YINCHUAN, Sept. 25 (Xinhua) -- Melissa K. Smith had replaced several mobile phones over the past 26 years. However, the American English teacher alway keeps a black-and-white photo on her phone that was taken in northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region in 1993.
The old photo depicts the busiest street in the city of Guyuan, where there were only gravel paths and shabby dwellings. It was taken by Smith 26 years ago when she first came to China.
When she was 26 years old, she worked at Ningxia University, training teachers and teaching English for three years. Born in Indiana of America, she had never been to such a poor place before. She did not expect that the English language teaching level in the hinterland would be so far behind the times.
But the years in Ningxia left her many unforgettable memories, which made her believe that she would come back to Ningxia again.
"It's my second hometown, and it feels like I have grown up here," Smith said.
Smith returned to Ningxia after she got a Ph.D. in education in 2004, determined to improve the English language education in the region.
"Most English teachers in the university had never spoken to foreigners at that time. They could hardly speak fluent English," said Li Yuhong, a professor, who was then an English teacher with the university.
To help teachers improve their English and teaching methods, Smith set up an English corner at her apartment, making use of her spare time to teach the teachers.
Teachers were afraid of losing face in her training class at first, Li recalled. "However, she spoke slowly and always encouraged us," said Li, adding that Smith's patience and encouragement inspired her to attend the English corner for 16 years.
As teachers had no idea about "student-centered teaching," spoon-feeding education was prevalent in the classes. "Students often got sleepy, and they often gave the same answer to every question," Li said.
Noticing these problems, Smith taught teachers to guide students to participate in the class and learn to think independently.
"It's a real revolution in teaching," Li said.
With the help of Smith, Li has now become one of the most popular English teachers in the university.
Apart from her own work, Smith also cares about children in rural areas.
"They didn't have heaters or even toothbrushes and sometimes had to attend classes with empty stomachs," Smith said.
She often visits village schools, together with other foreign teachers, reading stories to the children and teaching them to brush their teeth.
She also launched fund-raising activities at the campus and raised money to purchase books for schools in poverty-stricken areas.
"When I saw books sent to them become dirty and dog-eared, I was so happy. They got very excited each time we came. I really hope these lovely and innocent children could enjoy learning like this for their whole life," Smith said.
The 52-year-old said she saw the improvements in education that the Chinese government has achieved over the past years, with more new schoolhouses, free meals and good teachers in the western regions.
In 2014, Smith received the Friendship Award, given annually by the Chinese government to honor outstanding foreign experts in China, but Smith only said she did what she should do as an ordinary person.
Smith hopes to postpone her retirement until 70, devoting herself and her time and energy to English language teaching in the region.