With all of his students crammed in one shabby classroom, Li Guangyou has to split each class into two parts every day — teaching math to first-graders during the first half, and then teaching Chinese language to second-graders later.
As the only teacher at Huanglian Elementary School located in a remote village in Zhaotong in Southwest China’s Yunnan province, the 53-year-old has to teach all subjects.
“Of course it’s tiring. But I still feel happy staying with these children, especially when they make progress or perform well in exams at the end of each semester,” Li said.
Li started teaching here as a substitute teacher in the early 1990s. He later left to seek employment across the country. But he returned and picked up where he left off, as none of the regular teachers dispatched here during the period were able to endure the hardships.
“When I came back, I realized that our development has largely lagged behind the outside world due to the backward education standards and outdated concepts. I didn’t want to see our children drop out,” he said.
In recent years, China has seen a significant drop in the number of rural schools as many are now merging with schools in larger towns — a nationwide campaign to “optimize educational resources.”
The drive, however, has brought hardship to many pupils living in mountainous or remote areas, who need to trek for hours to even reach their classroom.
“It will be a big challenge for these children [to study in town], as there are wild bears and boars around here. Landslides also often occur during the rainy season,” Li said.
Thanks to the efforts of the parents, Huanglian school partly survived, and Li spent all his savings — more than 50,000 yuan ($7,289) — building a new schoolhouse last year to replace the former makeshift classroom.
The village is inhabited by the ethnic Miao people, and so Li teaches in both Mandarin Chinese and the Miao language, so that youngsters will better adapt to new environments when they transfer to schools in town. And his bilingual teaching makes him even more irreplaceable.
“I also hope that our Miao culture can be passed down in this way. Ethnic culture can’t be discarded,” said Li.
It’s undeniable that China’s education system has made much progress over the past few decades, but many elementary schools in vast rural areas are still faced with big challenges, such as insufficient educational resources and a lack of qualified teachers. The teacher issue has drawn the attention of authorities.
In late August, the Ministry of Education announced a plan to expand the teaching staff in resource-scarce areas, including attracting more college graduates to village schools and employing retired experienced teachers to teach or provide training to schools in poverty-stricken areas. It also pledged to improve salaries for teachers working in these areas.