Becoming a part of the family and creating lifelong relationships are just two advantages of teaching in a rural community. It may take a year or two to prove to them that you care about their children and their community, but once the parents realize that you want what is best for them and their children, they will embrace you forever.
My first teaching job was in a small school of approximately 200 students from Kindergarten to 8th grade. There were enough students for one class of each grade. My first year was a self-contained 5th-grade class, and I was so excited to be offered a job two weeks after the school year had started. I graduated at 40 years old embarking on a new career thrown into a classroom (that had been a storage room) with only 15 student desks and a whiteboard — and I am not talking about an interactive one either. My excitement was not dampened at all! I rolled up the sleeves and got to work!
A Long and Winding Road to the Past
After the school year had started, the administration of this small school realized they needed another 5th-grade teacher because it was a Title I school and they needed to keep their class size to a specific number. I happened to be walking into the central office of a county school system I was not familiar with applying for a teaching position I had heard about at another school.
They pretty much hired me on the spot after a quick interview. They told me that I would receive a mileage check each month since they had a difficult time keeping teachers. The drive to the school was long and up a winding mountain road. I hesitated and told them I would need to meet the principal at the school the next day to determine if this was a drive I wanted to do every day. I had never heard of the town or community, and I certainly did not know where this school was located.
And what a beautiful ride it was! It was definitely a winding road up a mountain, and if you are not careful, you may pass it. I will even admit that I drove right by it once after I had been there a few years. The fog was so thick, I missed it and drove right by! I taught there for nine years and, I have to say, that there are many days that I wish I had never left. During my other eight years there, I taught all the middle school math classes for the 6th, 7th, and 8th grades. Remember, there was only one class in each grade.
Challenges Turned to Advantages
Over the years, I found some challenges in teaching in this rural area. One challenge was that we were isolated from easy access to activities and enrichment venues such as museums, zoos, or community theater. Because of this isolation, the students had a limited worldview and little experience interacting in social situations that did not revolve around their own families and friends. But we, as their team of 4 middle school teachers, determined that we would open doors of opportunities by taking them to as many experiences as possible each year.
Technology is another challenge in teaching in a rural area. We actually had pretty reliable WiFI in the area, and over time we had gotten enough computers for all classes. But mostly the problem was not having internet or computers at home.
“Roughly seven-in-ten rural Americans (72%) say they have a broadband internet connection at home, according to a Pew Research Center survey of U.S. adults conducted from Jan. 25 to Feb. 8, 2021.”Vogels, Emily A. 2021, Some digital divides persist between rural, urban and suburban, Pew Research Center, accessed September 14, 2021 https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/08/19/some-digital-divides-persist-between-rural-urban-and-suburban-america/
When thinking through lesson plans, this dilemma always needed to be considered for assignments. We would need to be aware that home assignments could not be internet-based. But this challenge actually kept us looking for ways that our students could see beyond their walls to the world through everyday experiences and interacting with people out in the world and not on the computers.
With fundraisers and Title I money, we took trips every nine weeks. Some were big ones like driving an hour and a half to the nearest city which was Nashville and take in the interactive science museum or the zoo. Some were smaller trips such as the refurbished Palace Theater in Crossville that was built in the ’30s where we could take any DVD we wanted and the kids got a drink and popcorn. This only cost us $1 a student!
We made sure that we gave them opportunities to order food from a fast-food restaurant (some for the first time ever) and also to experience ordering and eating at what is called a “sit-down restaurant.” We took them to the university in the town closest to us, and the engineering department even conducted Wilson (the name of our school) Engineering Day at the university in which the students were shown all the civil and mechanical engineering experiments that were going on – just for our kids! Every year the 8th graders went on an overnight trip which included seeing sights, eating at a restaurant, and staying in a hotel. Truly eye-opening and wonderful experiences!
It’s All Education
I have been told by people from other schools that we took too many trips and that they were a waste of school funds and academic time. But our students learned important lessons on diversity and interacting with people different from themselves. They learned to ask questions in stores and communicate appropriately with adults and how to carry on a conversation with adults and other teens. They learned how to plan trips including the math behind it and their own responsibility of raising funds for such things.
The field trips that we took as kids are almost a thing of the past and many people feel that this should be up to the parents to give their students these experiences. But that is assuming all families have the funds, the time, or the interest in taking their children to places like these.
Challenges that seemed to be disadvantages in a rural community become advantages by pushing the teachers to find ways to give students opportunities to explore the world and expand their worldview.