Substitute teachers stand to lose livelihood as a result of policy change. Hu Yongqi in Anhui and Peng Yining in Chongqing report.
Xiang Zhixiang was diagnosed with infantile paralysis in his right leg when he was a year old and has needed crutches to walk for as long as he can remember. His condition has severely impacted his life, job opportunities and marriage prospects.
Yet his disability did not stop him becoming a vital crutch that has help prop up China's rural education system for two decades.
As one of about 330,000 substitute teachers nationwide "filling the gaps" in the countryside, 48-year-old Xiang has helped nurture thousands of young minds in his native Yuexi, a remote county in Anhui province. Although his salary is far less than a qualified teacher's and he enjoys none of their welfare benefits, such as social security or medical insurance, his dedication is without question.
However, like the majority in his position, he lives in constant fear of losing his livelihood after the Ministry of Education announced plans in 2005 to sack all substitute teachers "as soon as possible". No deadline was set, although last year the ministry put a freeze on hiring new substitutes. A spokesman said that those fired would receive compensation.
"I don't know where I'd go if I lost my job," said Xiang. "I'm disabled and have no other way of making money. Probably, I will turn to charity organizations for financial help. I need a pension and decent compensation if local authorities want to sack me."
His only hope is to become a qualified teacher. A statement from the ministry in January said "outstanding" substitutes with at least 10 years of classroom experience can sit a test to earn a certificate.
However, Xiang's chances are slim. With a monthly salary of just 480 yuan ($70) - one-fifth of the pay received by a full-time teacher in the same county - he cannot even afford the 500 yuan it would cost to sit a Mandarin language exam, which is a prerequisite.
"I'm really anxious about the future. I do not know if I can ever be a regular teacher," he said.
Zheng Ya, 33, another substitute in Yuexi, has her teaching and Mandarin certificates but said she does not know how long she will be able to survive on such a low salary. Many of her friends have already quit the profession to find better paying jobs, she said. "But after 15 years with the children, I'm reluctant to give it all up. I feel it is something I want to hold on to."
Cheng Xuedong, deputy director of the Yuexi education bureau, could not guarantee that any of the county's substitute teachers will be promoted. "No decision will be made until the provincial education bureau decides their fate," he said.
Education experts say substitute teachers have been stepping in to help out since the 1980s, when there were not enough qualified educators to deal with the boom in the rural child population. Over the decades, these teachers have been credited with playing a crucial role in developing education in China's most isolated and impoverished regions.
Wu Yihe, one of 331,000 substitute teachers nationwide, works with children at a primary school in Furong, a remote village in the impoverished Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region. LONG TAO / FOR CHINADAILY