Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

Taking a stand for rural teachers in China

By Abhimanyu Singh ( Updated: 2012-10-04 16:44

Every year on the fifth of October, UNESCO takes the lead in holding commemorative events all over the world to recognise, applaud and reward outstanding services rendered by teachers to their societies.

The theme for World Teacher's Day this year is “Taking a Stand for Teachers." This theme implies that teachers, especially those working and living in difficult circumstances, need the solidarity and support of the governments and communities they serve day after day, year after year with extraordinary devotion and dedication to duty.

Unfortunately in many societies today teachers are perceived to be neglected in terms of their salaries, incentives and living and working conditions compared to their counterparts in the civil services and other professions. There are serious concerns about their status, professionalism and morale. Those who work in remote and inaccessible areas or in situations of conflict and natural disasters are particularly vulnerable and isolated.

It should come as no surprise then that many countries, including China, are finding it increasingly difficult to attract, retain and deploy the best talent in the teaching profession, especially in rural areas. In China's case more than 60% of the country's schools and more than 50% of teachers are in the country side. The working and living condition of teachers are particularly challenging in the remote and less developed central and western regions of the country as well as the mountainous and border areas. These are mainly inhabited by ethnic minorities who are lagging behind the rest of the country in terms of educational attainments and levels of literacy.

The national government and provincial administrations are acutely aware of this situation and have over time enacted policies, legislation and regulations to address these problems. Teachers have, by law, been given a status equivalent to civil servants in terms of pay and remuneration, though this has not yet been uniformly applied in all regions of the country. Those teachers who are deployed in inaccessible and difficult rural areas are provided with subsidized housing and a hardship allowance. Social security benefits, including pension and medical insurance, are being systematically extended to cover most of the provinces.

The system of teacher education and training has been reformed. Primary school teachers now require at least a three year college education and middle school teachers should have four years of university education. New information and communication technologies are used to provide distance education to in-service teachers. Rural temporary teachers (min ban jiao shi), who were the backbone of rural schools in the early years of the People's Republic but were poorly paid, are being gradually replaced by better qualified, and trained teachers. Reduced class sizes have made the task of rural teachers easier.

The central government has in recent years initiated and funded several programmes to deal with the issue of teacher shortage and to attract young people to work in the rural and disadvantaged regions.

Under the Free Pre-Service Teacher Education Programme, students from Normal Universities are provided free tuition to attract them to teach in primary and secondary schools in the region they come from. They are expected to work initially for two years in rural areas. Nevertheless the deployment of the first batch of 10,000 free teacher education graduates poses managerial and logistical problems which will need to be handled with care to ensure that the interior rural areas get their share of the young graduates.

Another important national programme for enhancing the rural teaching force is the Special Teaching Post Plan for Rural Schools under which graduates of universities are recruited to work for three years in rural schools of western China, mainly remote minority regions and educationally disadvantaged counties. Most of the special post teachers work in rural middle schools. From 2006 to 2010 nearly 300,000 special post teachers have been deployed by the central and local governments in more than 30,000 rural schools of the mid and western regions, contributing to accelerating the achievement of compulsory education.

Although these two programmes have attracted a large number of young people to the teaching profession, retaining them in the profession has turned out to be a challenge.

Recognizing that the uneven quality of teachers is a factor in the disparity in educational quality between urban and rural areas, the government has sought to build a communion of rural and urban teachers. Teachers in large and medium cities are required to work in rural schools on a temporary basis at regular intervals. Rural teachers can apply for continuous learning or in- service training at county or higher level teacher training institutions.

Nevertheless much more needs to be done to improve the morale and capacity of rural teachers in China. Trained teachers are in short supply in subjects like English, physical education, music and arts. This increases the work load of the trained teachers. In the boarding schools in remote rural areas teachers, especially women, are burdened with additional roles of care givers, medical personnel and cooks. Non -availability of bilingual teachers, who can teach both in mandarin and ethnic languages, hinders the quality of education in ethnic areas. According to a survey in 2011 in China about the income of new university graduates, the salary of freshly recruited teachers is among the lowest. On a field visit to a rural middle school in Henan a group of students told us that they were not attracted to the teaching profession as they felt that teachers were not as respected as other professions, were over-worked and earned too little.

Yet every now and then we hear stories of extraordinary bravery and courage on the part of ordinary teachers. Recently a young woman teacher, who was just married, lost both her legs in saving two children from being overrun by a bus outside the school gate. She is now a national hero.

In a CCTV Teacher Award function, sponsored by a corporate recently, one of the awardees was a 54 years old rural teacher from an inaccessible mountainous area of Guizhou. Thirty five years ago, as the only graduate of the high school in his village he gave up several opportunities and decided to stay in the village to become a teacher in the local school. He took upon himself the task of making a path single handedly to link the village to the school in the mountains. As the road is difficult to climb in bad weather, he used all his savings and bought a horse to transport children to the school. In the last three decades he has taught more than 700 students and sent them out to receive higher education. He influenced several students to join him as teachers. One of them donated 180,000 RMB to build a proper road from the village to the school.

On the occasion of World Teacher’s Day, let us seek inspiration from the dedication and sense of sacrifice on the part of rural teachers who are the backbone of China’s rapid and impressive economic development. We in the United Nations should continue to partner the Chinese government in seeking to attract the best young graduates to the teaching profession, in supporting teachers working in difficult conditions in rural areas and in improving their capacity to cope with the daunting challenges they face in their daily work and lives.

The author is the Director of the UNESCO Office in Beijing and UNESCO Representative to China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Japan, Mongolia and the Republic of Korea.

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