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Rural Schools: Doctoral Marshal Mara Tieken

After graduating from college, Mara Tieken, Ed.D.’11, knew she wanted to teach in a rural school. So, she headed to a rural area in Tennessee, where she soon discovered that there wasn’t much out there to aid rural teachers in the classroom.

“I was getting frustrated with education reform and how absent rural schools were in all the books and handbooks I was reading. None seemed to pick up [on the fact] that many issues were similar to those in urban areas,” says Tieken, who served as one of two doctoral marshals at HGSE’s commencement exercises.

One in every five children attends a rural school, yet these rural children and their schools and communities are rarely a part of debates about education policy and reform.

“When we do hear about these rural communities, they are often stereotyped, typecast through nostalgic portrayals of one-room schoolhouses or starkly negative portrayals of backwardness and provincialism,” Tieken says. “They are also frequently assumed to be all-white, though nearly 20 percent of rural residents are non-white and this proportion is growing.”

Eager to make an impact, Tieken knew she needed to go back to school herself in order to add a different voice to the education policy and research debate. As a doctoral student at HGSE, Tieken has completed the dissertation, “Our only hope: The roles of schools in two rural Southern communities,” a study of one school in the Arkansas hills and another in Arkansas’ Delta region.

“With my study, I hoped to provide more authentic narratives of rural education, incorporating voices of rural community members and focusing, in particular, on how rural schools shape the racial landscapes of their towns and how they construct a particular community,” she says.

What Tieken discovered is that these rural schools can bridge the racial gaps between white and black communities in some rural settings, while in others – ones still deeply shaped by their plantation histories – these gaps seem too long-standing for a public school to bring about a meaningful integration. Through observations and interviews with residents, educators, and policymakers, Tieken discovered that these schools provide a shared identity, bringing together a particular community, regardless of race and actually force these communities to fight the state for greater educational autonomy and control. These findings speak to the important roles that schools play in rural settings, suggesting how they can possibly contribute to a more integrated society and sustain a rural community. Given the centrality of these schools in these communities, they also provide a model for community engagement, useful to both rural and urban educators and school leaders.

Following graduation, Tieken will head to a tenure-track position at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, where she will continue to focus her research on rural schools. However, Tieken won’t forget her years at HGSE.

“HGSE has given me, of course, the concrete skills and knowledge base that I’ll be using going forward – research and teaching skills,” she says. “But I remember what I was told when I first entered HGSE: Look around you. The other people in the doctoral program are going to be such a resource for you; develop those relationships. I think, more than anything, those relationships are probably the most valuable part of my HGSE experience, and I’m really thankful for them.”

For a story on the work of doctoral marshal John Papay

For full Commencement coverage


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