Wang Yishu | Substitute Teacher


Country of origin: China
Project location: China
Program: Magnum Foundation Fund
Year: 2010

As part of China’s incentive to improve national education standards, 440,000 substitute teachers will be laid off by end of this year, in hopes of replacing them with full-­‐time college educated teachers.  The majority of lay-­‐offs  are  occurring  in  rural  areas,  where  villages  are too poor to hire full-­‐time teachers and the minimum pay and rural conditions deter most certified teachers. Communities are outraged as substitute teachers, many of whom have devoted half their lives to teaching, are being laid off without fair compensation, and instead of seeing improvements, elementary schools are suffering

Wang Yishu covers the consequence of the substitute teacher ban in a rural northeast village in Gansu Province, giving insight and voice to the individual grievances often lost and unheard in the country of 1.3 billion.


Photographer Wang Yishu documented China's new policy to replace all substitute teachers with formal teachers. In 2010, 400,000 substitute teachers lost their jobs. Wang Yishu spoke with a professor who was also the former advisor to China's Ministry of Education. The professor requested to remain anonymous for this interview.

WANG: At present, what are salaries for substitute teachers and ordinary, formal teachers? How significant is the difference?

PROFESSOR: The number of substitute teachers has decreased significantly. In a few remote villages there still exist some substitute teachers, but not many. Their salary is extremely low, at most between 300 and 400 yuan, and at the lowest around 200 yuan, which is relatively low compared to formal teachers. Formal teachers ordinarily make around 2,000 yuan.

WANG: Do you think it's currently possible for substitute teachers to replace formal teachers? Last year I took a trip to Weyuan County, and on a county-organized test, a few substitute teachers scored above the passing line but still weren't accepted, the reason being that they didn't count as working teachers.

PROFESSOR: It is already impossible for substitute teachers to become formal teachers. Of course, in the past two years there have been individual substitute teachers who have passed the test and become formal teachers. But most substitute teachers have no way of doing this.

WANG: What do you believe is the fundamental reason that the government eliminated substitute teachers? Is it because of the pressure on recent graduates to find employment?

PROFESSOR: Here are the reasons that the government eliminated substitute teachers: the first is that, speaking from an objective standpoint, the historical mission of substitute teachers has already been completed; second is that the quality of substitute teachers already doesn't match the demands of basic education; third is that the pressure placed on most vocational school students to find employment has forced substitute teachers out of the picture.

WANG: In the future, will all teachers in villages be formal teachers? Are there currently enough teachers in rural villages? What will happen if there aren't enough?

PROFESSOR: In the future, rural teachers will definitely all be formal teachers, because many recent graduates from teacher training schools still have not found work. Substitute teachers have stepped off of the stage of history, and this is how history works, but they should be given their human dignity, they should be treated well, and this is the responsibility of the government.

WANG: From your observations, in the countryside, will the future hold any further education reform?

PROFESSOR: Rural education reform is absolutely necessary. The idea of using enrollment rates as an indicator of success is, to a certain extent, warping young people's hearts and minds. Of course, there should be many topics of discussion on rural education reform -- the current educational system forces schools and education workers to only attach importance to the transmission of knowledge, and de-prioritize the shaping of personality. This leads to the conclusion that the more knowledge people have, the greater harm they can do to society. The Ma Jiajue and Yao Jiaxin incidents are already proof of this. Note: both played main roles in student murder cases that caused a stir in China. Ma Jiajue killed four classmates, and Yao Jiaxin injured a woman by hitting her with his car before proceeding to stab her.

WANG: At present, how is the employment situation for teachers? For example, are graduates of undergraduate teacher training schools willing to become formal rural teachers?

PROFESSOR: At present, the employment situation for teachers is a little bit better than for other professions. But this is not a cause for optimism. Teacher training school graduates are willing to find employment in rural areas -- after all, it's a formal job. The difficulties of living and working in the rural countryside are obvious, however.