It was Saturday night, and Ma Jun was still busy helping children at her school take showers.
“There are dozens staying at school on weekends because they have nowhere else to go,” she said.
Formerly a promising wrestler and college teacher in Xian, the capital of western China’s Shaanxi province, Ma quit the city eight years ago to teach at the village school set up by her father in the province’s mountainous north in 1992 for “left-behind children” whose migrant worker parents have sought work in cities.
Now 34, Ma is now a teacher and “mother” to more than 300 pupils, taking care of the youngest children at Mata School in Zizhou county around the clock, teaching physical education classes to all grades, and playing in a key role in designing its teaching strategies and curriculum.
In her spare time, she grows vegetables with her mother and raises pigs with her father to support the school’s canteen.
Mata was where she was born and raised and the school was originally set up as a home school for Ma and her four siblings, who otherwise would have faced a 5km walk to the nearest school.
Even today, there is only one bus from Mata village to downtown Zizhou a day.
The school has developed into a boarding school with 26 teachers and 315 pupils, aged between three and 14, mostly left behind or from broken families.
“When I was young I had a dream – to become an athlete, to take part in the Olympics and compete for China,” Ma said.
When she was in middle school, she made it to the Shaanxi provincial women’s wrestling team.
But she had to give up that dream after suffering a serious injury to her left knee during training four years later.
In 2005 she graduated from the Xian Sports College and became a physical education teacher at another college in the city.
Five years later, when she had a husband and a newborn baby, she chose a new life for her family and herself at her old school.
“My father was getting old and I felt obliged to support him,” she said. “My return was a great surprise for my parents. My father was all tears when I told him I quit my secure job in the city and decided to help him.
“I told him that you’ve spent your lifetime to keep the school alive ... I chose to be a teacher for myself, and for you as well.”
Her father, Ma Weishuai, is now 66 and still working as the school principal.
Her husband, who used to sell insurance, is now responsible for computer science classes and repairing computers.
Their son is studying in grade two at the school.
“My husband was reluctant to come when I made the decision, but so many years have passed and he never complained,” Ma said.
Her return made a great difference at the school, especially in terms of teacher training.
“Our teachers have very low pay, and having to live with the kids every day, they have little chance to see the outside world,” Ma said. “So they were poorly informed and old fashioned in their teaching.”
After the training, knew more about in hygiene and had stopped meting out corporal punishment.
The school day was previously all about study in the classroom, but Ma added exercise, art and scientific experiments to pupils’ daily lives.
Besides PE classes, optional classes in Yangge (a local dance), martial arts, modern dancing and electronic organ were introduced, and various contests, including singing and calligraphy competitions, started to be held.
Ma has also taken pupils to perform at local television stations and in national competitions, one of which was the 15th China Art Festival in October 2016, where they performed a local dance to much applause.
In December that year, Mata pupils went to Beijing to compete with children from Beijing and Shanghai in a children’s reality show.
“How can there be vigour in a school if there is no one singing or exercising?” Ma asked.
She said the biggest challenge for the school now was building a steady and better-quality team of teachers.
With average pay of less than 3,000 yuan (US$472) a month and a heavy workload, many teachers left soon after they just started. “The shortest stay was just two months,” Ma said.
Asked if she had any regrets, Ma said: “I’m doing it with my heart and I feel comfortable. That’s enough.”
This article The Chinese teacher who is ‘mother’ to more than 300 left-behind children first appeared on South China Morning Post