Andrea Hsu, NPR
Zhang Yonglin has been teaching at the school for 19 years, but he may lose his job because he never received teaching credentials.
Andrea Hsu, NPR
First-grade students at Zhangjiabao elementary school attend classes in unheated classrooms with bare concrete floors and walls.
Andrea Hsu, NPR
Wang Zhengming was the school's first teacher in 1958; 72 of his students have gone on to college. Zhang, now 62, isn't worried about his own future, but he is concerned about the younger generation of uncertified teachers.
In a classroom in the rural hinterlands of China, 27 ruddy-cheeked and bright-eyed children listen attentively to teacher Zhang Yonglin and his lesson in Chinese grammar.
The students all come from poor, farming families, and even inside the classroom, they're bundled up against the cold in hats, scarves, sweaters and jackets.
Name: Wang Zhengming
Hometown: Zhangjiabao village, Gansu province
Job: Elementary school teacher
Annual Income: $180, supplemented by subsistence farming
Living Space: Wood and brick house
Zhang has been teaching at Zhangjiabao elementary school in northwest China's Gansu province for 19 years, and his experience shows in the classroom.
But now he could lose his job. He has no formal teaching certificate, and China's education ministry has announced it intends to gradually replace all 300,000 of China's uncertified rural teachers. There's no deadline yet for the firing.
Many people in China's poor, rural areas see education as the only way to lift their families out of poverty. But village schools lack basic facilities, and many have a difficult time finding teachers, so they hire the best available, even if they don't have proper credentials.
The plight of teacher Zhang and Zhangjiabao elementary school — located in one of China's poorest provinces — illustrate the many obstacles to the government's efforts.
Zhang has tried to get certified, but so far without success.
"I failed the Mandarin test three times. I grew up in the countryside and am used to speaking my native dialect," Zhang says.
Uncertified teachers make up a small fraction of the national total. But in poor, rural areas, they can account for up to half. The Zhangjiabao elementary school has eight teachers. Four of them, including Zhang, are uncertified.
One problem is money: The local government is heavily in debt and can't afford to pay the salaries of certified teachers.
Certified teachers are paid about $100 a month; Zhang and the other uncertified teachers make about $12. That was a raise from Zhang's previous pay of $5 a month, which he supplemented with income from farming.
Another reason there are so many uncertified teachers here is that the school can't entice certified teachers to work in such harsh conditions. The school is unheated, life hard in the remote village. Also, rural schools receive a far smaller portion of resources than urban ones.
School principal Liu Wen says this puts them at a great disadvantage.
"City kids use computers. Rural kids haven't even seen computers," Liu says. "Our kids say, 'What kind of web is the World Wide Web? It must be a spider web.' Rural students can only look in envy at what city kids get."
Wang Zhengming was the school's first teacher in 1958. With only a middle-school education, he has never been certified. He's not worried about his own future, but he is concerned about the younger generation of uncertified teachers.
"The younger teachers ask me, 'What about our future?' I say, 'The state is the state; the party is the party. The party will not treat you young people shabbily,'" Wang says. "I say this just to encourage them. How can the government go on paying them $5 or $10 a month?"
Principal Liu also hopes that the government will find some way to take care of the uncertified teachers.
"Whether they've taught 5, 10, 20 or 30 years, they have made a contribution to society and the school," says Liu. "They should get compensation or at least some sort of recognition."
Back in the classroom, teacher Zhang Yonglin keeps on teaching, despite the uncertain future. His classes in Zhangjiabao village will go on, but no one knows for how long.