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The Forgotten Teachers Of Rural China

The substitute teachers that fill 20 percent of teaching positions in northwestern China’s countryside schools struggle to survive, some earning a meager salary as low as 50 yuan (US$6.20) per month.

In rural China, substitute teachers are a neglected class of teachers who struggle below the poverty line. Substitute teachers are those in rural schools who are not included among the regular faculty and teach only on a temporary basis. They used to be called "local teachers." Those who had taught on a temporary basis before 1984 were either moved up to regular teachers or simply dismissed.

Starting in 1985, in an effort to improve the quality of teaching in elementary schools, the Ministry of Education banned the use of temporary "local teachers" across the country. However, regular teachers do not want to teach at schools in poor, rural areas, so these schools have to hire temporary teachers to fill the vacancies. They are now called substitute teachers.

As reported in Southern Weekend in April 2005, Dong Jianping, Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Committee in Weiyuan County, forwarded a report addressing the issue of substitute teachers’ income to his deputy Li Yingxin and asked Li to conduct a thorough survey. Li then launched a week-long investigation.

Three months later, Li sent his report entitled A Survey of Substitute Teachers in Weiyuan County to the CCP Committee and to the Department of Education of Gansu Province. However, he never received a reply from either one.

On July 28, 2005, Gansu Daily published Li’s survey. In Gansu Province’s Weiyuan County alone, there were close to 600 substitute teachers. Their monthly salaries ranged from 40 to 80 yuan (US$5 to US$10). Seventy percent of them made only 40 yuan per month. According to Li’s survey, some of them had not had a raise in 20 years.

For the Sake of the Kids

One in every seven to eight teachers in Zhangjiabao Elementary School, in Beizhai Town, is a substitute teacher, and some of them are the key resources for the Beizhai District. The first person Li interviewed at the school was Wang Zhengming.

The 62-year-old Wang is the oldest substitute. With his wrinkled face and hunched back, he looks like an old farmer. He was the first teacher in Zhangjiabao Village when he started teaching in 1958.

Wang proudly tells Li, "The generation of grandchildren in the village are my students; their parents are my students; even their grandparents are my students."{mospagebreak}

Li asks in surprise, "According to state policy, you should have been promoted to regular teacher because you started to work before 1984."

"I missed the opportunity," Wang replies with a humble smile.

When Wang started teaching, there were wolf packs in the vicinity of the school. He would teach during the day, watch the school at night, and do farm work when he had spare time. Regular teachers came and left. Wang was the only one who had taught at the school for more than 20 consecutive years until 1984, when he was let go after the school received several regular teachers.

In 1985, he was called back when there was a shortage of regular teachers. However, his previous years of service did not count. That’s why he was not moved up to a regular teacher later on. Wang has since taught at the school for another 20 years and has made 40 yuan a month during all these years.

The low pay became particularly hard for Wang’s family during the 1980s and 1990s, when his two sons went to college. The family still has to rely on whatever they can make from farming the family land. His wife has to do all the farm work by herself.

"Since I have to teach, my poor wife has to do all the man’s jobs. My daughter had to quit school to help out," Wang says with tears in his eyes.

"What’s your purpose for doing this all these years?" Li asks.

"Nothing. Not for money. Simply for the sake of the kids. I had to quit school when I was young, so my lifelong dream is to make sure that kids can go to school," Wang replies matter-of-factly.

300 Yuan (US$37) a Month Is a Dream

For those middle-aged substitute teachers who have kids in high school or college, their meager incomes have put them in serious hardship. "No matter which village you visit, as long as there is a subsititute teacher, he is for sure the poorest in the village," Li wrote in his survey.

Li Jianxin, who is almost 40, is a substitute teacher at Fuhe Hope Elementary School, in Luojiamo Village, Huichuan Town, Weiyuan County. Nearly half of the teachers in the school are substitutes. Li became a local teacher in September 1984, but for some reason he was not moved up to regular teacher. In Weiyuan County, although the regular teachers who have 20 years of service are making 1,200 yuan (US$150) or above per month, Li had been paid only 40 yuan a month until two years ago when he received an associate degree. Then his salary doubled.{mospagebreak}

Li Jianxin has received the Outstanding Teacher Award from the town and county multiple times. He still has last year’s county certificate for Outstanding Class Teacher hanging on his wall. Every year, he attends the teacher appreciation dinner given by his students who have been accepted by colleges. Although he’s short on money, he always manages to give each of these student five yuan (US$0.6) as a token.

"This year, Zhu Yanxia in our village has been accepted by a university. When I toasted her [at the dinner], she made a deep bow to me. I was very moved when I saw tears running down her cheeks. I feel that all my sufferings have paid off."

Yet, Li’s sense of accomplishment offers little relief to his hardship. Both his son and daughter attend middle school, and their tuition adds up to 3,000 yuan (US$370) per year. With his monthly income of 80 yuan, even if he does not spend a penny, he can save only at most 960 yuan (US$120) a year. He has to rely on the income from his farmland to just barely cover the tuition costs. "I have not bought any new clothes for either of my kids for more than 10 years," Li says with teary eyes.

When the reporter from Southern Weekend asked Li how much he would like for a monthly salary, he said he would like 300 to 400 yuan (US$40-$50), which is close to the figures given by most of the substitute teachers Li Yingxin surveyed.

Young Substitute Teachers Are Leaving

Liu Furong told the reporter from Southern Weekend that the only reason he could afford to get married and start a family was because of his parents’ savings. Many young substitute teachers cannot afford to get married.

This has to do with the betrothal customs in rural areas in northwestern China. Some young substitute teachers cannot afford a betrothal, which ranges from 10,000 to 20,000 yuan (US$1,250 to $2,500). With their annual salary of 400 to 500 yuan (US$50 to $62), even if they stop eating and drinking for 20 years, they can hardly save 10,000 yuan. They simply have to remain single.

Wang Weihong, 39 years old, is a substitute teacher in Beizhai Town. He’s also a key teacher in the Beizhai school district. He sadly tells Li Yingxin that while others’ lives are getting better and better, his is going from bad to worse. He is thinking of leaving after the semester either to pick cotton in Xinjiang or teach in a private school.{mospagebreak}

Yu Jianbang, the superintendent of the Beizhai school district, is deeply troubled with this situation. There are 101 regular teachers and 54 substitute teachers in Beizhai. Three schools in the remote villages are each assigned a teacher, but no regular teacher is willing to go there. Consequently, the work falls on the shoulders of the substitute teachers. Yu says that substitute teachers are sharing at least half of the teaching load in the district. If they leave, the district will fall apart.

At present, there are 32,000 subsitute teachers in the rural areas of Gansu Province. They represent 28.2 percent of all elementary school teachers. According to Wang Jiayi, Vice President and Professor of Education at Northwest Normal University, there are in total 506,000 substitute teachers in 12 provinces, municipalities, and autonomous regions in western China, which accounts for 20 percent of the total number of teachers in western rural China. He thinks that the condition of the substitute teachers in Weiyuan County is very typical in western China.

Helen Chou is a freelance writer based in New York.