­tion au­thor­i­ties, but they hand over their man­age­ment to the foun­da­tion and teach­ing du­ties to Teach for China.

“Now we have two such schools in place and they are just like two lab­o­ra­to­ries. What we want to do is to ex­plore a new ap­proach for ru­ral ed­u­ca­tion, which can be copied in other parts of China,” Pasinetti said.

Poor ed­u­ca­tion in iso­lated ar­eas com­pro­mises the qual­ity of the ru­ral work­force, and that could ham­per the coun­try’s de­vel­op­ment.” Wang Li­wei, ed­u­ca­tion pol­icy re­searcher

PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Chen Chen, a Teach for China vol­un­teer, teaches an English class at Xinhe Pri­mary School in Dazhai vil­lage, Yun­nan prov­ince.

PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Stu­dents take a break at Xinhe Pri­mary School.

PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

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