Introducing Our Site: A Rural Teacher Collaboratory

By Rachelle Kuehl

Last October, I had the opportunity to visit a small school about an hour from my home in Southwest Virginia. The view along the drive to this school, with the sun rising behind the mountains casting light on thousands of orange and yellow leaves in their full fall glory, was nothing less than spectacular. After I gushed to the principal about the beauty of her workplace, she walked me down to meet the four third graders with whom I’d be working that morning. The bubbly students—three girls and a boy—quickly filled me in on their familial relationships with one another. The boy and one of the girls were cousins, and the girl’s mom (the boy’s aunt) had been their first-grade teacher. A second girl said she was probably cousins with the boy, too, because they had the same last name, but they were never quite sure how their families connected—except, they told me, their grannies were both cousins with the school secretary I’d just met in the front office. The third girl explained that her three older brothers were all teenagers, so I was surprised when, later, she introduced me to one of them in the hallway—I hadn’t realized the school served students from kindergarten all the way to seventh grade.

Having spent my own years as a teacher and student in suburban and urban settings, I wasn’t used to the warm and friendly—and quiet—atmosphere of this type of rural school, which housed only 136 students across the eight grade levels. That day, I worked alongside the district’s gifted education specialist, who split her time across multiple sites and was thus making her first visit of the year to this school as well. Among rural districts, this one is somewhat unique in that it employs a full-time specialist to manage the gifted education program and to pull identified students for advanced lessons. Even so, it is still a challenge for her to meet the needs of all academically talented students in the district’s middle school, high school, and four elementary schools, all situated in a large, geographically widespread district intersected by mountains. As the only designated gifted specialist in the district, she does not have colleagues with whom to plan lessons and share ideas. In other rural districts, one teacher is often tasked with providing services to both gifted students and students in need of special education, or perhaps the media specialist is asked to carve a few hours out of her week to teach advanced learners; in either case, being responsible for two or more distinctly different teaching roles certainly complicates an educator’s day-to-day work life.

Much of our work in recent years has been focused on cultivating talent in rural schools and meeting the needs of learners that show high academic potential. While the advantages of teaching in rural places are many, there are also unique challenges, and we understand that the challenges affecting rural gifted teachers apply to rural educators across all grade levels and subjects. Primarily, we have heard again and again from teachers who feel isolated in their schools as the only person who teaches a particular subject or grade level. With smaller budgets, rural districts often cannot afford to fund attendance at professional conferences where teachers could make collegial connections, and the remote locations of some rural schools makes travel to such conferences unfeasible as well. Yet, rural teachers are committed to their work and to their students, and they long to make continuous improvements to their teaching practice that afford their students every opportunity to pursue advanced educational and career prospects after graduation. Rural teachers know their students (and their students’ families) well, and they know what it takes to reach their particular students in their particular place.

In response to the needs we’ve heard expressed again and again by rural educators, we have built this website to serve as a resource of connection and affirmation for rural teachers. We’re calling it a collaboratory—a place to share information, stories, and expertise. We invite you, as rural teachers, to lend your voice to this community by sharing lesson plans, writing blog posts, and recommending professional resources and children’s books other rural teachers can use to enhance their teaching practice. We’re launching this site with the hopes that you will become an active participant in building it from the ground up. We value your experience, your insight, and your commitment to students, and we hope we can honor your work now and for many years to come.

Rachelle Kuehl is a research scientist in the Center for Rural Education at Virginia Tech and the project manager for the Appalachian Rural Talent Initiative.

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