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Higher pay for mountain top teachers
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It was apparently a case of "absence from duty" - 23 teachers from a high school in Chongqing suspended classes for three days early this month to take a trip to Hainan, a subtropical tourist attraction.

After media reported the event last week, however, the audience - mostly netizens - refrained from panning the teachers as they normally would public servants touring courtesy of the public purse.

Instead, they expressed sympathy for the teachers from the Gaoxie Middle School of Dushi, the most remote rural township in mountainous Jiangjin county of Chongqing municipality. Some even said they were "moved to tears" by the report.

I was, too.

In fact, the teachers did not spend a single cent of public money. They paid for the plane tickets - amounting to their salaries of three months. Accommodation and most of the meals were paid by an alumnus who had graduated from the school 21 years ago.

The alumnus now owns a tourism company in Hainan province.

Being so impoverished, the teachers previously had not traveled to any place outside the mountainous region. Zhang, in his 60s, had never seen the sea even though he had taught geography for 39 years.

After returning to the school, the teachers shared their experiences with their students. None owns a camera, so they relied on vivid descriptions of beaches, coconut trees and the sea of clouds they saw through the planes' windows to broaden their students' imaginations. They also brought coconuts back and gave each student a morsel of the alien fruit's fresh juice.

The pupils, their parents and local officials in charge of education all expressed their understanding and support for the teachers' "learning trip".

This piece of news filled me with mixed emotions: respect, sympathy and sorrow. In China, a large number of teachers work in rural, mountainous and remote regions. The working conditions are poor and the pay is low. But most of them work diligently out of a strong sense of responsibility to the younger generation.

In recent years, many urbanites have gone sightseeing in remote mountains on holidays. Some of them have posted photos of "mountain top schools" on the Internet. One of them shows young pupils walking along a path gouged into the edge of a cliff. Anyone who saw the picture would admire Mr. Shen Qijun, the only teacher of the primary school in the Gulu Village over the Dadu River Canyon in Sichuan province.

Shen, 45, has been teaching at the school for 26 years and is greatly loved by students and villagers. But he has never been admitted as a formal teacher, because he does not have an official education.

These teachers merit our respect and deserve a better livelihood and work environment. Over the years there have been calls for higher salaries and better working conditions for such mentors. The central and local governments have done a lot to improve the situation. But the effort seems far from enough. The remuneration they get does not match their contribution to the nation.

I do not know if the issue is on the agenda of the ongoing session of the National People's Congress (NPC). But I hope the income of teachers in remote mountainous areas will be included in the agenda and be settled some time in the not too distant future.

I used to be one of them 30 years ago.

E-mail: liushinan@chinadaily.com.cn

(China Daily March 11, 2009)

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