Yunnan school marks 10 years of educating ‘ugly ducklings’

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“I’m unable to understand the teachers in class.” “I get bullied by my classmates.” “I can’t stop arguing with my parents.”

The Ugly Duckling School, located 50 kilometers from Kunming, Yunnan Province, is a middle school with 79 “problem students”. Established by Zhan Danian in 2011, the school celebrated its 10th anniversary this year.

Labelled as “problem students” by the traditional education system, Zhan has refused to apply the label to the 79 students at his school. Before opening the Ugly Duckling School, Zhan had worked in the traditional education system for over 20 years. In 1981, he graduated from a teacher training college and later became the youngest principal in Taoxian County, Hunan Province at the age of 26, managing over 1,000 students during his career.

Zhan could have continued his career in the traditional education sector. Yet he often found himself wrestling with some of the normal practices of the education system:  isn’t it against the essence of education to expel “bad” students and only to poach students with good academic results?

The ugly duckling in the fairytale written by Hans Christian Andersen is actually a beautiful swan, but it is unaware of its beauty and unappreciated by others. Zhan believes his students are the same. “Problem students” do not have problems themselves, it is simply that the existing education system is unable to meet their various needs.

He felt that the system could provide a more inclusive education to give these students a fair chance to succeed.

“There won’t be any celebrations for the anniversary. We will probably celebrate the 30th anniversary if the school manages to survive. But I still want to see fewer schools like the Ugly Duckling School and fewer students enrolled in the school,” commented Zhan.

Currently, his focus is on moving the school to a new location on a hill, where Zhan hopes his ideals can be realized. He wants to combine living and studying and plans to open up traditional classrooms, while setting aside some space for reading and refreshments.

Despite the school’s current success, it had to overcome many problems during its early years, with difficulties enrolling students and recruiting staff. And success has brought its own challenges, with media attention raising its profile and giving rise to public criticism.

“The Ugly Duckling School should not be idolized. People want instant solutions to problem students but that’s impossible. Education shouldn’t be that way,” said Li Wangming, who teaches Chinese at the school.