After Decades In The Classroom, I’m Still Proud To Be A Rural Educator

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In the late 80s, embarking on my teaching career, every retired teacher said, “It can be challenging but the retirement is so worth it.” It did not take long to become a believer in the  “tough” part. What took longer was an appreciation for the rewards that come from helping students succeed, understanding the role the school plays in a rural community, and seeing those young people grow up to be successful adults in that same community. Eventually you see children of those students return to your classroom and that appreciation deepens for the opportunities to teach and coach, to contribute to that community. Yesterday I learned a student from my rookie year of teaching turned 50 years old. 50. Yeah, it can take a while.

Where does equity fit into the scheme of reaching a point where rewards outweigh challenges, where community is what you see AND what you feel, where retreat is not an option and retirement will be harder to do than it once seemed? I offer up that happens at a more significant ratio in our rural schools. 

The equity tilts towards rural education. Many school districts, especially the largest, in my state of Minnesota kept classrooms and buildings closed to students until slowly opening up with few months remaining. From my point of view, efforts to stay out of the buildings were far stronger than actions to get them open and serving students.

When the community needed them to find a way, they were not able to locate the solutions.

We had several weeks of distance learning leading into the Christmas break, but the rest of the school year has been in-person with my students.  We are all in the building but it looks a little different. Additional staff needed to be hired, an old building was reopened, the schedule changed. Our community needed us to find a solution and that is what mattered most.

Personally, a need for additional bus drivers due to reduced capacity levels for transportation means a bus route before and after school sandwiches my primary role of teaching . A typical day involves leaving the bus barn at 6:30 AM, getting to my classroom about ten minutes before class, and jumping in the bus after school to bring students home. This particular week featured driving for two basketball games and a hockey trip, making for several 16-hour days.  Last quarter I didn’t have a prep period because we had to change the schedule to maintain our courses amidst Covid precautions. Long days and quick weeks! When it is about students that I know personally, colleagues stepping up without complaints, and a community that supports our school…there is no question that it is worth it. If it was just about me, it wouldn’t be worth it. This is the fifth decade I have taught in and it is the busiest!

A larger locale might mean a higher salary and a chance for more notoriety but that doesn’t guarantee a better career as an educator. In the midst of current challenges connected to this pandemic, it appears that also means students would be unable to enter my classroom. 

In terms of equity, during the toughest of times, rural education offers up a clear advantage for support, inspiration, and opportunity.

Although the majority of my teaching has occurred in rural settings, serving on three different state boards for education has provided me with connections and insight of the differences and similarities. On a scale, rural education might be viewed as having less in terms of opportunities for students or advancement and enrichment for teachers. That belief leads to a narrative framing the metro as “the place to be” to get recognition as the best.

There are plenty of inequities in education but determining the quality of learning and teaching experiences is not as easy as gauging which setting is “bigger”.

Thoreau didn’t learn all about his pond in one day. 

Appreciation for the amazing rewards and qualities embedded in a rural teaching career can also happen within a day or two.

Our school district was allotted 21 doses of Covid vaccine for about 200 staff. A quarter century ago they removed my adrenal glands, rendering me immunodeficient with the advice, “Stay away from stress”. I have been teaching and coaching ever since with only one day missed for being sick. They didn’t let me out of the emergency room in time that day to get to school. I did make it to coach track practice however. Check out my TED Talk if you want the bigger story. The health factors put me in line for a dose and after school I drove 75 miles to get the shot. 

As I worked through the day at school I noticed a couple of things. Bloomington Schools was being forced back into distance learning two weeks after getting elementary students back in the buildings because transportation personnel were hit by Covid. A colleague from the metro seemed puzzled why I was getting a vaccine shot when the metro teachers were supposed to get it first, a point that didn’t sit right. We have been in-person the majority of the year, in contact with my classes during the day and other groups before and after school on the bus. The larger metro districts have been in distance learning basically the whole year and have expressed strong reluctance to return in person. So why should they get the vaccine before us out here…because they are the metro?

Fine. They are entitled to think that way. 

My vaccine dose arrived just prior to our second semester with new classes set to begin. My college credit course commenced with seniors who were sophomores the last time we were together. We hit the ground running because we knew each other well. Two students scored their 1,000th point in basketball that week, one had a doctor appointment. I know all that before they stepped in my classroom because we are a small school. Eleven in the class are children of fellow teachers or administrators in our school. That creates a level of accountability.

The higher level of accountability in my rural school adds value to my efforts and drives me to be a better teacher and person. Knowing my students well, their families, the places they work and play…and them knowing me, meant I could not stay home if there was any way we could be in school, vaccine or not.

I guarantee students are getting more out of their education in my classroom than a distance learning setting, in a bigger district, with a higher-paid teacher. 

We can talk about specific equity issues connected to funding and facilities but for the past year, getting students in school is the single most important task. Rural schools did this better than anywhere else, during the most difficult of times. In terms of equity, during the toughest of times, rural education offers up a clear advantage to teachers in terms of support, inspiration, and opportunity.

I applaud the many rural educators, school systems, and communities that have found a way to get this done. I am grateful to be there with you, and with my students!

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