Lessons from Year 1 of a Rural Education Fellowship

By Rachelle Kuehl

September 27, 2023

Photo: from the National Parks Service website, nps.gov

Checking my email recently, I was excited to see a message from Carrie (a pseudonym), a middle school history teacher I’d connected with through a colleague from another university in a nearby state. Carrie and I had met via Zoom over the summer, and I was so impressed with her work helping students understand a much fuller picture of US history than I’d been exposed to in my own schooling. Her school was located very near the path that thousands of Cherokee took westward when forcibly removed from their homeland during Andrew Jackson’s presidency, and she had invited me to attend a field trip she coordinated each fall, where she brought her students to a historical site memorializing this experience. I assumed Carrie’s message would provide details about my visit, since, after a lot of back and forth, her principal had provided permission for her to participate in the research project I am conducting about how teachers in rural Appalachia discuss complex histories like the Trail of Tears. Clicking open the message, however, my heart sank as I read these words:

Rachelle, I wish I was reaching out under better circumstances; however my board has requested our school not participate in this study….

A year ago, I began work on this project, which is taking place across two school years (Fall 2022–Spring 2024). I was extremely fortunate to have received a fellowship from the National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation to conduct research on how teachers in rural Appalachia navigate teaching about race and racism in schools given the fact that doing so has become alarmingly controversial, with anti-CRT (critical race theory) rhetoric and resulting policies having emerged in the wake of worldwide reactions to the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers. My goal was to find eight teachers in various places across rural Appalachia who care deeply about equity and who rely on literature as a way to communicate honest truths about racism and racial history. The teachers I sought would teach English language arts or social studies to students in any grade (K–12). I wanted to learn from them about the challenges they face in discussing race in schools and why they persist despite these challenges, and I wanted to observe their interactions with students as they taught lessons involving complex histories surrounding race.

After receiving approval for my study from my university’s Institutional Review Board last October, I began seeking participants by (a) contacting teachers and school leaders I already knew; (b) asking colleagues in rural education to connect me with teachers they knew; (c) sharing flyers about my study at conferences, via social media, and in multiple far-reaching newsletters; and (d) “cold-call” emailing people from universities and schools that fit my target demographic—all of this amounting to hundreds of contacts and dozens of conversations. While I anticipated that recruiting would require a good deal of time and effort on my part, especially given the heightened attention to these issues in the political realm, I have been continually surprised at how challenging it has actually proven. In my inbox, Carrie’s disappointed message sits alongside several others from teachers in similar situations—teachers who wanted to take part in this research, but whose administrators felt it best not to do so.

Although I had hoped to have completed more classroom visits by now, I feel fortunate to have been able to work with two talented elementary teachers so far—one in a remote rural Appalachian district and one in a “fringe” rural district (meaning it is situated fairly close to a city, as compared with the remote district, whose residents must travel long distances to reach a metropolitan area). After a pause on recruiting for the summer and some slight adjustments to my study protocol to de-emphasize race in favor of complex histories more generally, I still hope to find the number of participants I’d been aiming for by the time the project concludes in the spring. At this mid-point, though, I wanted to stop and reflect on two things I’ve learned so far about teaching about race and racism in rural places at this moment in time.

First, anti-CRT policies are working exactly as intended. In 2020, in an effort to fuel that same “us-vs.-them” fire he thought would be beneficial to his political agenda, a political operative admittedly appropriated the term critical race theory, a long-standing and respected way for scholars to consider the causes of racism as they seek ways to ameliorate its damaging effects on society. The wave of anti-CRT policies primarily stemmed from this rallying cry, and some people with political power (i.e., governors, school board members) have built on this rhetoric by enacting “divisive concepts” policies to restrict teaching about race in schools (for example, Virginia Governor Youngkin’s Executive Order No. 1). The language of some of these policies is intentionally vague, leading teachers and school leaders to err on the side of caution by avoiding honest discussions about race to guard against the real threat of backlash from some members of the community. 

This phenomenon has been written about by other scholars (e.g., López & Sleeter, 2023; Pollock et al., 2022), and my recruiting efforts have confirmed this to be the case among rural Appalachian educators. Many of the dozens of teachers and school leaders I’ve met with to discuss my study have cited these policies as the reason they are unable to participate; my presumption based on these conversations is that many of the people who declined to participate (or to allow teachers in their district to participate) did so for similar reasons as well. One assistant superintendent interrupted me as I was explaining the study to her on a Zoom call. She said that the study might have been allowable during her district’s previous school board term, but that with the current board, even suggesting the study could put her job in jeopardy. She asked, “Why would I dip my toe in that water?” and I could not argue with her reasoning. When I asked the teacher participant from the fringe rural district if she ever felt like she wanted to broach these types of issues more but held back because of anti-CRT policies and rhetoric, her response was definite: “Absolutely. All the time. . . . I definitely don’t. I can’t input any thoughts of mine. . . . I really am not permitted to have an opinion.” A recent Washington Post article explains in detail the harm that can come to teachers who veer too far away from what some community members feel is an appropriate way to discuss racial history.

Second, and I think more importantly, rural educators care deeply about diversity and equity. Despite the challenges in getting people to actually say yes to participating in my study, I have been heartened by the fact that my many conversations have confirmed that rural teachers, school leaders, and university professors care about these issues and are deeply concerned about the fact that anti-CRT policies are denying rural students access to important information about racial histories. Time and time again, the response from rural educators has been something along the lines of this is so important or I’m really glad you’re doing this. Many of the teachers I’ve spoken with over the past year have shared how they are continuing to use the same critical, culturally responsive pedagogies they’ve employed throughout their careers, but with an awareness of the increasing necessity of doing so without drawing attention to themselves. There is certainly a tension between a broad recognition of the importance of studying ways rural teachers can communicate effectively about race and administrators’ willingness to risk inviting controversy from a loud minority of community members who may object to such teaching, but it is encouraging to be reminded that these issues do matter a great deal to the educators who, through their work and service, help shape the future of rural places.

I look forward to providing more findings from this study as it progresses. If you are a rural teacher (in Appalachia or elsewhere) who would like to be part of this conversation, please don’t hesitate to contact me at rkuehl@vt.edu.


  • López, F., & Sleeter, C. A. (2023). Critical race theory and its critics: Implications for research and teaching. Teachers College Press. 
  • Pollock, M., Kendall, R., Reece, E., Issa, A. R., & Brady, E. H. (2023). Supported, silenced, subdued, or speaking up? K12 educators’ experiences with The Conflict Campaign, 2021–2022. Journal for Leadership, Equity, and Research9(2), 1–55.

Rachelle Kuehl is a research scientist in the Center for Rural Education at Virginia Tech. Her articles about rural education and literacy have appeared in journals such as Theory & Practice in Rural Education, Journal of Children’s Literature, The Reading Teacher, English in Education, English Journal, and Reading Horizons.

Subscribe here!

* indicates required

Intuit Mailchimp