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'I've Been So Isolated': Why Rural Teachers Need Collaboration

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Rural education in the Betsy DeVos era

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Collaboration among teachers is important when education is easy. It’s essential when education gets hard.

Nowhere are things harder in North American public education than in rural and small-town schools. Paradoxically, though, the very factors that have put rural education on the margins of federal attention could turn out to be their savior.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos' federal education strategy is the disruptive love child of a vacuum and a vortex: a vacuum of policy direction and a vortex of charter school conversion and top-down change. You may or may not have liked Race to the Top or No Child Left Behind, but at least you knew where you stood with them. Now, there's no inspiration about how to raise achievement, improve equity, or do something about mental health. Under ESSA, most of the responsibility for direction reverts to the states. The feds are bereft of ideas. Whether they drained the swamp or not, all they've left us with is a vacuum.

On the other hand, public education faces a vortex of bad approaches that have led to cutthroat competition among schools, disappearing education budgets, and professional decline. Rather than focusing on the quality of teachers' professional learning and lives in high-needs districts, for instance, leaders are pushing charter schools and top-down management.

There are exceptions, of course. In wealthier suburbs and charter schools that benefit from philanthropic support, the collaborative efforts that improve teaching are abundant. Free from the grip of interminable testing, educators gather in book clubs and huddle together to brainstorm over mind-maps with stylish, color-coded materials.

But the only collaboration that exists in many high-poverty urban districts is the death march of data teams where principals force teachers to examine student achievement numbers so they can swiftly intervene for quick results. However, many high-needs districts are actually in rural areas. More than 8 out of 10 of the nation's persistently poor counties are rural. About a quarter of U.S. students attend rural schools. These rural and small-town schools are on the forgotten frontier of educational disadvantage.

Some of these rural places might look pretty, but poverty is even more pernicious in many of them than in urban communities. There's little or no big business investment, corporate philanthropy, or university expertise to help communities out.

"Out of the spotlight, rural teachers can choose how to fill the vacuum left by federal education policymakers."

And teachers are often all on their own, too, as the only ones in their grades or subjects in a particular school. Overwhelmed by planning and teaching multiple course sections, they have no access to the expertise of teachers in the same boat. As one rural teacher told me, "It's hard to collaborate with yourself!"

Last year, Michael T. O'Connor and I studied five designs of collaborative professionalism in different parts of the world. These designs helped schools and teachers in often-forgotten communities—the antithesis of boutique charter or wealthy suburban schools—to bring about greater social justice for their students. Let’s look at two of them.

In the U.S. Pacific Northwest, we spent five years on a Boston College research and development project helping Education Northwest to build a five-state network of rural schools focused on increasing students' engagement with their learning and with their communities. The nonprofit's Northwest Rural Innovation and Student Engagement network convenes educators from participating schools twice a year. Among other approaches, network teachers meet in job-alike groups for kindergarten, writing, or mathematics, for example, to plan more engaging curriculum together. They continue this work between meetings on digital platforms.

Formerly disillusioned math teachers use math tools to design metal escape-boxes of puzzles and padlocks—and become resurrected as respected professionals. Meanwhile, writing teachers work on stimulating their high school students to think critically and construct persuasive arguments. Students might argue for and against the use of 1:1 digital devices in schools or drones in the military and agriculture, then give each other feedback across their schools.

One teacher from small town Idaho speaks for many: "[Teachers] get rejuvenated, excited; they go back, they talk to the other teachers about it." And it's not just about the others. "I've been so isolated as a teacher," she told us. "I just have gotten used to being my own boss and doing what I want and making my decisions." But now, "I have to hear ideas that don't necessarily go with mine and learn to be flexible and see others' perspectives."

On the other side of the continent, in Northern Ontario in Canada, educators in the Keewatin-Patricia school district have been striving to improve both learning and mental health among their students. More than half of their students are from indigenous communities in a district the size of France but with just 23 schools. Working with people battered by historic oppression and abuse, educators face the resulting legacies of substance abuse, youth suicide, family breakdown, and low achievement.

But instead of concentrating only on the skills these students were missing in basic literacy, educators centered their gaze on the knowledge and experience students already had. They appointed an aboriginal support worker from the community. Tribal elders became involved in school activities. When hockey coaches noticed that students who were failing in the classroom were succeeding on the ice rink and being leaders in the locker room, the coaches initiated their own professional-learning community to develop cross-curricular skills with classroom teachers.

Teachers also began to incorporate land-focused learning through traditional activities of fishing, making fires, building shelters, and undertaking expeditions. When children on the fetal-alcohol-syndrome spectrum found it hard to concentrate, teachers worked with an occupational therapist to install a climbing wall in the classroom. The new teacher-led learning communities didn't just connect educators to each other, they brought teachers closer to students and their culture, too.

On the forgotten frontier of disadvantage, rural educators have been facing daunting challenges. But often, they also have had leeway that many urban teachers do not. Out of the spotlight, rural teachers can choose how to fill the vacuum left by federal education policymakers, and they are not sucked so readily into the dark vortex of much urban school reform either.

As a result, these educators have found that one of the most promising ways to solve the problems of disengagement and underachievement among America's youths revolves around collaboration driven by educators. Schools foster collaboration among teachers, between students and teachers, and with community members, emphasizing cultural and social ties with a clear focus on learning. For teachers in these schools, being between a vacuum and a vortex may not be so bad after all.

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