Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

A day in the life of a teacher in rural China

By Cai Hanyun, Dachaoshan Middle School teacher
updated 10:00 PM EST, Tue December 17, 2013
Cai Hanyun teaches her students at Dachaoshan Middle School.
Cai Hanyun teaches her students at Dachaoshan Middle School.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • 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

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.

Dachaoshan, China (CNN) -- 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.

On China: Shanghai's Success
On China: China's education gap
Can China replicate Shanghai's triumph?

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.

READ: Opinion: What Asian schools can teach the rest of the world

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.

READ: Opinion: The costs of Shanghai's education success story

Students take part in group exercises  Students take part in group exercises
Students take part in group exercisesStudents take part in group exercises

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.

READ: Remote classroom illustrates China's education challenges

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.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
See CNN's complete coverage on China.
updated 10:30 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Some savvy individuals in China are claiming naming rights to valuable foreign brands. Here's how companies can combat them.
updated 5:11 AM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Is Xi Jinping a true reformist or merely a "dictator" in disguise? CNN's Beijing bureau chief Jaime FlorCruz dissects the leader's policies
updated 11:44 PM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
With a population of 1.3 billion, you'd think that there would be 11 people in China who are good enough to put up a fight on the football pitch.
updated 2:31 AM EDT, Fri July 4, 2014
26-year-old Ji Cheng is the first rider from China to compete for competitive cycling's highest honor.
updated 7:24 AM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
China's richest man, Wang Jianlin, may not yet be a household name outside of China, but that could be about to change.
updated 12:14 AM EDT, Fri July 4, 2014
Hong Kong's narrow streets were once a dazzling gallery of neon, where banks and even bordellos plied their trade under sizzling tubular signs.
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu July 3, 2014
When President Xi Jinping arrives in Seoul this week, the Chinese leader will have passed over North Korea in favor of its arch rival.
updated 7:59 AM EDT, Thu July 3, 2014
Three more officials have been given the chop as part of China's anti-corruption drive, including former aides to the retired security chief.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue July 1, 2014
As thousands of Hong Kongers prepare for an annual protest, voices in China's press warn pro-democracy activism is a bad idea.
updated 12:37 AM EDT, Mon June 30, 2014
Hong Kongers are demanding the right to directly elect their next leader, setting up a face-off with Beijing.
updated 2:56 AM EDT, Tue July 1, 2014
The push for democratic reform in Hong Kong is testing China's "one country, two systems" model.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon June 30, 2014
Along a winding Chinese mountain road dotted with inns and restaurants is Jinan Orphanage, a place of refuge and site for troubled parents to dump unwanted children.
updated 4:36 AM EDT, Thu June 26, 2014
CNN's Kristie Lu Stout invites Isaac Mao, Han Dongfang, and James Miles to discuss the rise of civil society in China and social media's crucial role.
updated 11:34 PM EDT, Wed June 25, 2014
Chen Guangbiao wants rich people to give more to charity and he'll do anything to get their attention, including buying lunch for poor New Yorkers.
updated 7:44 AM EDT, Thu June 26, 2014
Architects are planning to build the future world's tallest towers in China. They're going to come in pretty colors.
updated 7:47 AM EDT, Mon June 23, 2014
Anna Coren visits Yulin's annual dog meat festival. Dogs are part of the daily diet here, with an estimated 10,000 dogs killed for the festival alone.
updated 2:38 AM EDT, Thu June 19, 2014
People know little about sex, but are having plenty of it. We take a look at the ramifications of a lack of sex education in China.
updated 4:12 AM EDT, Fri June 13, 2014
Hong Kongers have reacted angrily to a Chinese government white paper affirming Beijing's control over the territory.
The emphasis on national glory -- rather than purely personal achievement -- is key.
updated 12:14 PM EDT, Mon June 16, 2014
A replica of the Effel Tower in Tianducheng, a luxury real estate development located in Hangzhou, east China's Zhejiang province.
What's the Eiffel Tower doing in China? Replica towns of the world's most famous monuments spring up all over China.
updated 8:13 PM EDT, Tue June 10, 2014
Rapid development hasn't just boosted the economy -- it has opened up vast swathes of the country, says a man who has spent much of his life exploring it.
updated 2:54 AM EDT, Tue June 10, 2014
The World Cup is apparently making a lot of people "ill" in China.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT