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What It Takes to Teach Science in a Rural School

By Jessica Weller & Lynn A. Bryan — October 25, 2016 5 min read
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In our home state of Indiana, more than a quarter of K-12 students attend rural schools. With the 2015 passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, Indiana is in the process of determining how the new requirements will translate into state education practice. As educators of future STEM teachers, we have an acute interest in the changes to teacher-certification requirements prompted by the new federal law, known as ESSA, and the implications that these changes will have on the quality of preparation of future teachers, particularly those who will be teaching STEM subjects in our rural schools.

There is a growing misperception among policymakers that knowledge of subject matter is all that is needed to become an effective science teacher, minimizing the value and necessity of pedagogical preparation. This misperception is seen in proposed teacher-certification requirements, for example, that would allow teachers with no preparation in pedagogy or child and adolescent development to teach in classrooms for up to two years while they acquire the necessary pedagogical training. While research supports the intuitive notion that a deep, flexible, and coherent understanding of subject-matter knowledge is a prerequisite for good teaching, such knowledge must be married with robust pedagogical training.

What It Takes to Teach Science in a Rural School: For rural science teachers, a command of subject matter and pedagogy isn’t enough, write Jessica Weller and Lynn A. Bryan of Purdue University.

But is a command of subject-matter and pedagogical knowledge enough to prepare a teacher for teaching in a rural school? Many rural educators have long called for special preparation for prospective rural teachers. Yet, while discussions of the challenges in recruiting and retaining excellent teachers in rural schools are ubiquitous, there is surprisingly little to be found on the knowledge and skills that teachers need specific to teaching in rural contexts.

Purdue University has been engaged in significant effort to identify the knowledge and skills needed to prepare science teachers for teaching in rural schools. As part of this work and with support from the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, we have instituted the STEM Goes Rural program. The program seeks to attract and prepare committed individuals with backgrounds in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields to teach in high-need, rural Indiana high schools.

There is a growing misperception among policymakers that knowledge of subject matter is all that is needed to become an effective science teacher."

STEM Goes Rural was designed on the core belief that for prospective rural STEM teachers to develop the knowledge and skills to be effective, they will need to engage in a program of coherent and context-specific learning experiences that address the following needs and challenges:

Development of cultural competence. One of the common beliefs about the populations of rural communities is that they are homogeneous. In fact, rural communities vary greatly. As many as two in five rural students live in poverty; one in eight students has changed residences in the past 12 months; and one in four is a student of color, according to the Rural School and Community Trust’s 2014 “Why Rural Matters” report. In Indiana, the rural school population consists of a high percentage of students with special educational needs, relative to the nonrural school population.

Teachers all hold beliefs about their students based on characteristics such as race, culture, socioeconomic status, and language; when these beliefs are negative, they serve as a barrier to effective instruction. To prepare culturally competent rural teachers, teachers need to have opportunities to develop an appreciation for cultures, values, and family practices that are different from their own. Prospective rural teachers need to be involved in learning about the complex sociocultural world in which rural children construct knowledge outside the classroom and about their previous schooling experiences. Developing cultural competence entails challenging deep-seated beliefs and abandoning deficit models of rural education.

Development of multi-academic subject-area competence. In our experience, rural schools often do not have the enrollment to offer multiple classes for a single science discipline. A chemistry teacher who meets the state requirements for being profession-ready may teach two or three classes of chemistry, but also must teach physics, biology, or math classes. While emergency licenses for new rural teachers may provide a temporary solution, these teachers will need to complete several content majors or take multiple, expensive exams to effectively teach multiple academic subject areas in the long run.

Programs that prepare prospective teachers for rural contexts must build in opportunities for teachers to develop the knowledge and skills for teaching multiple subjects, as well as prepare them for the possibility of teaching in interdisciplinary settings. For example, in the STEM Goes Rural program, prospective rural teachers observe or co-teach in a second academic-content-area class during their yearlong clinical experience. The program also provides financial support to teachers for supplementary coursework they need to earn licensure in additional academic subjects.

Mentoring in the induction years. Finally, it is essential to provide mentoring to new teachers, particularly in rural settings. For the new rural teacher who is teaching courses in multiple subject areas or different courses in one subject area, life can become overwhelming. Teacher-educators have documented the importance of providing a systematic, coherent mentoring experience for beginning teachers. Mentoring should include opportunities for a community of teachers to learn together in a supportive environment that promotes a gradual acculturation into the teaching profession; allow time for intentional reflection on practices; focus on growth and development throughout each year rather than end-of-year assessments; and align with quality teaching standards. Mentoring is an integral component of the STEM Goes Rural program, and as a result, nearly 60 percent of our rural STEM teachers remain in rural classrooms and communities after four years.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than a quarter of our nation’s public school students attend a rural school. As the scale and scope of rural education continue to grow, it is imperative for teacher-preparation programs to recognize that rural schools, communities, and culture require more than the recommendations prompted by ESSA to prepare teachers for teaching in rural schools.

Coverage of science learning and career pathways is supported in part by a grant from The Noyce Foundation, at www.noycefdn.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the October 26, 2016 edition of Education Week as Rural Science Teachers Need Specialized Training

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