The award is open to all rural teachers, and candidates are nominated by their state affiliate organization of the national group. A committee reviews the applicants and selects the winner based on criteria such as the impact the teacher has had on student achievement, demonstration of excellence as a member of the rural community, commitment to lifelong learning, and leadership.
John Hill, executive director of the Purdue University-based national association, said it’s important to recognize all teachers, but rural teachers in particular face unique challenges and can be models of successful instruction in multi-grade classrooms, designing lessons with limited resources, and using community resources to enrich classroom experiences.
I asked Kristi if she’d be willing to answer a few questions about her background and views on rural education, and many thanks to her for being gracious enough to respond. Here’s what she had to say.
Tell me about your background.
I graduated from Oklahoma Panhandle State University in 1985 with my bachelor’s degree in home economics. A new bank was opening in Spearman, Texas, and my husband was offered a job so we moved. When I realized it was going to be difficult for me to get a home economics teaching job—Spearman had only one home economics position at the high school—I went back to Oklahoma Panhandle State University and earned my elementary teaching degree.
I taught 1st grade for 15 years, and I’m in my eighth year teaching Reading Recovery, which is a short-term intervention of one-on-one tutoring for low-achieving 1st graders. This past summer, I completed my master’s degree in education leadership from Northwestern Oklahoma State University.
Tell me about where you teach.
About 3,500 people live in Spearman, which is in the Texas Panhandle about 90 miles north of Amarillo. There are three small communities in our county and only one stoplight! Spearman Independent School Districtis one of the largest employers in the county, and about 800 students are enrolled in the school district.
Gus Birdwell Elementary and Spearman Junior High are under one roof separated by a cafeteria and gymnasium, and the high school is across town. The elementary school has about 440 students in grades prekindergarten through 5th. About 29 percent of our students are white, and 70 percent are Hispanic; 70 percent are low-income, and 36 percent are limited-English-proficient.
Why did you want to teach in Spearman?
By the time I started teaching, my oldest daughter was in 2nd grade and my middle daughter was in kindergarten. I was blessed to get a job in the community in which we were choosing to raise our children; I have never regretted that decision.
What do you think is the biggest rural-school issue that is not getting enough attention?
Many rural schools are struggling to keep their doors open due to lack of adequate funding. The attitudes of some people are small schools are “too expensive.” Rural schools are being forced to be extremely creative in meeting the needs of their students while having to work with less funding.
What do you think is the biggest advantage of being a rural school teacher?
One advantage of being a rural school teacher is the ability to follow your students throughout their schooling. Several years ago, we asked students, with the help of their parents, to make a time capsule. These time capsules included letters from parents, grandparents and other family members, and each child chose items they wanted to include. Twelve years later, the same 1st grade teachers, including myself, passed the time capsules out to the seniors who had attended 1st grade in Spearman. Only in a rural school are you able to follow a group of individuals for 12 years.
Another advantage of being a rural school teacher is the respect parents and students have for the administration and teachers. The teaching staff often is stable, and that offers parents and students a sense of security. Many parents in our community went to school here, and their children are being taught by some of their same teachers.
What do you think is the biggest impediment to improving rural schools such as the one where you teach?
It is difficult to provide all of the needed interventions, services, and teaching specialists for students. And as more services are needed, more space is required.
How can rural schools recruit more talented teachers to work there?
Rural communities and schools have to work together. In a rural area, the school is an integral part of the community. When citizens take pride in their town and school, that is an attractive quality.
We also have to grow our own. In Spearman, we have had several talented teachers who started as paraprofessionals. We’ve encouraged them, and many have returned to college and earned a teaching degree. Now they are among the many talented teachers in our district. It our responsibility to encourage our own to follow their dreams and, hopefully, some of those will want to give back to their community in which they grew up.
What do you hope to do this next year as rural Teacher of the Year?
As the rural Teacher of the Year, I hope to be an advocate for educators and students. So often what is reported in the media are the negative aspects of American education, and I want to share the positive. The teachers in rural schools are committed, and they teach because they love children.
Kristi will receive a $2,000 honorarium, and her school district will receive $1,000 to purchase instructional materials and school supplies.
Also honored: Tom White, a middle school math, science, reading, writing, American history, and American government teacher at Alpine Elementary School in Alpine, Ariz., was the Rural Teacher of the Year first runner-up.
B.J. Gneiting, an elementary teacher at Wise River Elementary School in Wise River, Mont., and Joan Goble, a 5th grade teacher at Cannelton Elementary Schoolin Cannelton, Ind., were named Co- Rural Teacher of the Year second runner-up.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Rural Education blog.