'Barefoot Teachers' Left Behind in China

By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 26, 2006

JINZHOU, China -- For more than 30 years, Sun Jingxia taught math and Chinese to elementary school children in this small northeastern village. 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, government officials announced they 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ideals championed when Sun first began teaching, such as embracing poverty and making do with the best available, have been replaced by a focus on higher incomes and on finding jobs for young college graduates.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 to barefoot teachers, 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 here 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 conditions. One was to pass a test.

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