Reading about new rural teacher recruitment initiatives is like watching a sitcom romance unfold. I want to hope for the best, but I know better.
The latest display of this comes from a new initiative brewing down in Alabama where state leaders are focused on recruiting math and science teachers. This $3 million effort, called the Rural Schools Accelerator, uses a remote model that partners virtual instructors with local, on-the-ground teachers to help fill teaching voids.
It’s a stopgap measure—one that was never intended to replace the value of having effective, fully certified math and science teachers in classrooms. But it’s also a strategy predicated on the idea that eventually, a cavalry of new teachers will come.
The problem? They probably won’t.
Experts, policy wonks, and talking heads have explored a blue million different angles on this issue of rural teacher recruitment, yet the real heart of the matter always seems to be neglected. College graduates, by and large, don’t want to live in rural areas.
It’s a harsh truth, perhaps, but one that has become increasingly evident. Roughly 90% of all college students end up in urban areas upon graduating, with more than 60% settling in metro areas with over a million residents. And because the traditional pathway to teacher licensure usually involves attending a four-year college or university—the kinds of institutions that aren’t commonly found in small-town America—even those students with rural ties aren’t guaranteed to return.
That doesn’t mean that rural communities themselves are to blame, despite the prevalence of so many negative tropes and stereotypes.
“It’s not because of the communities,” said UAB Teach director Paulette Evans. “They’re beautiful communities, beautiful people, but they’re so rural that they’re not really connected to a metro area.” These young, bright-eyed graduates are seeking the kind of lifestyles that only cities can offer, and convincing them to move to one-stoplight towns just isn’t going to happen.
Accordingly, policymakers have to rethink the nature of this beast called rural teacher recruitment. If prospective teachers won’t come to our communities, school districts are going to have to grow their own.
Grow-your-own initiatives have made headlines before, but as more states have tried tackling this recruitment issue, their value is only becoming clearer. Organizations like GoTeachKY and Educators Rising have won praise in Kentucky for helping rural school districts identify their future workforce as early as high school. There, students are able to explore teaching and earn college credit before they even graduate. In Montana, state investment in “grow-your-own” programs have proven beneficial for tribal schools where teacher attrition has been high.
When prospective teachers have ties to the communities they would be working in, it makes it more likely that they will stick around. It’s also a far more fruitful approach than waiting around for the cavalry to show up.
But while the popularity of these programs is growing, it may not be fast enough. It may be several years before we see the full picture of COVID-19’s impact on retirement. Meanwhile, only nine states fund grants to support districts’ efforts in developing grow-your-own programs.
There are no silver bullets in education, which means policymakers have to work smarter, not harder. If teachers won’t come to our communities, growing our own may be the smartest option we have.
Garris Stroud is an award-winning ELA educator, author, and advocate from rural Western Kentucky. He is a former Hope Street Group Kentucky State Teacher Fellow and member of the Kentucky Education Commissioner’s Teacher Advisory Council (TAC).