Wang Chia-na (王嘉納) has dedicated himself to education for nearly two decades, after sacrificing a lucrative career as master carpenter in Taipei to teach at a school in Hualien County.
The holder of a gold medal in an international carpentry competition, Wang, 44, could have landed a job doing professional carpentry and creative design woodwork that would have earned him up to NT$200,000 a month.
However, he chose to stay in Hualien County’s Yuli Township (玉里) to teach at the Yudong Junior High School and has been there for the past 18 years.
“My father passed away when I was just a child. My family was poor and we experienced a lot of hardship as I grew up,” he said. “After I started teaching at Yudong, I saw that many of my students lived in poverty and were facing even more challenges than I did.”
“Some of my students from single-parent homes have called me ‘father.’ This is one of the things that inspires me to help them have better lives,” he added.
Wang said that when he was a child, he and his elder brother had depended on the modest wages their mother earned as a school janitor to survive.
“During those years, we did not have any spare money to buy toys. To make our own entertainment, we would search for discarded mold castings and factory scraps that we could hammer into different forms. That was what laid the seed for my passion for carpentry,” he said.
While he was studying at the Taitung Agriculture and Vocational High School in Taitung, Wang won first place in the Furniture Carpentry category at a national competition for vocational trades.
Afterward, he passed the entrance examination to enroll at what was then called the National Taipei Institute of Technology. In his sophomore year, Wang was selected to represent Taiwan in several international competitions and won a gold medal at a major carpentry contest.
After scoring high marks on his entrance examination, he was admitted to National Taiwan Normal University as a government-subsidized student and enrolled in the Department of Industrial Education to train as a teacher.
While he studied to become a teacher, Wang worked helping other carpenters with commissioned projects on weekends.
“I earned more than NT$5,000 a day at the time,” he said. “I also collaborated on carpentry projects for major exhibitions at the Taipei World Trade Center. It was a busy time for me and a lot of companies were enlisting my services.”
After graduating from university, Wang, was assigned to Yudong, where about 85 percent of students are Aborigines. Of these, 70 percent come from single-parent families, or are being raised by their grandparents.
“One time, I visited some of my students at their homes. I went to see two sisters and found that they lived in a metal-sheet hut beside a chicken coop,” he said. “The hut was so cramped I had to stoop down to go inside. Their parents were mostly away, working in the mountains and the sisters were hungry most of the time.”
Incidents like that motivate Wang to use his carpentry skills to help students give themselves a better future.
After helping set up a carpentry club at the school where third-year students can learn woodworking, Wang took the opportunity to provide further incentives to learn by telling his students: “To do carpentry, you need mathematics, so you need to know your math to qualify for the woodworking class.”
The students at Yudong on average rank in the 30th percentile of the national Basic Competence Test for junior-high schools, but their scores in carpentry are very strong.
The school said that this year, it expects four of its graduates be admitted to National Taitung Junior College in Taitung.
Wang said he has other ambitious projects in the works.
For example, last month, he brought his students to Taipei to stage their first wood furniture exhibition.
Wang also purchased more than 2,000 ping (6,612m2) in land in Hualien where he plans to build a “Factory of Hope,” to give students a place to hone their carpentry skills by making wood products and a chance to earn a salary that can improve their quality of life, he said.
“When we change students’ thinking, we can change their lives. If we can change a child for the better, we may change his family as well,” he said.
“The Basic Competency Test scores do not represent students’ intelligence or ability. I want to teach the kids to use their hands to produce quality work. This way, they can shape their future and create a happy life,” Wang said.