Profile: Rural teacher lights up dreams of underprivileged children

Yuan Yanmin, a teacher from northeast China’s Heilongjiang Province, has spent 13 years teaching in the countryside.

Since childhood, Yuan’s dream has been to become a teacher. She graduated from Hegang Normal College in 2006 when the provincial government introduced a policy to encourage graduates to work at the primary level.

“The countryside is where teachers are most needed, so I chose to work in a rural primary school,” said Yuan, who worked as a volunteer teacher at Wanfa Primary School in the suburb of Heilongjiang’s Jiamusi, with a monthly salary of only 600 yuan (about 84 U.S. dollars).

Yuan still remembers that the road to the school was bumpy with dust blowing in the air. There were over 100 students in six classes, most of whom were left-behind children with parents working in other cities.

“The desks and chairs, made out of old wood strips, would break easily, and the teachers had to fix them,” she said.

When she first got there, Yuan did not even know how to draw water from the well, a new experience to the city dwellers. It was her students who voluntarily taught her this basic skill that is second nature to those living in the countryside.

At school, she spent her days teaching and eating food with the kids and sent them back home at night. After Yuan completed the two-year education aid program she signed up for, her students and their parents did not want her to go.

Yuan stayed for another year, during which she was not paid at all, as the two-year contract had expired.

In November 2009, Yuan transferred to another rural school in a mountainous town called Hengtoushan. The town is only 15 kilometers away from Jiamusi, but the rugged landscape made living conditions harsher.

Yuan could not even make a fire to cook inside her dormitory, so she had to eat bread and instant noodles for every meal.

In winter, the heavy snow always paralyzed the traffic and interrupted the power and water supplies.

The following March, Yuan took over the position of the headteacher for 32 sixth-grade kids, half from poor families. Being a headteacher, Yuan was not only in charge of the children’s studies, but also needed to pay a great deal of attention to their personal life and mental status.

A girl named Xiaoxue from Yuan’s class caught her attention. She was always alone and looked upset. Yuan heard that she was living with a deaf-mute mother and an alcoholic father.

Knowing Xiaoxue’s situation, Yuan always talked with her and bought her new books and school bags. Gradually, the girl became more outgoing and her grades also came up. Six years later, she was admitted to Northeast Petroleum University with distinction.

During the past 10 years teaching in Hengtoushan, Yuan was in charge of nine graduating classes and visited students’ homes over 400 times.

Having worked in the countryside for 13 years, Yuan spent most of her time at the school, only going home on the weekends.

Now, every day after work, she helps the students with their homework via Wechat, a Chinese messaging app, and calls parents who work in other cities.

Over the years, Yuan got offers from several well-known schools in the city, but she turned all of them down.

“Being a teacher is more than just a job, it’s a belief,” she said. “We should be where we’re most needed.”

Earlier this month, Yuan went on a lecture tour to deliver speeches on her teaching career. She is always passionate in life, whether she is facing an audience on stage or teaching students in rural schools.