Editor’s Note: Cai Hanyun was raised in Shanghai, China and went to college in the U.S. On graduation, she decided to spend two years teaching in an impoverished school in the Chinese province of Yunnan as part of the Teach For China program. The opinions expressed here are solely her own. Andrea Pasinetti, the founder and CEO of Teach for China appears as a guest on December’s On China with Kristie Lu Stout, which airs on December 18.
Cai Hanyun teaches at a rural middle school in Yunnan, southwest China
She says many students drop out before the end of compulsory schooling
Many of her students' parents cannot write their own names
Rural China intrigued me because I have never lived there before. The only memory I have is from when I was a child.
When I was in primary school, one of my distant relatives died and I attended her funeral in a village in Zhejiang province. I remembered the wooden houses, running dogs and chickens, and the smelly latrine — I always feared that I would fall into it. I also tripped a million times on the muddy and rocky roads. I guess I am the Alice who didn’t go down the rabbit hole until older.
After I arrived in Dachaoshan, a tiny town of 17,000 people, in August 2012, what shocked me most was not the stunning beauty of the terraced fields or the fact that most residents here lived below the poverty line, but how globalized everyone was.
More than 10 cell phone stores were crowded into the condensed downtown area. Young people wore fake Armani and Gucci clothing and used smart phones that resembled iPhones. They played “Gangnam Style” by South Korean rapper Psy at loud volume and watched NBA together on TV.
However, I never saw a single person hold a newspaper or a book outside the school I was assigned to.
The only reading materials are either about pig feed and pesticide or the family planning campaign.
Families don’t attach much importance to education and many students quit even though education is compulsory until the age of 16.
At the beginning of the school year, 68 students registered in my 7th grade class of 12 and 13-year-olds. At the end of my first year, the number had dropped to 54.
Most of the drop-outs became underage migrant workers in nearby cities; some stayed at home to farm. Two girls I knew got married and are now bearing babies.
The ones who chose to stay were not easy to teach either. Due to a lack of early education and a poor academic foundation, many students are far behind the curriculum.
Every day, I felt like coaching 54 teenagers afraid of walking to run a marathon with me.
Together we faced many difficulties, such as lack of motivation and a sense of inferiority.
It’s hard to blame the parents.
I held a parent conference at the beginning of the school year. The parents of 42 of the 54 students showed up.
When I asked them to sign their names, half of them couldn’t and had to ask my student to help write; the other half who could kind of did it with shaky hands and squiggly handwriting.
I visited the homes of my students more than 70 times in my first year of teaching and got to know more about the community.
They live in houses made of wood or cement. Even though electricity is available; families still use firewood or dried corn stalks as fuel to cook so the kitchen usually looks dark and smoky.
In almost all encounters with parents, I felt hospitality and respect. They seemed to trust me in every educational decision made for their kids, even though I am an outsider and much younger than them and I occasionally needed translation to understand the local dialect.
Many of the parents told me: Please scold and beat my son or daughter whenever necessary.
You cannot blame local teachers either.
Even though they earned an unexpectedly low salary, had a heavy class load, and worked for six days a week, some made time to learn and improve their teaching.
They eagerly came to observe my classes and asked for advice about how to make their classes lively and engaging. They also celebrated my birthday with me and invited me to events like karaoke and barbecues. I felt grateful for their acceptance and the responsibilities offered to me.
This semester my classroom was equipped with a “smart’ whiteboard and a computer but students still have to share dilapidated wooden desks due to lack of funds.
Before I joined Teach for China, I wanted to pursue academic study in anthropology.
This goal has changed due to my experience in the classroom. I fell in love with teaching.
I want to become an exceptionally excellent teacher – a person who listens to and answers her students’ needs, who kindles a fire to learn in each kid and turns every possible moment into a learning fiesta.
The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Cai Hanyun.