Published: 14:44, June 4, 2024
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Retired educators from Shandong pass on their knowledge in western China
By Zhao Ruixue in Jinan

National program aims to deploy teaching staff across country more evenly

Wu Jun, a retired professor from Shandong University, teaches an English class at Qinghai Normal University in Xining, Qinghai province, in October 2023. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Ma Baohua is relishing a second wind in his career after choosing to come out of retirement to inspire the next generation of educators in the workforce.

The professor from Shandong University is one of a raft of retirees taking part in the National "Silver Age" Teacher Action Plan, launched by the Ministry of Education and nine other departments in July last year, with the aim of recruiting around 120,000 retired teachers during the three-year plan period to teach in institutions such as primary and vocational schools and universities.

The particular initiative that Ma is involved with encompasses utilizing these retired professionals to supplement the teaching resources in China's western region, which have been in short supply for a long time.

Ma, who has relocated to teach at Kashi University in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, said he is delighted to witness the progress of the young teachers he has been mentoring for the past few months.

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Specializing in histology and embryology — branches of biology dealing with tissues, organs and embryos — Ma's mentee has begun giving lectures independently for the first time this semester, and they've received praise from both the students and faculty.

"How to make the teaching of histology and embryology simple enough so students can understand is challenging for many teachers," he said, adding this requires teachers to possess a comprehensive understanding of the subject and be good communicators.

Contributing to the development of Xinjiang has been a dream of Ma's since childhood after he was inspired by a movie depicting the courageous efforts of Chinese soldiers defending the country's borders on the Pamir Plateau, with its snow-capped mountains and majestic glaciers.

Ma is not alone, with retired teachers from dozens of universities across China having joined the same program since 2020. Among them, teachers from Shandong University have played an important role in building scientific research platforms, conducting research and mentoring young teachers across various disciplines, including medicine, mathematics, computer science, journalism, art, design and English.

"We expect our professors to contribute to the sustainable development of teaching, scientific research and innovation in higher education in the western regions and provinces," Ren Youqun, Party secretary of Shandong University, said at a meeting with professors leaving for schools in Xinjiang and Qinghai in March.

Ma Baohua demonstrates the use of a microscope at Kashi University in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, in February 2024. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Dream realized

After learning of the education support program in 2022, Ma applied to teach in Kashgar despite initial concerns from his wife regarding what his life would be like in the region.

"I told my family that this chance could probably be the last for me to realize my young dream of doing something for the region," he said.

He eventually won over his wife, with the support of his daughter, and embarked on his journey in February last year to teach histology and embryology at the School of Medicine of Kashi University, a school only established in 2022 and in dire need of experienced teachers.

Ma embraced his new role, infusing the university's medical education with his expertise in teaching and research. He has also contributed to the university's digital transformation.

This semester, digital methods have been integrated into medical education, including the use of digital slicing.

"Digital slicing enhances the depth and breadth of medical education by providing interactive and dynamic tools for learning, analysis and visualization," said Ma.

He's even introduced bilingual instruction, combining Chinese and English.

"Learning some English will not only facilitate a deeper understanding of the subject matter but equip students with a global perspective that is essential for future international engagements," he said.

To expand the channel of academic exchange, Ma has introduced experts and scholars from across the country to attend meetings at the university.

Amid his busy schedule, he's found solace in the warmth and care given by the faculty of the university.

He has experienced firsthand the familial embrace and rich cultural heritage of the region, being invited by a couple to celebrate with them the traditional Corban Festival, also known as Eid al-Adha.

"I experienced local customs and tried local food and fruits. It was such an enjoyable festival, it was like I was with my own family," said Ma.

He even visited the Pamir Plateau in his time off, the place that had left an indelible mark on his young heart.

"Great changes have taken place in the region compared with the scenes in the movie. The roads are now flat, and camel-driven transport has been replaced with vehicles," he said.

Wu takes a photo with her students at Qinghai Normal University. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Childhood connection

Hu Heqin and Wu Jun, husband and wife and also retired professors from Shandong University, began their new chapter at Qinghai Normal University in Xining, Qinghai province, in November 2021, also via the education support program.

Wu, 68, teaches five courses on translation to undergraduate and graduate students at the School of Foreign Languages and Literature. Hu, 69, teaches history at the School of Marxism.

Their connections to the western region run deep.

"When we were young, we lived in neighboring Gansu province, and we lived on the water from the Huangshui River, a river that originates from Qinghai and meets the Yellow River in Gansu province," said Hu.

"We have developed a deep connection to the northwestern land due to our childhood experience," he said.

During the 1950s, the parents of both Wu and Hu responded to the national call for supporting the development of the northwestern region, relocating from Shandong and Zhejiang provinces to Lanzhou, Gansu province. It was in Lanzhou that Wu and Hu spent their early years.

"We are happy that we can do something for the western region, although at this age, we need to overcome some altitude sickness," said Hu, acknowledging the challenges of living at an elevation of 2,200 meters. This adjustment caused Hu to experience altitude sickness, leading to a rash on his legs that only subsided upon his return to Shandong after a semester.

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Despite the setbacks, the couple prepares for each class earnestly and their teaching has left a deep impression on their students.

"Professor Wu is both a teacher and a friend. She uses various examples to analyze the cultural differences in Chinese and English vocabulary and idiomatic expressions, and she presents the similarities and differences between Chinese and Western cultures in a clear and understandable manner," said Mai Yarui, one of Wu's students.

Both professors actively mentor young teachers, recognizing the pivotal role of the younger generation in shaping the future of the university.

After a long day, the couple often frequents the school library, a habit that has rubbed off on their students.

"Teaching for decades doesn't mean one is all-knowing or that knowledge is complete. Teaching is an endless pursuit, and as educators, we must continually strive to improve ourselves," said Hu.

"Students flock to the library after school to read there, and locals engage in leisure activities on weekends in the library," said Wu.

"Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul," she said, quoting a verse from the poem Youth by United States poet Samuel Ullman.