"A piece of chalkboard and a mouth"

We just finished the teacher interviews in Henan Province. We interviewed 30 rural teachers and 14 county teachers from 22 schools located in two cities and three counties. After having had 18-hour work days for 10 days, I finally have some time to reflect on what we’ve done and learned. The actual research findings will need further analysis of the data. But I’ve personally learned a lot from interviewing the 44 elementary school teachers.

Before leaving for this trip, I was very excited to return to my hometown as a researcher. My research focuses on rural education and educational equality between rural and urban areas. I volunteered to lead the Henan research team and use my personal connections and contacts to find those teachers. I honestly was a little worried if I would be able to find enough teachers to interview. Part of it was because school is off in the summer, and it’s difficult to track individual teachers. Another reason is that people generally are reluctant to be interviewed, especially by someone who works for a foreign institution. I literally contacted almost every single primary school teacher of mine that I still have contact information on. To my surprise, the teachers were mostly willing to talk, and they’ve referred many of their colleagues and teacher friends to me. I was worried about not having enough participants, so I tried to schedule every single person that was referred my way and try to get the interview done in the same day. I’ve noticed that if I don’t talk to them right away, they tend to be more reluctant or even refuse to talk the next day.

A computer sits unused on a desk in an elementary school classroom

The only computer in the teacher’s office at an elementary school sits unused
because it’s not connected to the Internet.

Even though our research focus is on teacher satisfaction, hearing the teachers talk about their work and what education is like today in the rural schools has been a rich learning experience. It seems to me that the quality of education for rural students has not changed compared to the days I was in elementary school. Perhaps what changed was the dirt floor that was upgraded into concrete floor. The old crabby buildings were knocked down and new buildings were up. But what happens inside of these buildings has not changed. Many of the teachers are still teaching with “a piece of chalkboard and a mouth” (direct quote from one of the teacher interviewees). Many teachers mentioned that they are still teaching the same way there were taught in vocational college (equivalent of academic high school degree) 20 years ago.  They feel that they need more training on the contemporary pedagogy because the curriculum and testing standards have changed, and their teaching methods are not catching up. But there are very few professional development opportunities for rural teachers. Many interviewees asked about my education and were surprised that someone from a rural village is able to be working on a Ph.D. It is generally assumed that rural teachers are under-qualified because of their poor credentials. But during our interviews, I could indeed feel their passion and commitment into teaching and helping the rural students achieve. However, they don’t have the necessary resources, knowledge and training opportunities to deliver the quality education that the rural students need and deserve. I asked several teachers: “Can rural teachers make it out there?”

The responses I get are almost the same: It is possible. But it is extremely hard, because they are lagged behind urban students even before they started school.

— Min Wang
Shangqiu, Henan, China