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China Turns Its Back on ‘Barefoot Teachers’

Posted by Author on December 31, 2006

By Maureen Fan( from  Washington Post) , Minneapolis Star Tribune, U.S., December 30, 2006-

JINZHOU, CHINA– For more than 30 years, Sun Jingxia taught math and Chinese to elementary school children in the small northeastern village of Jinzhou. She was a poor farmer who had not even completed high school.

But equipped with a middle school education and a correspondence course from a vocational teaching school, Sun devoted herself to filling a desperate need for teachers in the countryside. She earned $1.60 a month when she began teaching in 1974 and collected a stack of awards and honors over the years. As one of the hundreds of thousands of nonprofessional, or “barefoot,” teachers in this country — peasants with little more than a vocational school certificate who help teach their impoverished neighbors — Sun was part of a special time in Chinese history.

Several years ago, however, the government decided it wanted to raise the standard of rural education. And now, although many barefoot teachers have qualified to become professionals, Sun and thousands like her have been cast aside. Some have lost their jobs, others their pride.

The manner in which that happened speaks volumes about how difficult and wrenching the modernization of China’s creaking socialist system can be, especially for a class of people once celebrated as the heart of the Communist Party.

The ideals championed when Sun started her career, such as embracing poverty and making do, have been replaced by a focus on higher incomes and on finding jobs for young college graduates. Now, barefoot teachers are just in the way.

“I devote my whole life to this school,” Sun said. “It’s so unfair.”

Some researchers say times have simply changed. To have a sound and balanced education system, they say, China cannot keep employing nonprofessional teachers.

“It’s just like the laid-off workers in the state-owned enterprises,” said Hong Jun, a professor at Northeast Normal University’s Institute of Rural Education. “China is a populous country with surplus labor forces.”

What has happened, he said, is “the price of reform.”

The plight of those teachers also illustrates how difficult it can be for Chinese leaders to improve conditions in the countryside while staving off rural unrest. The teachers are now joining the swelling ranks of petitioners — a group Beijing does not want to see grow.

Barefoot teachers in Liaoning Province were not supposed to have been shoved aside. Officials in the provincial capital of Shenyang said teachers like Sun could be promoted to professional status, which would pay three to six times more than what they had been earning.

To make the shift, though, they had to meet certain criteria. One was to pass a test.

Sun recalled being so nervous that day in 2002 that her hands shook as she signed her name on the first page of the exam. She hadn’t slept for two days, so her vision was blurry. Her reputation, career and long-awaited chance to raise her income all were at stake.

After the test, she said, she asked about her score, but her principal at first professed ignorance. Later, when she ran into him and demanded to know the truth, he told her that even with extra credit for her experience and awards, she had failed by one point. Sun said she crumpled into a heap by the side of the road, her bicycle clattering to the ground beside her.

“The test was not difficult; I knew the answers,” Sun, 53, said in a halting voice. “I was sick, and I was so nervous because this is the exam that will determine my fate. But I never expected I would fail it.”

In Jinzhou, about 2,900 barefoot teachers were promoted to professional status after the test, according to Wang Yinghua, 52, a barefoot teacher from a village 30 miles northwest of Sun’s home. About 800 were dismissed from their jobs.

Shortly after the test, the peasant teachers of Jinzhou began to hear stories about people promoted to professional status despite not having graduated from middle school, one of the necessary qualifications. They discovered former barefoot teachers who had not passed the exam. And they heard that some had bought their positions by paying local officials up to $6,400.

“As soon as I learned I had failed and there was corruption involved, we began to petition,” Sun said. “In July, we went to the Jinzhou municipality government office building. There were 200 barefoot teachers, and we sat in their yard for four days. None of us could afford a hotel; we just slept on the ground.”

That protest lasted more than a month, according to Wang, who also was dismissed after teaching 27 years. There were larger sit-ins in Shenyang late last year and again in March, June and July.

“Many of the new professional teachers are not even as good as us,” Wang said. “Some are shoe sellers from the market. Some are butchers. One is even mute. He doesn’t teach, but collects the salary and pays a cheap substitute to teach in his place. His father is a township government official.” ( original report from Minneapolis Star Tribune )

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