Expanding Our Thinking about Recruiting and Retaining Effective Educators for Rural Areas

By Cortney Rowland, Center on Great Teachers and Leaders, Jun 29, 2017

Education research and policy meetings almost always address the notion that “context matters” to some degree. But Battelle for Kids (BFK) put context center stage at its Rural Education National Forum held in Columbus, Ohio, in October. Jeanette Walls, author of the book, The Glass Castle, shared stories about growing up poor in rural West Virginia and poverty’s profound impact on her life. Jessica Meacham, National Rural Teacher of the Year, discussed how her rural Wisconsin district used its limited resources to leverage relationships and engage the community to launch and sustain relatively small projects that together provide a constellation of additional learning opportunities for students.

The numbers are important. Nearly 25 percent of America’s students live in rural areas. The Rural Family Economic Success Action Network reports that almost 40 percent of children living in poverty in 2012 were in rural areas. Students in rural areas are slightly less likely than urban and suburban kids to pursue postsecondary education. And rural schools and districts often struggle to recruit and retain effective teachers. (AIR’s REL Midwest has compiled recent research on teacher effectiveness in rural areas.)

Forum attendees gained a better understanding of the rural context and the kinds of strategies that can be employed to ensure that all rural students have equitable access to quality teachers and leaders. Conversations about how to do this have long centered on financial or housing incentives, as teachers and education leaders often get paid less than they would in cities and suburbs.

Grow-your-own programs also have received a lot of attention as a strategy for addressing teacher recruitment in rural areas. These programs identify residents in rural communities who wish to become teachers, and then support their training and development.

Well and good, but I came away from the BFK meeting convinced that expanding access to effective teachers and leaders in rural areas is more nuanced than that. Here are three takeaways that help explain why:

  • The word of the day is collaboratives. Rural districts can leverage each other’s strengths when they work together and share best practices. In the Ohio Appalachian Collaborative (OAC), 21 rural districts working with BFK are developing and implementing a comprehensive approach to transformational change in rural education. The aim is to strengthen and leverage educator effectiveness to accelerate college and career readiness for every student. There is power in numbers—districts collaboratively implement educational innovations, share and generate resources, influence policy, and build a community toward shared goals. Collaboratives can expand their reach and widen the net of options for addressing contextually specific education needs. For example, the recent growth of technology in rural areas might allow a group of schools or districts to share a “virtual” teacher for several periods a day, giving more students access to instruction they might not get otherwise.
  • Being an effective teacher always means fostering hope in students, but perhaps especially among students in isolated, often poor, rural areas. The 2013 Gallup Student Poll found a connection between hope and engagement—70 percent of hopeful students also were emotionally engaged in their learning.  In a session called “Mindset Matters: Cultivating Hope, Engagement, and Student Success,” Jamie Meade, a managing director at BFK, made an excellent case for training and supporting teachers and other school personnel, particularly in rural areas, to incorporate hope into instruction and student support as an evidence-based strategy for improving learning.
  • Be more thoughtful about how branding is used to recruit teachers and leaders. In an article about their Rural Teacher Residency Program at California State University Chico, Ann Schulte states, “A lot of the literature about rural education is really deficit based: ‘They’re backward, you have to leave a rural community to make it.’ We work a lot on trying to help [candidates see those strengths], whether they come from a rural or urban or suburban background, because sometimes people come from those [rural] communities and they have a negative perception of their community and say ‘I left because I needed to get out.’” Her point is that teaching in rural areas can offer a great deal, such as more opportunity to connect with students, parents, and the community. BFK has worked with districts to develop a branding approach that positively contributes to overall recruitment efforts.

My takeaway? Let’s stop batting around the same old ideas about how to build and sustain a workforce of effective teachers and leaders for rural areas, and instead think more critically about what teaching, leading, and learning in rural contexts really looks like and how best to target rural education needs.

As the GTL Center continues to support states and districts in implementing their plans to ensure equitable access to effective teachers and leaders, we are committed to learning and sharing more about how to successfully approach this work in the rural context. 

Now, it’s your turn. We want to hear your thoughts.

  • What do you think has been missing from the discussion about recruiting and retaining teachers and leaders in rural areas?
  • What strategies have been effective for recruiting educators to schools in rural areas of your state?
  • What does “context matters” mean when it comes to working in the rural education community?

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