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“When you look up, you see mountains, but when you look down, you also see mountains,” declares Sang Lei. “Behind the mountain ranges are more soaring mountain ranges.” This is the environment around Pengdang Wanquan Elementary School in Yunnan Province, where Sang has been working as a specially-recruited teacher for nine years.
Born in Fugong County, Yunnan Province, in 1985, Sang Lei from the Nu ethnic group graduated from Pu’er University at the age of 22 with a bachelor’s degree in computer education. After graduation, he began to teach at the rural elementary school in Pengdang Township in Gongshan Dulong and Nu Autonomous County.
Specially-recruited teachers are nothing new in China, but have received increasing attention in recent years. In 2006, China launched a governmental program to spread compulsory education in rural areas of the country’s central and western parts and improve the quality of rural education. By recruiting university graduates to work as rural teachers, the program coined the term “specially-recruited teachers.” Over the past decade, over 500,000 graduates like Sang Lei have ventured to 30,000 rural schools in more than 1,000 counties in central and western China.
Although Pengdang Wanquan Elementary School is small, the institution is a big deal for the area’s school-aged children. Some students live nearby, but others walk for seven to eight hours from their homes to reach the school. Dimaluo Village, deep in the mountains, is the most remote and inaccessible village in the elementary school’s district. Because of the difficult journey, Sang and other teachers escort those students home for holidays and festivals.
“Highways take kids out of the mountains, but only education will lead them away from the mountains in any real sense,” declares Sang. “As teachers, we shoulder tremendous responsibility.”