We Need To Talk About Teacher Turnover in Rural America

I came across an article last week about the schools in rural McDowell County, West Virginia, where daily school life is grinding. Teacher and substitute shortages there are chronic and turnover is high nearly every year. Poverty is widespread, and it’s not uncommon for students to lose parents and loved ones to drug abuse. For the teachers who manage to tough it out, teaching students about coping skills and consequences has become just as important as teaching the content material.

If you live in a rural area, and especially if you have school-aged kids, I suspect you’ll recognize some of these issues from your own experiences. The truth is that this isn’t just a West Virginia thing — rural areas across the US are filled with stories like McDowell County. Being from an area like that myself, I’m pretty grateful for the great rural teachers I had in school, who loved their students and their challenging profession. The issue though? In rural areas, teachers like that are too often the minority.

The Numbers Aren’t Good…

There was some really shocking data that came from the McDowell County story, and while I don’t want to get too bogged down in numbers, they’re worth addressing. The county has 254 teachers, but according to the article, it still has 25 positions that aren’t filled. What’s worse, McDowell County often resorts to hiring substitute teachers to full-time positions to make up for an average loss of about a dozen licensed teachers per year. It’s just that hard to find quality teachers to replace them in such a high-poverty area. Substitute teachers, bless their hearts, typically don’t have the knowledge and training needed to be effective in the classroom. As the superintendent put it in the interview, “We’re taking the least-experienced people and putting them in the highest-risk school[s] in the state of West Virginia. How successful do you think that’s going to be?” Given that McDowell County’s schools rank last in the state, we know that this approach isn’t working.

This is by no means an isolated incident, though. The poorest, most rural districts often take the hardest blow from teacher shortages, so the story of McDowell is actually much larger than just a little West Virginia county alone. Rural North Carolina has struggled for years with teacher shortages, including core subjects like math and science. In a 2017 study, Tennessee was ranked in the bottom 10 among the worst states for education, with teacher shortages being cited as one of the major factors. Here in Kentucky, a multitude of districts across the state are classified by the U.S. Department of Education as “critical shortage areas,” and estimates suggest that nearly 1 in 5 current Kentucky teachers are already eligible to retire.  Imagine living in one of these critical shortage regions — with a serious deficit of high-quality teachers, who would be teaching your kids?

…But The Impact Is Worse

With rural areas like McDowell County facing massive shortages and high turnover, students simply cannot receive the quality of education that they need. The heartbreaking thing is that students often know that more deeply than the adults they’re with everyday. Because so many teachers are leaving McDowell, students there often avoid building relationships with their teachers because they realize they’ll be gone in a year anyway. Teachers are valuable role models in all communities, but especially in rural areas, and it’s not healthy at all for students to feel like they need to “build barriers” to avoid being hurt by a one-and-done teacher. Not only does that instability lead to lower student success, it also prevents students from forming important bonds and developing positive relationships with their teachers.

I don’t really know what all rural America is doing to try to retain good teachers in their schools, and that fact alone should probably compel us to begin more conversations about rural education reform. It might not be clear what the answer is yet, but we have to at least acknowledge this crisis before we can begin to fix it. For the sake of rural students, it’s not an issue we can afford to ignore.


Photo by Tyler Cipriani, CC-Licensed.

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