An ethnography of teachers in a rural school in China

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Gerald P. Grant


Chinese education, School administration, Rural education, Sociology of work, Teacher morale, Corruption, China

Subject Categories



This dissertation is an ethnographic study of the everyday work and life of rural teachers in Chaoyang Elementary School, a rural school in a mountainous area of Southwest China. It aims to unearth the structural mechanisms that had dampened these teachers' passions, eroded their professional ethics, and finally demoralized and alienated them from their work. Under what conditions and constraints do these rural teachers work? What are the issues they have to face and deal with in their work on the daily basis? What causes their frustrations and despair? How do they perceive their role in the midst of the trendy reforms and dramatic social-cultural transformation? This dissertation invites the readers to enter the world of Chaoyang Elementary School. Chapter 1 gives an overview of China's rural problems and educational reform. After a brief introduction in Chapter 2 of the county, the township, and the school conditions, Chapter 3 identifies the organization of work routines as a highly political site within which multiple forces contend to control the content, load, object, and time of teachers' work. These forces, although experienced by the teachers as a whole, are disentangled for the purpose of analysis in the ensuing chapters. Chapter 4 tries to pin down the rural-urban cultural differences in the "new curriculum," the dilemma they create for teachers' everyday pedagogical activities, and their effects on the accumulated deficiencies in rural education. Chapter 5 explores the relationship between the ineffective pedagogy and the school administration. The authoritarian administration that refuses to pay due respect for teachers' professional expertise and denies teachers' participation in decision-making, is found to be the primary reason for teacher demoralization. This frustration is further exacerbated by the formalistic and corrupt state bureaucratic system, as demonstrated in Chapter 6. With little hope for improvement of the school or for realizing personal dignity through teaching, teachers choose to withdraw into the shell of private interest. Thus, teachers' voices are silenced and schools are depoliticized. The concluding chapter discusses teachers' work in relation to bureaucracy and calls for re-politicization of the school through genuine workplace democracy.


ISBN 9781109450682


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