Illustration by Greg Mably
The Middle of Somewhere
The unique strengths of rural communities and why more teachers should consider working in them
In the wake of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential win, many political pundits and the media made pronouncements about rural America — where voters chose Trump by a 27-point margin — including that rural America is white America, and voters supported Trump because he appealed to their racist and nativist tendencies.
But rural educators say there’s a fundamental misunderstanding about rural America that continues to be perpetuated by people who know little about it, and to really understand rural America, the best place to start may be its schools.
“Rural communities often get overlooked by teachers for the glamour and glitz of larger metropolitan areas,” says Nathan Whitfield, Ed.M.’19, who has taught in both New York City and more recently, Helena, Arkansas. “The reality is that teachers are needed more in these rural schools than any other place. It doesn’t mean that students do not deserve quality teachers everywhere, but cities like Chicago and New York will never have problems drawing individuals to teach and live there.”
More so than in urban areas, where other institutions hold a dominant role, rural schools often are the nerve center of rural communities. When rural schools thrive, so do the towns and regions around them, says Mara Tieken, Ed.M.’06, Ed.D.’11, author of Why Rural Schools Matter and associate professor of education at Bates College in Maine. Rural schools are very different from urban schools in key ways, yet policymakers often assume that policies that work in urban and suburban schools will also work in rural education. It’s a grave error, educators say. “One thing that worries me about the recent attention to rural schools is that a lot of it is accompanied with this paternalistic attitude of ‘I’m going to tell you what you need to be doing’ or a real lack of understanding and the idea that what worked in an urban area will work here,” Tieken says.
Kathleen Jarman, Ed.M.’19, who spent three years as a college adviser in the former coalmining town of Nanticoke, in northeastern Pennsylvania, agrees. To support rural schools, rural teachers, and rural communities, what is needed are “more minds and a more nuanced conversation and to get resources and innovative work happening in these areas,” Jarman says, “instead of constantly diagnosing the problems from afar.”
Rural schools and communities have a number of strengths that outsiders typically overlook, including a very strong sense of community and lots of opportunity for teachers and other educators looking to make a difference.
“One thing I tell people all the time is, ‘If you’re not into Trump and you have ideas about certain people, the most radical form of social justice is to embrace the people you don’t have the kindest feelings about,’” says Sky Marietta, Ed.M.’08, Ed.D.’12, who in 2015 moved with her family from Cambridge to Harlan County, Kentucky, the area where she grew up, in large part to care for her dying mother.
Marietta says she and her family, including sons Harlan and Perry, and husband Geoff Marietta, Ed.M.’13, Ed.M.’15, have opportunities in Appalachia they could never have in Cambridge. They were able to buy a historic building downtown, used in part for community events, and work with their neighbors on a variety of education programs. She also likes the socioeconomic diversity to which her children are exposed and sees this as a plus for teachers considering moving to a rural community.
“The biggest reason I would urge someone to work in a rural area is that you have so much to learn. It would expand your understanding of the country,” Marietta says, “because I can guarantee you that very few people [outside of rural areas] work with kids whose parents are coal miners who voted for Trump.” Media understanding of this important part of America “is limited,” she says. Even a recent story in The New York Times about Harlan County, while “good,” missed something very important, she says. “They left out the hopefulness.”
From Appalachia to the Mississippi Delta to Midwest farmlands to native lands, rural schools serve 9 million students across the country, according to the Ed School’s Rural Educators Alliance, a student group that provides awareness of and support for rural education. Just as rural communities vary greatly depending on their geographic and cultural contexts, so do rural schools.
“There’s a saying: When you’ve seen one rural school, you’ve seen one rural school,” Tieken says. Yet policymakers often apply a one-size-fits-all approach that is devastatingly ineffective, even harmful, especially when they assume that urban and suburban education policies will succeed in areas where, for example, there is no internet service or no easy way to travel across vast distances.
Outsiders usually misunderstand the essential role that local schools play in the wellbeing of rural areas, where they are central to community cohesion and pride, as Tieken detailed in Why Rural Schools Matter. That’s why the trend of closing small rural schools in favor of sending students to regional schools is so baffling, says Tieken, who is currently studying the effects of school closures on three predominantly African American communities in the Mississippi Delta. While there is scant evidence that transporting students to regional schools automatically enhances academic performance or saves money, there is one clear result: closing local schools can harm the community.
“It’s amazing that politicians talk about supporting rural communities but they still have policies that close rural schools when we know rural schools are crucial to rural communities,” she says.
And while it’s true that rural areas face serious problems — job loss and economic devastation, lack of good healthcare and other vital services, the opioid epidemic — outside critics typically overlook the many assets, especially the strong sense of kinship and caring for one another that holds these places together and can make teaching in a rural area appealing.
“There is some really, really good work happening in rural places,” Tieken says, including around rural sustainability and rural equity. As educators, “we should be getting behind those good efforts and listening to people who live in rural areas and seeing their needs and strengths and what’s going well and how can we support that.”
Policymakers often assume rural areas and rural schools are white, and in many areas that is true. But about 20 percent of the nation’s 50 million rural residents are people of color, Tieken says, and in some areas, including the Deep South and on tribal lands, people of color and Native people predominate. The same is true of schools. Even in traditionally white areas, there is also a growing number of immigrant students, says Staci Cummins, Ed.M.’19, coleader of the Rural Educators Alliance, who worked for three years at the St. Francis Indian School on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
For example, in Nanticoke, Pennsylvania, which for generations has been homogenously white, there is a recent influx of black and Latinx families who left nearby cities to find affordable housing.
“A relatively rapid change in demographics in a historically isolated and tight-knit community, combined with the area’s economic woes, has led to social tensions in the community, which the school is not necessarily equipped to handle,” school is not necessarily equipped to handle,” Jarman says. Yet during her time at the high school, there was not a single teacher or administrator of color on staff, she adds.
The growing racial diversity is one of the biggest challenges facing rural schools, and yet “no one is talking about it,” Tieken says. This oversight is an enormous missed opportunity, she adds, because her research shows that “schools can be really important forces for either promoting equity or furthering inequality. I think rural schools are uniquely situated to promote racial equity,” not only in the educational opportunities they offer but as community centers where people interact across racial lines. “We need to capitalize on that opportunity.”
Marietta is not afraid to make a bold statement that may shock her Ed School colleagues: Despite Harlan County’s many problems, including few jobs and the opioid crisis, “people are much happier here than in Cambridge,” she insists, primarily because of the strong bond among residents and the strong sense of belonging and care for each other.
Twenty days after Marietta and her husband moved to Harlan County, a “radical” decision that perplexed their friends, she says, Marietta’s mother died of cancer. “People here embraced and loved us and supported us in a way that defied anything I could have expected,” she says.
Moreover, Marietta adds, “one of the things about an economy in transition is it opens up all these opportunities to do something, to have an impact in a way” unavailable in more developed parts of the country. Marietta has created an early childhood program as well as an arts program for the region. Her husband, former head of the century-old Pine Mountain Settlement School, is also president of the Harlan County Chamber of Commerce and deeply involved in economic development. “You can build things and make it happen.”
Other rural educators also emphasize the sense of community they find not only irresistible, and so different from city life, but an important leverage for school success.
“I think a lot of urban communities struggle with similar things, drugs and access to food and healthcare,” Cummins says, “but when everyone is struggling together, isolated from other people and places, it builds that community.”
Courtney Van Cleve, an Ed.L.D. candidate, spent seven years in Clarksdale, in the Mississippi Delta, as a principal and middle school teacher. In less than three years as principal of the Booker T. Washington Elementary School, Van Cleve oversaw a breathtaking turnaround in performance, from the school nearly being taken over by the state to receiving the highest rating for performance. How? Among other things, by leveraging community pride in the school.
“It was 100 percent without a doubt a testament to the efforts of our teachers, to parents really digging in to support their children, and a ton of community support,” says Van Cleve, who, along with others, made sure the school remained the center of community identity, including by hosting community events. “More than anything, whether in rural or urban schools, it’s important to have an environment where parents, guardians, and other student influencers feel not only welcomed but wanted at the school by the teachers, by the kids, by the principals themselves.” In a small community, “there is a true sense of fellowship, and it is breathtaking.”
Cummins says, “When I talk about rural communities, I think about knowing entire families, them walking in the door and me being able to talk to Grandma about the fry bread she makes that’s my favorite and talk about the kid’s kindergarten teacher whom I know. It’s a whole lifestyle, a way of being that feels so different from what I know my friends in cities experience.” Cummins worked as the gifted and talented program director in the St. Francis Indian School in South Dakota after teaching there. Her experience changed her life trajectory: After graduating from the Ed School, she says she will definitely return to a rural area.
“My job means families and love and care,” says Cummins, who grew up in urban St. Paul, Minnesota. “For some of my kids, me showing up every day means stability and survival because they can call me if they’re in trouble, and I’m a home they can visit if they need to get away.”
Yet despite the many benefits of teaching in rural area, there is also hardship. Access to services such as good healthcare, not to mention a gym or full-service grocery stores, often requires traveling long distances. It can be hard for a young teacher to have a vibrant social life, and for partnered teachers, it can be a challenge for their spouse or partner to land a job. And rural teachers earn, on average, $11,000 less per year than urban teachers and $13,000 less than suburban teachers, according to a Rural School and Community Trust 2017 report.
The past several years have witnessed a serious nationwide teacher shortage due to increased student populations, high rates of teacher attrition, and fewer people entering teaching, according to numerous studies. Between 2009 and 2014, there was a 35 percent decrease in enrollment in teacher prep programs, which translates to 240,000 fewer teachers in the pipeline, according to the Learning Policy Institute. The shortages are worst in special education, math, science, and bilingual education, the institute found, and in high-poverty schools.
For rural areas — so many of which are highpoverty — the struggle to fill teaching vacancies is particularly daunting, according to American Public Media Reports. In West Virginia, where the majority of counties are rural, unfilled positions for teachers more than doubled between 2013 and 2017, it found. With these gaping shortfalls, rural schools often resort to employing substitutes who aren’t certified to teach the subject they’re hired for — if they’re certified at all. In one county in West Virginia, the report found, students were forced to learn foreign languages online after the district gave up trying to find language teachers.
After her stint as principal, Van Cleve became a managing director of teacher leadership development with Teach For America in Mississippi because she wanted to determine whether the difficulty her elementary school faced in recruiting and retaining teachers was the same in other communities. “The answer was a resounding ‘yes.’ We found well over 700 teaching vacancies across 16 rural districts in the Mississippi Delta region,” Van Cleve says.
Numerous studies show that most teachers return to work in the areas where they grew up, so one answer may be increasing the homegrown pipeline. “Most teachers are likely to teach within 15 miles of where they graduated high school,” she says. Last year she worked with Mariel Novas, a second-year Ed.L.D. candidate and education leader in Boston, on a plan for expanding homegrown educator pipelines through residency-based and performancebased licensure models. Based on their work, the Mississippi Department of Education was awarded a grant from the Kellogg Foundation to pursue those initiatives through the Mississippi Teacher Residency Program. Part of the grant will recruit 35 teachers, pay their undergraduate tuition, and place them in the classroom of a highly skilled or board-certified mentor. The grant also helps with licensing and these teachers make a three-year commitment to remain teaching in their districts.
Increasing salaries for rural teachers and providing housing — since rentals are often hard to find in isolated areas — are other ways to attract teachers, suggests the Learning Policy Institute. The University of Northern Colorado recently launched a rural education initiative that, among other things, offers stipends for students while they student-teach in rural areas, if they pledge to become rural educators. Alaska, where most schools are in geographically isolated areas, was plagued with high rates of teacher turnover. The Alaska Statewide Mentor Project connects new teachers with high-quality mentors via technology and has raised retention rates among early-career teachers from 68 to 79 percent.
And the positives — the stunningly beautiful vistas in many rural areas, the low cost of living, which helps when paying off student loans, and most important, the tremendous sense of community — are worth considering.
“I wish that young people thinking about becoming educators knew about the level of support they will have as humans in rural communities,” Van Cleve says. “It is incredibly tough and challenging work to be a first-year teacher, but the work can be a lot easier when you have neighbors who will see that your lights are on way too late at night and say, ‘I made you some food.’ And when things go sideways, as they do in life sometimes, with a death in the family or you’re sick, there is a belief, at least within my rural communities and schools, that you have to take care of your family, yourself, and your community.”
Marietta says that if she were speaking to an Ed School student, “I would say rural education is very important, but not for the reasons you imagine. Being a teacher is one of the best, highest-paying, most stable positions locally, so there are some phenomenal local teachers. I think my kids are getting a better education than in Boston.”
And for educators interested in truly understanding a major aspect of American life, working in a rural area is an invaluable experience.
“Honestly, there is a beauty to rural America that is difficult to explain,” Whitfield says. “Knowing that you work in the same town, shop at the same grocery store, and frequent many of the same functions as your students is more beneficial than one can imagine.”
Living and teaching in rural America “is uplifting,” Marietta adds. “That might be the thing that surprises people the most. I’m glad to live here and that my children are enrolled in local public school. One of the reasons it is so uplifting is because I have such a range of friends, and I see how we aren’t that much different. People really fundamentally want the same things, and when you step away from divisiveness of politics and spend time around people, you get to see the beauty of humanity — and how much we share common goals and hopes for our country and communities and families.” And our schools.
ELAINE MCARDLE, A WRITER BASED IN PORTLAND, OREGON, IS COAUTHOR OF THE NEUROSCIENTIST WHO LOST HER MIND.