How One Program Is Fighting To Solve Teacher Shortages In Rural Schools

Last April, when I was invited on to the Rural Matters podcast to talk with former Assistant Education Secretary John White, I argued that the recruitment and retention of high-quality teachers is at the heart of inequities in rural schools. Communities like mine have major shortages of high-quality science and math teachers, and in many cases, schools have to rely on long-term substitutes and emergency hires to staff those hard-to-fill positions.

But thanks to a new initiative from two Colorado universities, I have high hopes that more young teachers will do as I did and find their homes in a little country school somewhere.

Colorado College and the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs have just launched a new rural school “immersion” program designed to attract young candidates to communities they may not have considered before. Within the program, pre-service teachers travel to schools in remote areas of rural Colorado to see what education is like out in the sticks. It’s a win-win for everyone involved: the schools have a constant crop of potential candidates, pre-service teachers have new job opportunities, and the universities have learned more about the factors that may motivate more young people to work in rural schools.

Program director Robert Mitchell says the impact has been tremendous. “We have seen a noticeable increase in student interest in student teaching in rural locations as a result of this initiative,” Mitchell says.

“It’s quiet and peaceful,” student Emily Main said about the experience. “That’d be really nice to have … when there’s a hustle and bustle to be doing something from like 4 a.m. to 8 p.m., that can get old.”

In other words, “immersion” opportunities like this one could be a promising solution to teacher shortages in rural communities. And speaking from my own experiences, I think it’s something every teacher preparation program should look in to.

A Similar Experience Led Me To Love My Rural School

I have to admit, when I was going through college myself, I often chose my observation and practicum schools on location alone. I worked part-time in my college town and maxed out on college credits each semester, so I always opted to visit suburban and neighborhood schools that were nearby if I had the choice.

I knew I wanted to move back closer to my hometown for student teaching, but since I couldn’t work in any of the schools I had attended, I basically just requested my college to place me at whatever school they could find nearby. I landed in the most rural school I could imagine, a school where I can see wild turkey and deer from my classroom window on any day of the week, and it became the school I fell in love with. I still teach there now, and it’s all because of a serendipitous student teaching placement.

Any Teacher Prep Program Can Do It

The thing is, any teacher prep program can ensure that their pre-service teachers have experiences like mine. Universities don’t have to launch major research-based initiatives to get teaching candidates into diverse schools, they just have to find opportunities to build partnerships with the rural schools that desperately desire them.

If Kentucky can require 300+ classroom observation hours from every potential teaching candidate, I have no doubt that universities can do the heavy lifting to ensure that those observations are diverse. However, I’m not sure that’s happening. What kind of rules are there in place to make sure that every pre-service teacher is getting a well-rounded look at the profession?

I say that as a young teacher myself, who remembers having one required “urban” observation experience that lasted all of one school day. Without having some exposure to different school environments, and especially rural ones, getting more young people to consider non-traditional or remote settings will continue to be a Sisyphean task.

And the hardest part? No matter where they live, kids need effective teachers and great schools. Even in  Especially in rural schools.

So teacher prep programs, make room for another item on the to-do list. There’s a big, big world out there, and it’s time we start filling it with great teachers for all kids.

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