If it wasn't for the ongoing support and understanding of Hou Wanxia, I don't think I would have stayed in China so long. She is my shelter in a storm, and the encouraging voice in my head when I face demoralising attitudes or apparently unsurmountable challenges. I was excited to get news from VSO last December that they wanted to invite a Chinese partner to London to represent China's education programme at a corporate fundraising event. Here is the article Hou Wanxia wrote that won their hearts. Unfortunately the event was cancelled due to lack of support, but I still hope to arrange a UK trip for Hou Wanxia, especially now she has her passport (one of the many barriers to leaving the country).
Hou Wanxia in Ninger
I am an ethnic minority girl—Qiang nationality - and the luckiest girl among my 16 cousins (16 girls out of 21 cousins), for my father was Han nationality and he got a job as civil servant in our County seat. This meant I got the chance to go to school, a chance that many children in my family didn’t get. When I finished junior middle school, my father told me that I could go to high school if I passed the entrance exam. I succeeded. I then went on to college, followed by university. I am, up until now, the only girl with a university diploma among the 16 girls in my big Qiang family. Of my fifteen cousins four are illiterate because of poverty and sex discrimination. Four finished primary school, two half-finished primary school, three got through junior school and only one went to high school.

After graduating I became a junior middle school English teacher. There was an informal regulation in my school that young female teachers who were not married could not have equal chances to further education. Male teachers had the opportunity to finish their higher degrees in university but we could not. This was because because most female teachers would transfer their jobs after getting married. I was eager to go to a normal university to improve my English teaching ability and, of course, to realise my dream of being a well-educated person. Every year I handed in my application for the entrance exam to be admitted to an open ‘normal’ university to major in English education. It took seven years for the leaders to finally approve my application. This was as a result of my persistence and my high teaching results — both my junior and senior students’ entrance exam results were the highest in my County.  No university or no marriage, that’s the choice. In our culture there is great pressure to marry young. Not getting married early with your family’s support may seem impossible for many young women. You know, as a result of this regulation, most female teachers give up on their jobs, their own careers, and get married.

After my seven years of big effort I realised my dream of going to university, but this had a cost: I got married and gave birth to my daughter at a very old age according to our culture. I was so old to become a wife and a mother at thirty, especially in Yunnan, a remote mountain area of China with twenty-six ethnic minority peoples.

With the university diploma, however, I got the job as a teacher in Simao Teacher’s College in Puer city. My main responsibility was to teach Middle School English Teaching Methodology to English teaching majors. I still have this job today. It really was a big challenge for me at first, to change my role from that of a middle school teacher into a College teacher. As before, I put my heart and soul into studying, to find the right ways to do this job. As you know, however, China is an old country with a very long history of “teacher-centered” ways. This has been, and still is, the one and only popular way to teach every level of student, from primary to secondary, to university. Over the years it has been too hard for me to find any better ways to teach these pre-service students and nobody could help me because all of the teachers work independently, separately.

In 2001 our country began its national educational reform, calling for new methods for the “New Curriculum” and a more humanistic education. But nobody knew how to start this totally new thing in a totally traditional situation. As the methodology course teacher, I worried so much about how to solve this problem and I tried something new I had never tried in class before - I asked students to do some group work after class, as homework, and to present their work in the next lesson. I recognised this to be a good start. It was only part-time “student-centered” but how could I deliver all my lessons in a purely “student-centered” way? This seemed impossible to me.  It really was a challenge and I simply didn’t know how to do it.

When Lesley, a VSO volunteer from the UK, came to our college in 2005 with her family, my opportunity came too. She introduced the aims of VSO: to share skills and to improve lives. She showed me her great willingness to work with me and to co-teach my methodology course. Co-teaching, what’s that? It was so new to me, to everybody in our college, and perhaps to our nation. When I decided to try this new thing, all of my colleagues were so surprised. Some doubted, some displayed very negative attitudes towards me and Lesley. Even the students were surprised and doubtful in the first class. After a short time, however, they loved our co-teaching. Both the students and me benefited so much from this cooperation of ours. They themselves learned how to cooperate, learned how to take responsibilty for their work, becoming more and more positive and creative. We all learned how to reflect on our work and our lives.

It is Lesley who helped me understand the true meaning of “volunteer”. That is: someone who is always ready to give you their hands when you need, without hesitation; someone who is devoted to the work they choose, without complaint; someone who contributes their energy, their skills and professionalism, selflessly; someone who will not give up easily. Here I should say, “Thank you VSO, for sending us such a great volunteer, for saving my work, for giving me a chance to help save so many young souls from the murderous traditional teaching methods of our country, by showing them the right methods—humanistic methods”.

Over these five years Lesley and I have been co-planning, co-teaching, co-training, observing, reflecting and discussing. We have been like two swimmers struggling against the tide, trying our best to show sound results. We have led the way to co-operation, led the way to use new teaching methods—student-centered methods, led the ways to develop the “PIE” project with the help of VSO’s support. Their biggest support has been sending us such a professional trainer - Lesley with a great personality, who made proposals, wrote training workbooks, training plans, delivered the most training course, did the most follow-up. She has visited sixty-five countryside schools and directly helped two hundred and twenty-five rural middle school English teachers. Of them one hundred and eighty are women and two hundred are ethnic minority, meaning they often have fewer chances in education. More than one thousand teachers from other subjects have observed new teaching methods in Lesley’s demonstration lessons and more than eight thousand poor countryside students have been lucky enough to have a lesson with such a ‘humanistic’ teacher, a chance that they might not otherwise have had in their life.

Again, I want to thank VSO for giving me such a chance to learn about rural schools and education with our PIE project. It is the follow-up trips with Lesley that led me to the countryside, to discover the real situation for rural schools. I was shocked so much by the difference in development between city schools and countryside schools - so unbalanced: the former are in heaven compared to the the latter, which are often in hell, in terms of the conditions of teaching and learning, living and playing. I feel so sorrowful and sad for the rural school students and for the teachers. Firstly, it is rare for the teachers to get a chance to receive methods training and to get basic knowledge of education, such as an understanding of pedagogy and psychology, of how to treat children properly. Most of the teachers are unqualified and desperately need relevant guidance. What’s more, female teachers get fewer chances to take training and to study. Most of them don’t have the chance to fight the discrimination. Secondly, not every child can get have the chance to go to school in the first place because of their poverty, especially girls, who are kept on at home to help. As I said before, I was a lucky one. Not everyone is so lucky. Luck isn’t enough. We take our luck and add hard work. This way we can make a difference. VSO has made an immeasurable difference to my life and I can make such a difference to others in return. I hope all the children in the rural areas of Yunnan can have this same chance or at least the right to go to school.