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Commentary: Teachers Play an Important Role in Rural Communities

Tammy LaPrad

Over the past six months I have had the wonderful opportunity to talk with area high school students.  My research in studying the rural teacher shortage crisis through the perceptions of high school students was a natural extension of my commitment to teaching.  As of October 2019, according to the Illinois State Board of Education there were reportedly over 4,000 unfilled positions in our Illinois public schools. Most of them are classroom teachers; many of them in rural school districts. Implications of this shortage are wide-reaching for rural schools that struggle to recruit and retain qualified teachers as positions remain unfilled or are subject to frequent turnover.

My own family has had no shortage of teachers. Whether teaching rural migrant children or in early desegregated schools or supporting high school students and first generation college students in finding and using their voices, these women modeled to me the importance of love and empathy in teaching, to be fierce defenders of education and life-long seekers of knowledge.

These teacher mentors and others I have had the privilege to work with or know, continually remind me that experiencing a deep understanding about the purpose of teaching can be a valuable gift as well as a measure of a good life and how to best be of use in one’s community. In my current study, however, I found a theme among the young people I talked with. The teaching profession no longer seems to “check all the boxes” for the current narratives regarding the meaning of success or a good life.

Most people agree that teachers matter. A LOT. When asked, folks often cite teachers as having a major impact in their lives. There are those teachers that had a love for their content that was infectious, or ones that were part of their extracurricular activities or even the teachers that were “so hard” yet everyone was later grateful because they learned more in that class than in any other. In all these ways, and many more, teachers matter (Hattie, 2003).

Teachers’ roles and teaching profession perceptions were the subject of the 2018 50th Annual Phi Delta Kapan’s PDK Poll, Teaching: Respect but Dwindling Appeal. While those polled largely trusted and supported teachers, over 50% of the respondents indicated they would not want their children to be a part of the teaching profession citing it as undervalued, underpaid and too stressful.

The interesting aspect of this poll is how it accentuates the positive narrative of the teaching profession as an ideal, but some of the realities of the profession as undesirable. I found the same conflicting perspectives among the high school students I interviewed. It was generally a shared belief among participants that teaching is a valued  and respected historically revered profession , however, it was not portrayed as a desirable one.

Additionally, becoming and remaining a teacher, especially for women,  has become more costly as the price of higher education has increased and teacher wages have lost ground comparatively in the labor market. Gender gaps in wages are also an issue, as the teaching profession remains dominated by women, who compared to other working women have experienced the largest gap( 15.6% in 2017). (Allegreto & Mishel, 2018).

To further illustrate how important teachers are for rural communities, in Sonia Nieto’s 2015 article, “Still Teaching in Spite of It All” teachers highlight why they persist in teaching. The teachers featured in Nieto’s article remained hopeful because they were confident in the role they played in society, their communities, and in their students’ lives (Nieto, 2015). In a  broader understanding, a teacher’s sphere of influence is important in more than the individual acts of “mattering.” Schools are critical to the sustainability of rural communities and teachers are the core of the strength and vitality of rural schools.

According to the Rural Schools Collaborative, there is a “symbiotic relationship” between rural schools and rural communities, and if we continue to lose rural teachers without replacing them with teachers specifically qualified both in specific areas of need and with a strong sense of rural place, rural school districts and rural communities will continue to suffer.  

If students find that being a teacher conflicts with the messages of what it means to be successful or to have a good life, who will want to enter this profession and why would they do so in a rural community. In my opinion, the current teacher shortage is just as much a crisis in the narratives regarding the purpose of teaching, as it is a lack of teachers. This certainly deserves further study, which I am planning to continue. Understanding the history of rural progress and its implications in our schools and communities is central as I continue to explore the ethos rural communities can create to not just survive, but to thrive.

Public schools can be the driving force in the endeavor to define rural identity and culture in rural communities. Would our young people want to be a part of this purpose? I think so. 

Dr. Tammy LaPrad is a Professor of Educational Studies at Monmouth College.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Western Illinois University or Tri States Public Radio. 

Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.