A school unique in character and contribution to rural children's future
September 13,2022   By:China Daily
Yao Jian teaching a class at Sandun Primary School in Datong, Shanxi province. [Photo by Chen Yanqiu/China Daily]
Unlike most primary schools in the country whose students live in nearby neighborhoods, the Sandun Primary School in Datong, Shanxi province, is a boarding school with only 12 students-nine from Shanxi and three from the Inner Mongolia autonomous region.
Bordering Sandun village in the north is the autonomous region with the Great Wall built during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) serving as the boundary between Shanxi and Inner Mongolia. The Sandun Primary School is the only one in the vast sparsely populated region-the nearest school is about 60 kilometers away-which used to be the northern border of the Ming Dynasty.
So fulfilling all the requirements of the students is an important part of the remaining nine teachers of the school, with Yao Jian, in his mid-50s, serving as the headmaster. Yao, who has been teaching at the school since 2000, and his wife, also a teacher at the school since 2004, are the longest serving teachers of the school.
Almost all the 12 students are left-behind children who used to live with their grandparents because their parents work in cities as migrant workers. Yao bought a minivan 11 years ago and uses it as a school bus to pick up the students one by one from their home and ferry them to the school on Monday morning, and drop them back home on Friday evening.
The school had more than 80 students in the late 1990s. Yao, who graduated from a teachers' college in 1998, sought a transfer to the school in 2000 so he could take care of his parents and pregnant wife, who lived near Sandun village at the time. With more and more migrant workers taking their children along with them to the cities where they work, the number of students in the school has been declining. Some teachers, too, left the school in search of better paying jobs.
"I come from a poor countryside and know how important education is for village children. So I will continue teaching in the school till the last student is left," Yao said.
Compared with the schools in cities, the conditions of village schools were much worse in the late 1990s. Yao recalled his first job at Erdaogou village school, 60 kilometers away, after graduation. "There were 28 students and only one teacher before I was assigned to work there. The old teacher taught all the subjects, and some students had to bring stools from home to the school because there weren't enough chairs or benches in the school."
Yao and his wife help tidy up the students' dormitory at Sandun Primary School. [Photo by Chen Yanqiu/China Daily]
The condition of the Sandun Primary School, although it is bigger than the Erdaogou school, was almost the same when Yao was transferred to it. In fact, some young teachers left the school after working there for just one month.
"To tell you the truth, I wanted to leave too. But I couldn't," Yao said. "I grew up in the countryside and I like these children very much. My wife always encouraged me to stay."
Thanks to his good performance, Yao was made the headmaster of the school in 2004, the same year that his wife started working as a substitute teacher there.
Yao pays special attention to comforting other teachers so they feel at home in the school and start liking their job. And Yao and his wife take care of the students as if they were their own children. As for Yao's own children, his daughter has graduated from a college and his son studies in a local junior middle school.
Over the past 22 years, among the graduates of the Sundun Primary School, three have obtained doctoral degrees and dozens have earned a master's or a bachelor's degree.
Jiao Shufeng, a PhD candidate in Chinese history at Shaanxi Normal University, is one of them. He said: "Yao was my first teacher. He helped me cultivate good study habits and methods. He laid a solid foundation for my future academic career. I am lucky to have him as my teacher when I was young." Perhaps inspired by Yao, Jiao said he also plans to be a teacher and help more left-behind children to get better education.
Yao is happy to see parents today attaching great importance to their children's education, and he acknowledges that the poverty alleviation campaign and the rural vitalization program have helped improve the quality of education in the school, which now has computers, sports equipment and books on varied subjects.
But Yao fears the school may have to be shut down in the next few years, because not only is the fertility rate declining rapidly but also more and more migrant workers are bringing their children with them so they can go to school in cities and counties.
"Although I feel sad at the prospect of the school closing down, I am happy that the children can have better education, and strive for a better life," Yao added.

By Sun Ruisheng/Li Yang
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