Stories of students and teachers from rural contexts of different nations speak volumes and resonate my own experience as a rural child/student and the eldest child in rural school teachers’ family. The personal experiences of schooling and life in the rural areas of these Chinese and Eritrean children reflect larger societal problems and issues. Although, they question the quality and relevance of their education to their future lives, children of rural areas have higher expectations from their education unlike their urban counterparts. Similar to the expectations and hopes of children, the teacher from a rural Murghab (Tajikistan) strives in working as a teacher/educator with the hope for better future of the younger generation in his community and country.
Sociology of schooling in rural context has been an interest area for me throughout my academic career. It is because I was born and schooled in that context which is a strong part of my identity at the moment. Even though, these children talk of their rural schooling experiences from different contexts like western China and Eritrea, I could associate my own experience and could find a lot of similarities of being a rural child. As mentioned in the story of Fang Fang (Lim, 2002) I always believed that I could compete with urban children with my education not with the wealth of my family. Like Fang, Yuan and Lan, this belief strengthened my ability to overcome many challenges that life presented to me and I grew stronger by such challenges.
All rural Chinese students’ stories intertwine the difficulty of managing school life and the demand of housework/farm work in their families. Similar to their experiences, I had to balance these two lives throughout my primary and secondary schooling. Usually this balance is not always there and as a rural child, you are caught up with the strong belief of supporting your parents in farm and housework and the expectation to succeed in the schooling as well. As a rural child, you need to behave respectfully with elders, teachers and community in general. Punishment was and is internalized as something which is for students’ own good in future, which at times leads to emotionally stressful experiences of schooling, losing self-esteem, lower achievement and dropouts for many rural students. These students mention about the importance of having ‘connections’ to succeed in life which Bourdieu may term it as ‘social capital’ which is a determinant factor in one’s chances of entering into higher education institutions in Kyrgyzstan (mostly irrespective of one’s grades from school) and in finding better-paid jobs later upon graduation. In addition, many rural parents mostly have fewer expectations from the schooling and at times they criticize for schools educating to be ‘alien’ to the rural communities and to raise their children’s aspiration to move to urban areas and reject their rural background. There are multiple anecdotal records, movies/documentaries, books and articles of rural Kyrgyz youth denying their rural identity to achieve better job positions and be accepted in urban rich societies. These articles talk about extreme poverty, lack of jobs, child labour, diminished status of farmer, gender equality/inequality, ethnic/tribal identities, overloaded students, compartmentalized learning in secondary education and strong sense of family, community in rural schools and contexts.
The parents of rural Chinese children are mostly supportive of their children’s education. They have higher expectations from education and provide on-going support irrespective of their financial hardships. As Yuan’s parents believed that education is as a means for children’s better life and their current problems are temporary in nature. Like Yuan’s parents, many rural Kyrgyz parents, including my own parents, are mostly supportive of their children’s education despite the family financial crisis. However, when their hopes and expectations are confronted with corruption and favouritism in the education system and lack of employment after schooling (including higher education), they become nostalgic about Soviet era, which, according to their perception, provided greater chances of equality and was based on meritocracy. However, few may have challenged whether education was a neutral player and mediator in social mobility at Soviet era, and also which Chinese parents could have questioned in their contemporary society.
I felt personal connection to the issues which Niyozov’s (2001) Sino encountered and had a great interest in his experiences in life and at school as a teacher. I admired his courage, envied his position as an ethical educator, especially as a ‘person of his time’, and his wide internationalist worldview. Niyozov (2001) presented Sino’s life as a teacher and person with skilful and dramatic richness, and pinched my identity as a Kyrgyz when sharing Sino’s perspective of mixed nationality of Murghab in which Kyrgyz ethnicity was a dominant culture. I felt apologetic for my shared Kyrgyz identity which may have contributed to the discriminatory practices and relationships in Murghab city. Having visited Murghab for several times and conversing with local Kyrgyz people there, I could visualize what Sino referred to in his experience as a teacher of minority community in that context. I seemed to ‘listen’ to his account attentively. More so, while reading description of Sino’s lesson on internationalism, I could visualize his students appreciating their multi-ethnic and religious Murghab community. I felt that in such harsh climatic conditions, extreme poverty, lack of government support on development, discrimination and prejudice seem to have overt practice and may endanger the integrity of ethnicities and religions. It is here the role of rural teacher like Sino happens to be essential than any governmental or international organization program on multiculturalism and internationalism.
I found Sino’s actions as heroic which unfortunately such everyday life-changing actions are not usually officially and formally recognized by any government, but his students and community members appreciate and value continuously. Sino is a reflection of many teachers in post-soviet Central Asia whose lives and work have changed dramatically after the collapse of the former USSR. My parents as teachers went through what Sino has experienced as a teacher. I will never forget the time period between 1992-1997 when instead of their miserable teacher salary they were given old Soviet-made clothes (which were hidden in the stores for rich people during Soviet Union) and hundreds of vodka. I saw my mother’s eyes filled with tears and my dad’s sorrowful face who regretted that they made the decision to return to and remain in the village after their higher education. Having witnessed their ‘miserable’ condition and status of teachers in this rural context, as an eldest daughter, I made my pledge to support my sisters and brothers to get their higher education and help them stay in the city. Our happy childhood memories as rural kids were ‘destroyed’ by independence of the Kyrgyz Republic in 1991 and sufferings it brought to the rural children like me. The former Soviet Union could be criticized for its authoritarian regime and lack of human freedom, but as a rural child growing up in that era, I have the most beautiful and happy childhood memory which unfortunately a rural child growing up in contemporary independent Kyrgyzstan may not have.
Janigan’s (2002) accounts of rural female students in Eritrea provide gendered experiences of schooling. More so in rural context, being female and being from poor family background affect largely the uptake of learning opportunities and dramatically shape one’s life chances. Janigan (2002) presents these female students’ agency in the structural and cultural constraints of such context. In hard economic conditions and circumstances in Eritrea and in western China, rural students, especially girls, rely mostly on their peers and their immediate families and look up for role models in resisting and rejecting societal beliefs about female students.
The accounts of rural students and their teachers highlight the need for educators to pay special attention to the differentiated and mostly isolated contexts in any nation. They strengthen the cause of my own personal academic struggle in bringing out the problems of rural education into overt public discourse in my country and in developing countries in general. These accounts raise questions for me as an educator in re-thinking the role of education in rural contexts and provide me ideas in navigating possibilities for rural sustainable development. Can one still remain in a rural context and have a better life chances? Should education in rural context be more proactive in developing competencies of rural children to get into universities and better paid employment in the city?