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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.

The education gap is tangible in rural China

Children from urban areas in China are 6.3x more likely to attend a university than children from the countryside, largely because of the better primary and secondary education in the cities. However, I didn’t need to see the statistics to know that this was true.

My first year in China was spent in rural Guangxi as a placement with a Chinese charity. Of the dozen or so “needy” schools we were working with at the time, mine was considered to be one of the poorest, and was located in a small county an hour from the freeway. Some of my students’ families earned less than 1,000rmb per year as farmers, and the majority owned less than 4 sets of clothes.

My students came from the surrounding countryside and a few from further away, for virtually all 300 of them, my class was the first place they had seen a foreigner in the flesh. The few students who came from Nanning or Liuzhou (the big cities) were noticeably taller and heavier than the other students, their English was better too.

In the countryside, students were being taught English by listening to their teacher read dialogues, and lecture on grammar in Chinese (or more often Baihua, the local dialect, since many of the teachers had failed their Mandarin exams). Given the circumstances it wasn’t surprising that after 6+ years of English, few students could muster more than “Hello, my-a name-a is-a…”

A few of these students hoped to work in foreign companies as sales staff or translators (the most prized job placement in China at the time), while many others set their sights on Guangdong province where they mostly ended up working in hotel restaurants or working in low-end retail. Most students though knew that their place in life was to be an English teacher, a spot that few of them cherished.

Their parents had insisted on this career for them because teaching was a stable job, and it would keep them close to home (which is highly valued by parents without any real retirement plan). The students who took these positions generally had the lowest grades in the class, and it was depressing for everyone involved.

I like to think that my year spent teaching was of some value to them and their future students. However as we’ll see over the next few days, it’s not just teachers that are failing, it’s the entire system.

In the 3 years after I left Nanning Teachers College (college is 3 years, university is 4), it was promoted to Guangxi Teacher’s College for Minorities, and then to Guangxi Teacher’s University for Minorities. These promotions came without any significant improvements to the infrastructure, teaching standards, or management (for more on this read: Chinese education evaluators are passing failing schools). In fact the entire Foreign Languages department still only has one professor with a Master’s degree, and that is the dean of the department.

Things were not much better at my second school either. Rats lived in one of the few multi-media rooms, and the projector seemed to malfunction every time I used it (other teachers reported the same difficulty). Yet these institutions are tasked with somehow reversing this growing inequality between rural and urban education.

Over the next few days, we’ll be exploring how the educational gap has grown so quickly, what systemic problems underlie these inequalities, and search for hope in China’s trial programs that are aiming to put the country’s system back on track.

A Typical Lesson in a Chinese School

I have been teaching in Chinese universities and middle schools for almost 4 years now as well as having observed classes at all levels in China’s educational system. So forget what you’ve read lately about China’s schools rating number one in the world, the educational system here is full of problems. Over these next few days I’ll be outlining some of the major problems with the system as well as presenting a shocking exposé of what may be the worst school in China.

I can already hear angry readers scrolling down to leave a nasty comment, so I think we should start by looking at a few things that they do very well before we look at the limits of such a system.

There are a few top schools in China that are much different from what I am describing below, but I would say that this description would be accurate for about 90+% of China’s schools. I have worked in rural schools, as well as in Chengdu (a large city in Western China) and currently am in a large City on the East coast. There are differences in the amount of content that is covered, but I would say that the method is largely the same throughout.

A typical English class with a Chinese teacher would include a list of 30-40 new vocabulary words, reading dialogues and listening to the teacher explain 4-5 new grammar patterns (this part would be in Chinese). Through most of the class the students are either reading along with the teacher, or scrawling notes in the margin of their textbooks.

I described an English class because that is what I am most familiar with, but it’s actually not too different from what a Chinese class, math class, or even art class might look like. The teacher lectures, and the students simply follow along, until they are prompted to give a correct answer.

This system excels at creating students who are capable of memorizing massive amounts of information. I was shocked to find that my students who could hardly reply to “What did you have for lunch today?” were able to recite an entire paragraph from memory after just a few minutes of looking at the text.

The same applies to mathematics, the teacher will have them memorize the steps for solving the problem, and they will be able to plug-in almost any numbers and find the correct answers. Or I’ve heard that art classes are simply making the same picture as the teacher, brush stroke by brush stroke.

The Chinese education system has changed little from the days of the Confucian exams, when students would memorize thousands of pages of text and be tested on their ability to recall specific paragraphs.  So it’s not surprising that when these students sit down to a standardized test they are capable of very high scores.

This system is incredibly effective at providing a basic level of education to a massive population, but leaves little room for creativity in the Chinese classroom, which is tomorrow’s topic.