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Teaching in the countryside: Why teachers can’t wait to leave

Last week we looked at my first hand experience in a rural college, and we explored the current state of rural schools and a few of the underlying problems. Today we’ll be looking at why there are few great teachers in the countryside.

Two kinds of teachers

The first type is a “certified teacher”, and is considered to be on par with other gov’t employees. These positions are very stable, and the pay is decent. It is a coveted position, with 60% of the salary guaranteed by the national gov’t.  However in rural schools this kind of teacher can be hard to find.

Village teachers only earn 1/3 of what they could earn at a county level school. This has led village teachers to move from rural to urban areas, and from the relatively poor west to the much richer east. It is a sad fact that many village teachers could earn more working menial factory jobs, so many actually leave the field of education. English teachers have the highest rate of flight from village schools because of the allure of foreign companies (I personally know a handful of these former teachers).

The second type of teacher is known as a “substitute teacher”. These are uncertified, unofficial school employees, meaning that most of them do not have even a 2-3 year degree. They earn roughly 1/3 of what the certified teachers make, but have no health benefits or pension. The schools use these teachers to cheaply staff their classes (largely due to a restricted budget) even though the practice is considered illegal. The school will fire these teachers just before an inspection to clear them from the records, and then hire them as soon as the inspectors are gone (I covered school inspections earlier).

These teachers accept these conditions because they hope to some day be hired as certified teachers. They also often work in multiple village schools and teach a variety of subjects, which they may have had no prior experience in.

Virtually all high school teachers are expected to work more than 50 hours a week (sometimes 60-70 hours), in order to supervise the students’ preparations for the college entrance exam. Standards from the city to the countryside also vary widely. In Guangxi several colleagues told me that they had accepted the position in the college, because in their home province they would only have been qualified to work in high schools, and they didn’t want to work that much.

Due to these often uninspired teachers, some counties have student dropout rates nearing 50% in extreme cases.

A tiny ray of hope

Increasingly universities and local gov’ts have created programs for recent graduates to work in rural schools. Many of these teachers only stay in the countryside long enough to qualify themselves for special treatment in graduate school programs. While most of these grads come with the best intentions, local teachers often criticize them for being naive and lacking experience.

According to a reliable source, there is a major obstacle to overcome to solve these problems in education: Local gov’t officials are only looking for short-term solutions, since these gains net them handsome promotions. China’s educational system needs major long term reform, which will offer no direct benefit to these local officials. Local officials also recognize that improving education means that more of their villagers will leave, and the town will not recoup their investment in these children, so they allow educational funds to be “borrowed” by other local ministries to be spent on infrastructure and new projects. This money is never returned to the struggling schools.

Until the National gov’t makes teaching positions in the countryside attractive, and provides the funding to actually hire qualified teachers, students in the countryside will face massive hurdles when trying to work their way up in the new China. Local gov’ts also need to be made accountable for hiring uncertified teachers and skimming money from the already small pool of educational funds.


9 Comments

  1. Yaxue C. says:

    Speaking of China’s countryside teachers, this composite image surfaces in me: He can be a man of any age, young or middle-aged; he often looks malnutritioned and is somewhat shy and painfully conscious of his humbleness in front of city dwellers. He is among the brightest people in the countryside but has never had a chance to “move up.” He looks a little cleaner and more refined than his field-going peers. He can be small-minded, selfish, the way poverty tends to make people, but he is eager to learn any new things. His passion for his students can vary, for, like Tom said, he is hardly inspired himselve. He has a keen sense of social unfairness, but like almost every Chinese, he has learned from a young age to resign himself, and never would he dare to raise a question about the fundamental evilness of subjecting the entire rural of population to sub-existance.

    This image might be a little dated; I don’t know the development in recent years, but from Tom’s description, it seems that it is still fundamentally true.

  2. Oh, such a Victorian imagery I ever saw … so Dickensian that I’m now so moved of sensibility as to desire a rereading of my Victoriana…

  3. If the CCP knew what it was doing it would chill out with all these massive “face” projects and invest in education since that is what will lead to actual long term economic and technological growth.

    • Chopstik says:

      Wishful thinking. The party will only do what will help to keep it in power for the time being. It’s all about the power, y’know…

      • Tom says:

        It is also important to remember that local governments have very little incentive to invest in education, since there are such low monetary returns in the short run. There either needs to be oversight, or better incentives.

  4. Yaxue C. says:

    I just read a blog post earlier this evening by an essay writer I liked a lot and follow. Without giving details, he made reference to two occasions in Beijing when he had to bribe educators for his son’s sake. He wrote, “Until the day I die, I will never forget the old lady [an elementary school teacher], in the deserted hall, counting the stack of money my wife and I had just handed to her after driving ten some li after work… By the time when it was time for my son to go to middle school, there was a bigger sorcerer waiting:Having received four stacks of money, each as thick as a brick, the principal of a key high school didn’t bother to give me a receipt, nor a word, but a mere nod indicating the business was done.” The writer went on to say, “I still have his name, I reserve the right to complain about him, but I know I would never get myself into that kind of trouble.” He talked about how the wide-spread discrimination against disadvantaged children, and how it is sowing hatred in the society and against the government. Hatred will eventually lead to revenge, he said with certainty. “Why are they so unafraid of it?”

    • Tom says:

      I’m certain that this kind of bribery is rampant, and it speaks to the inequality even within cities. Here in Nanjing people will live with their parents, so that their own children can get into a better school. Even this requires standing in front of the school for days trying to get a spot the cheap way. 40,000rmb for is considered reasonable to get into the best schools, since parents are willing to spend much more than that for middle schoolers to study abroad.

    • Chopstik says:

      Unfortunately, education is the key to progress and it seems like it has stalled, like many other things, due to the rampant corruption that is only growing in almost all sectors of society. Metrics of the “progress” are bandied about and are taken at face value. It is only those on the ground floor who can offer the needed perspective on the value of those metrics. Unfortunately, until that is addressed in a more open fashion, the house of cards that has been built will continue to flutter in the currently gentle breeze of public opinion and resentment.

  5. Augis says:

    And there are also “White Monkeys” …

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