By Cecily Liu, One Young World Ambassador and the Project Director of the Teach Rural Schools program at Visionary Education, a China-based charity founded in 2008.
When Xingtao first came into my classroom and sat all by herself in the back row, I hardly noticed her. A short, chubby girl of 13, with short hair and a slightly sad gaze, her presence was almost invisible amongst a class of naughty and energetic kids who constantly chatted in class. She never raised her hand to answer a question, did not play with the other children, and seemed indifferent to even to music and PE lessons, which always got the other children excited.
One day, when I saw her all by herself during a break, I sat down next to her and asked what she wanted to be when she grew up. To my surprise, she cried. Fighting back the tears in her eyes, she told me that she wants to be a doctor. I wrapped my arm around her and encouraged her to tell me more. Slowly, she confided in me. She remembers getting ill once in her younger years and her mother took her on a long and costly journey to see a doctor. She has felt guilty about the extra burden her illness incurred on her family ever since, and aspires to be a doctor when she grows up so that future generations of rural children may receive timely treatment without leaving their home village.
Her story touched me deeply. Without speaking to her, I could have never expected such mature thinking and keen sense of responsibility to emerge from such a shy girl. The conversation woke me up to the reality that every child has a fascinating world in their hearts. Some children lack the confidence in themselves to believe their dreams, and it is the job of us teachers to protect their precious dreams and foster their growth.
This summer, I travelled within a team of 12 volunteers to run a summer school camp at a rural school in a small village in China’s Hebei Province. Our 11-day rich and diverse curriculum – consisting of English lessons, music, arts, spots, dance and storytelling – was incredibly well received by the school’s 330 children aged between 13-15. But perhaps more critical than the knowledge we brought to them, was our ability to help the children discover a fascinating world out there, and to encourage them to become more confident in embracing their own dreams. Our charity, Visionary Education, was founded in 2008 after an earthquake in Sichuan Province killed many young school children. In an effort to help these Sichuan schools, as well as other poor rural Chinese schools, our founder, Mr. Jing Fu, started the charity, we have been running annual summer camps in rural China every year since 2010, and such interaction has by now changed the lives of over a thousand children. Alongside that, Visionary Education bring a group of rural school principals to Beijing for a leadership training program every year, empowering these principals to guide their schools towards greater achievements.
My first hand experience interacting with the children has taught me that children like Xingtao are not the anomaly. Without a role model, the right encouragement from their parents, and one-to-one attention from their teachers, many children from China’s remote regions can feel lost, lonely and doubtful of their own capabilities. In China, over 90 million children are raised in rural villages and towns, many with parents working far away in wealthier cities. Without the right guidance and support, many rural children do not attend university, and consequently settle for a humble job in their village or town.
These children are often just as talented as children in urban schools. Take Xingtao for example, as I was determined to help her, I praised her every time she answered a question well, and gave her catch up lessons focusing on lessons she previously missed. After a few days, I noticed her change. She raised her hand to answer questions, started to enjoy herself in academic learning, and made new friends. One day, when all other children went to the playground after the drawing class, she quietly gathered up all the color pencil and neatly packaged them into individual boxes for me - I was really touched and pleasantly surprised!
Throughout the 11 day summer camp, I saw many children transform with just a little encouragement. Wenjie, a shy girl aspiring to be a professional dancer, pleasantly surprised herself when she did so well to lead the whole school practice a new dance during every day’s morning assembly. Boyang, a tall boy who felt ashamed of himself for being caught in a fight, became a true leader when I taught him the gentleman quality of looking after her classmates. Chunyan, an incredibly bright girl discovering her talent for painting for the first time in life, produced some of the most incredible artworks, full of poetic beauty and creativity.
And I, as their teacher, felt so proud of each and every child in my class when I saw their transformation within just 11 days. But as we said goodbye to the children, I could not help feeling sad with the realization that many more rural children will not grow up realizing their full potential because they were not given the opportunity to shine. In rural China, the lack of teaching resources has meant that often rural teachers do not know how to effectively help children build their confidence, overcome their own emotional barriers, and discover their unique talents. Large class sizes means that quiet children like Xingtao often struggle to attract sufficient teacher attention, when in fact they require encouragement just as much as the naughty or more expressive children.
Improve education in China’s rural areas has been a top priority for the Chinese government. The Chinese government has already invested RMB 542.6 billion ($81 billion) from 2013 to 2018 to upgrade the infrastructure of rural schools through projects such as renovating old school buildings and adding new equipment in the classrooms. But more is needed to raise the vision, leadership and communication skills of China’s 3 million rural teachers, as they are often the most influential figures in determining the future of rural children. And to this end governments, education charities like Visionary Education, and like-minded volunteers with passion in the education sector can all join hands to shape the rural education landscape of tomorrow.