As schools across the country struggle to find teachers willing to work in low-income rural communities, a growing number are turning to innovative solutions that bring teachers to students instead of the other way around. State and school districts in the Northeast are leading the way: Maine, for example, has been offering financial incentives to high school graduates who agree to teach in rural schools for at least three years, while New York State has announced that it will partner with Teach for America to recruit teachers in the West. To help improve the teacher-to-student ratio, New York also has plans to expand a program that brings qualified teachers from overseas.
Though there is no federal mandate requiring schools to provide teachers for students living in rural areas, many school districts have hired teachers from the local community out of necessity. However, these teachers often have to work multiple jobs to make ends meet. To better support these educators, the state of Georgia launched the Grow Your Own Teacher program in 2013, which aims to help rural communities develop a sustainable, local source of educators. By supplying teachers with the necessary resources and training, the state hopes to not only improve student outcomes but also retain teachers in these areas by making the job more financially viable.
Why don’t the people who live there teach there? This question, posed in a recent article in the Hechinger Report, is a disturbing reminder of the unique and ongoing challenges rural communities face when it comes to school staffing.
Like rural America itself, the teacher shortage is often mentioned but rarely understood. Staff shortages are less common than the average observer suspects, and when they occur, it’s not for lack of warm bodies in the classroom. On the other hand, a teacher shortage is more likely to occur when there are not enough qualified professionals in a particular region or community.
In-demand fields, such as STEM, are often the primary source of staff shortages. This makes sense: many mathematics and science enthusiasts forgo the teaching profession because they know they can earn much more in the business world than in the school system.
There is also a growing need for quality ESL teachers in areas like Texas and California, where there are many English language learners. However, the demographic differences between students in rural areas in the western United States and those in Vermont, for example, make it clear that there is no shortage of teachers in rural areas.
Of course, there are cases where the teacher shortage is a pervasive and chronic problem – in many cases these are communities at the extreme edge of the rural spectrum. But what about the viral posts on social media about teachers leaving the profession en masse, leaving only the promise of illiteracy, inability to do math, and all the other ills of teaching? I don’t think so.
This does not mean that the teacher shortage should not be taken seriously. Teachers are often cited as the most important factor in school performance, and when they are absent, students are less likely to receive effective instruction from qualified teachers.
However, we have often seen poorly conceived and generalized approaches to community member recruitment fail. If the nuances underlying the teacher shortage are not understood, it will be much harder for policymakers to adequately address the shortage.
Home Future Trainers
What steps can districts take to end staffing shortages in their communities? Home growing programs are promising because they are designed with these nuances in mind. These initiatives to address the teacher shortage by training local students to become promising candidates for the teaching profession have already proven successful in specific examples across the country.
In Kentucky, organizations like GoTeachKY and Educators Rising are helping rural school districts identify the future workforce while students are still in high school so they can earn teaching credentials and college credits before graduation. In Montana, public investment in in-service training programs has been shown to benefit tribal schools with high teacher turnover.
This is not to say that future local educators are a panacea for recruitment problems, as the Hechinger report notes. Many rural communities are education deserts, and those who leave to pursue higher education are not easily persuaded to hinder their future earnings by returning to teach. But as more and more states adopt their own cultural laws, rural school officials hope to prove them wrong. Will that be enough?
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