BEIJING, Sept. 10 (Xinhua) -- After an earthquake toppled school buildings in southwest China's Yunnan Province Friday, a rural teacher used his bare hands to dig seven students from the rubble, fearing tools might hurt the children.
The heroic deed won Zhu Yinquan, 34, instant fame on the web and Internet users named him "the most handsome teacher in China."
When Xinhua reporters called on Teachers' Day, however, Zhu insisted the holiday, which falls on Monday, had nothing to do with him.
"I was a teacher for only two days and didn't live up to my responsibilities," said Zhu, saddened over the casualties at his school.
Of the seven students he pulled out, three were dead and the other four were injured.
Zhu is the only teacher at a village school of 22 children.
A temporary rural teacher, he is not on the official payroll and is paid only 500 yuan (79 U.S. dollars) a month.
In China, salaries for public school teachers are covered by local treasuries. In the underdeveloped western regions, however, many rural schools have to recruit temporary teachers -- people who are not properly trained but are better educated than the average villager -- to fill jobs that are often ignored by college graduates.
These teachers, hired just on a temporary basis and often lacking proper labor contracts, are not on the government's payroll. The schools try to pay their wages, but typically offer meager amounts held in arrears, as countryside schools are almost always in deficit.
China had 448,000 temporary teachers in 2006. The figure was hacked down to 310,000 by 2010, amid Ministry of Education's efforts to fire "unqualified" teachers in order to improve the quality of school education.
An update of their number is unavailable, but in the underdeveloped Gansu Province alone, more than 10,000 temporary teachers are still working in rural schools.
Most rural teachers are mentors, babysitters, cooks and nurses in one. When the villagers decide studies do little to lift their families out of poverty and are determined to send their teenage children to earn their own money, these teachers often spend long hours persuading them to keep the children at school.
Teachers voluntarily buy school books, stationery and meals for the children to relieve their parents' burden.
These obscure teachers are constantly remembered as the "light in the darkness" by rural students who have made their way into college and subsequently a career far beyond the confines of their remote mountain villages.
Some teachers put their own lives at risk to save the children.
In May, a 29-year-old middle school teacher in northeast China's Heilongjiang Province was run over and lost both of her legs after pushing two students out of the way of an oncoming bus.
Zhang Lili was also a temporary teacher and paid about 1,000 yuan a month, less than half the average her colleagues earned.
The heroic deed of Zhu Yinquan last week reminded the nation of Tan Qianqiu, a school teacher in southwest China's Sichuan Province who sheltered four students with his arms when a devastating earthquake jolted the school building in May 2008. When rescuers arrived, they found Tan had died, but the students all survived.
The Chinese believe the country's future lies in the proper education of their children. Yet authorities have for many years overlooked the rights and interests of teachers in the countryside.
While urbanites plan for bigger homes and better cars, many temporary teachers are still living in poverty, saving every cent to buy textbooks for students, or fix the ramshackle hut that was their makeshift classroom.
They are certainly free to give up teaching and work in the city instead, but most of them have chosen to stay, because the children need them.
With their limited knowledge, strong will and selflessness, they are often the only people to lead children out of ignorance, and keep the youngsters' dreams alive in the least developed regions.
In a fast-growing, consumerism-centered society, these obscure heroes certainly deserve more respect and better pay.