Rural Educators Request Voice in Federal Plans for Handicapped
Tucson--Like educators everywhere, the 200 members of the Rural Education Association who gathered here last week are worried about the next round of federal budget cuts, but much of the conference talk was about a problem they face regardless of what occurs in Washington.
The problem is "teacher recruitment and retention"--getting qualified teachers to come to, and stay in, isolated rural areas that for a variety of reasons are not attractive to young professionals.
According to Doris Helge, director of the National Rural Project (nrp) at Murray State University in Kentucky, 94 percent of all participating states in an nrp study had "severe difficulties" recruiting and retaining qualified staff. Some states have estimated a teacher-turnover rate of 30 to 50 percent annually.
Ms. Helge, whose specific concern is the problem of retaining qualified special-education teachers for rural areas, is working on a four-year research project funded by the U.S. Department of Education. For that project she is currently developing methods to prepare teachers in advance for the experience of teaching in a rural environment.
The problem, according to Ms. Helge and others, is that many teachers go to rural areas without a clear idea of what the social and cultural life will be like.
One nrp study showed, she said, that the lack of social opportunities in rural settings discouraged teachers more than the lack of professional opportunities. In addition to those factors, other educators said, teachers leave rural schools because of extreme weather conditions, inadequate housing, low salaries, conflicts with local citizens, and, in the words of James Kiley, secretary and treasurer of the Nevada Superintendents' Association, "because there's absolutely nothing out there--not even a bowling alley."
He spoke of the difficulties he faces in recruiting new teachers. "What happens is, people come to Nevada for interviews, thinking they know what an isolated town in Nevada is like. They don't know," he asserted, "what an isolated town in Nevada is like."
The problem begins, Mr. Kiley said, at the interview stage. "I've got to make sure people know what they're getting into before they even come out for an interview," he explained. "We can't pay for their transportation. They're making an investment just coming out. They need to know what it's going to be like."
Tales circulate, Ms. Helge said, about people who are flown to Alaska for interviews, "taking one look, and not getting off the plane."
Ms. Helge outlined several "recruitment strategies" that she thinks can be used to prepare teachers for a successful transition into rural life. It is important to emphasize, for ex6ample, "intrinsic " rather than "extrinsic" reasons for teaching in a rural area, she said.
Too often, recruitment efforts concentrate on salary, facilities, and equipment, she continued. They should focus instead on the qualities for which rural areas are traditionally known: a strong sense of community, friendliness, and a willingness to quickly accept newcomers.
A rural recruiter should carefully consider, Ms. Helge said, whether the candidate is going to fit into the local rural culture--a "common sense" idea that is too often not taken into consideration. "And it's important to remember," she noted, "that 'rural' doesn't mean the same thing everywhere. Rural Maine is a lot different from rural Louisiana."
"Creativity" in marketing these differences, and the special features of geography, community, local cuisine, and "community spirit" that still mark rural America, is a skill recruiters need to develop, according to Ms. Helge.
Ms. Helge is establishing a computerized information system on the problems of rural-teacher recruitment and retention. She has also launched an organization, the American Council on Rural Education (acre).