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Preparing Teachers for Rural Classrooms: Why it Matters and How to Get Started

Preparing Teachers for Rural Classrooms: Why it Matters and How to Get Started

Posted on: March 5, 2021

Written by Devon Brenner, co author with Amy Price Azano, Jayne Downey, Karen Eppley and Ann K. Schulte of Teaching in Rural Places.

Think of a rural place. What do you see? Fields? Forests? Mountain streams? Who lives there? How did they come to be there? Imagine a rural school in that place. Who are the students? What are they learning? Now, picture yourself as a teacher in that school. Are you excited to be there and ready to get to work? What do you need to know, what skills and abilities do you need to thrive in this rural school?  

There are many good reasons to live and teach in a rural community. These advantages vary, but generally, rural teaching jobs provide the opportunity to be close to (or located in) places with great natural beauty or outdoor recreation. Small rural communities often provide chances to build get to know students in both school and out-of-school settings and build strong relationships. Rural teachers may have greater autonomy in the classroom, numerous opportunities for collaboration and leadership, and greater variety at work—such as teaching multiple subjects instead of the same prep all day long or coaching. Above all, rural teachers can make a huge impact for the students they teach.

In spite of these and many other advantages, rural schools typically have challenges recruiting and retaining new teachers. Rural schools often have trouble filling open positions (especially for content areas and special education). Once hired, many new rural teachers do not stay. Turnover rates are higher in rural schools than in other settings.

Rural students need, and deserve, effective teachers—well-prepared teachers who understand and value the important role of schools in the life of rural places. This is especially true for rural schools that serve students of color and students from low-income families, where staffing challenges are the greatest. Although many teacher education programs prepare teachers who will go on to work in rural schools, few teacher educators explicitly address place or rurality in teacher preparation. In spite of the fact that about half of all school districts, one-third of schools, and one-fifth of students are rural there are few resources for teacher education that focus on teaching in rural schools. (Compare the lack of resources for rural teaching to the number of books, articles, and teacher education programs that focus on urban teaching.)

My colleagues (Amy Azano, Jayne Downey, Karen Eppley, and Ann Schulte) and I believe that ensuring that rural students have committed, well-prepared teachers is an issue of equity and justice for rural communities. Because we are committed to this belief, we have been working to identify strategies that teacher educators can implement to help prepare teachers for rural placements. These include:

1. Encourage teachers to consider rural placements.

Many preservice teachers may not have considered living or working in rural places. This may be exacerbated by negative stereotypes about rural places in the media. Young adults from suburban and urban places may be discouraged from considering work in rural places, and youth who are from rural places may learn that the only way to succeed is to leave. These concerns can be exacerbated in our teacher education programs, which are often located in larger, more urban settings and led by faculty who are newcomers to the states and regions where they work to prepare teachers. One strategy to combat this is to design rural field experiences so that new teachers meet the students, families, and people in rural communities, as well as support understandings of the complexities of a place, so they can begin to picture themselves working in a rural school.

2. Prepare new teachers to learn about the place where they will teach.

At first glance, rural places may seem to have fewer resources for teaching and learning. However, with a little resourcefulness and an open mind, teachers can identify ample resources to support teaching and learning. Rural communities often have strong institutions—faith-based institutions, social and service groups like the Grange or a knitting guild, local or municipal elected officials or government agencies, extension agents from the state’s land-grant university, tourism opportunities, historical sites, and more. A community walk or a community study activity is a structured way of learning about the place where you might teach that can reveal numerous opportunities for collaboration, field trips, guest speakers, or new social contacts. These community-based learning activities can be modeled in teacher preparation, and can help new teachers find strengths to celebrate and resources for planning and teaching, in addition to community needs.

3. Support the development of a critical understanding about rural places.

Teacher candidates may be surprised by how the reality of rural schools differs from what they imagined. Teacher candidates may think rural schools are quaint and idyllic, simpler and safer. Or they may see rural schools as places that are insular and intolerant or backwards and beset by poverty. None of these is true. Quality rural teacher education supports teachers in developing new and complex understandings of rural communities in much the same way that quality urban teacher preparation programs prepares teachers for the unique challenges and benefits of urban placements. Existing beliefs (and even personal experiences) must be interrogated alongside the historical, cultural, and sociocultural characteristics that make up any rural community--including issues of race, economics, and beliefs about place. This is true both for preservice teachers who are from a rural place, and for teachers who will be newcomers to the communities where they teach. Developing critical understanding of place, such as investigating how the place came to be and learning about the history of settlement, colonization, migration and immigration in a place, can provide important information for understanding the place that currently is. When teacher educators provide teachers with tools to think critically about place, they support education that is culturally relevant and that helps students understand the wider world and how the norms of their communities compare to other places.

4. Prepare new teachers to learn about and build on local knowledge and expertise.

All teachers should be reflective practitioners who collect information from their classroom to inform how they make instructional decisions. For rural teachers in small school districts with few colleagues at their grade level or in their subject area, this type of individual inquiry may be even more necessary. Traditional educational research often does not take into account unique rural contexts such as multi-age classrooms or teaching multiple siblings from the same family. Rigorous inquiry about how students learn can keep teachers intellectually curious and support rural learners. In particular, rural students may bring unique funds of knowledge and ways of seeing the world that may not always be valued or represented in standardized curriculum. Rural students may have unique ways of being that are local and specific. Rural-focused teacher education can help new teachers learn how to identify and leverage students’ unique knowledge to develop place-conscious instruction that both lifts up students’ ways of knowing and supports students in developing a more complex understanding of the world.

These steps are just a beginning. These and other topics are addressed in our new book, Teaching in Rural Places: Thriving in Classrooms, Schools and Communities. In this book we discuss what it means to teach for social justice in diverse rural classrooms and provide concrete strategies and numerous real-world examples from across the U.S. that are drawn from our experiences as rural teachers and teacher educators.