Teacher talk

A portrait of the challenges of rural teaching, in teachers’ own words

PHOTO: Kate Schimel/Chalkbeat
Holyoke's high school gym with the emblem -- a flame -- of the school's dragon mascot in front.

HOLYOKE, Colo. — Nic and Allie Balog’s decision to take teaching positions in the Holyoke School District, a small district on the eastern plains, was based at least in part on a case of mistaken identity.

“There’s a Holyoke, Mass., which looks a lot different” from the rural Colorado town of about 2,000 inhabitants, just 20 minutes from the Nebraska border, said Nic Balog. “The whole time I was driving out here [for my interview], I was like, ‘What is this oasis in eastern Colorado that I’ve never heard of?'”

But in the end, the couple was drawn by the lure of the small town and decided to stay.

Rural administrators say they must rely on this sort of rare lucky catch to attract teachers to their remote districts, where pay is often lower than in urban centers and the towns offer fewer amenities. And the even greater challenge, convincing teachers to stay, often requires administrators to look outside the school building for solutions.

Holyoke’s superintendent Bret Miles recruits candidates like the Balogs who he thinks will find a reason to stay, although he says he’s often happy to get anyone. One tactic he’s had some success with is finding local candidates, either by getting alternate teaching licenses for folks who have other expertise or by drawing back locals who have left. Nearly a third of Holyoke’s teachers graduated from the school where they teach.

Chalkbeat spoke with a group of Holyoke teachers about what drew them to Holyoke — and what made them stay.

Abby Einspahr, math teacher, Holyoke Junior High School

I grew up here. I always knew I wanted to be a teacher…[But] I did not decide to stay here. I decided to go into Lutheran education.

But when her position at a private Lutheran school in California was cut, she ended up back in Colorado, teaching in nearby Yuma. Then the high school principal in Holyoke lured her back. That’s a common practice in rural districts, where teachers are often poached from nearby schools, creating a game of musical chairs of open teaching positions in rural areas.

Einspahr returned to her hometown where she hadn’t lived for several years, which created its own set of social challenges:

The friends I did have coming back are at a different phase of their life. They’re married with kids and coming back single is hard.

It also meant returning to a community where the lines between work and personal are blurred.

I changed greatly from who I was in high school and who I was in college to living in California for six years. I was completely different person, coming back here. I have kids in my class going, “Well, your brother, right?” They have perceptions of me based on my siblings, my parents, my cousins, my grandparents. I have nieces and nephews in school.

Einspahr just finished her first year back in Holyoke but she still isn’t sure whether she’ll stay.

Maury Kramer, math teacher, Holyoke Senior High School

In many rural and remote districts, administrators turn to talent that already exists in their community to recruit teachers. Kramer is one of those, a former auto technician who now teaches the higher levels of math at the high school.

I grew up here in Holyoke. I really failed at college the first try and ended up raising a family. So I moved back here to work with my dad on the farm and that went to trouble in the eighties. So I just had to work around here and raise a family, raise six kids through the school system.

After, while they were starting to go to college, because of my job and things changing there, I knew I wanted to find something else. Helping them with homework and every job I’ve had I’ve been teaching or training students in some way or another. So that kind of led me to [teaching]. So I went back to school online in 2003, finished in 2008, tutored for a couple years, finally started here in 2011.

He uses his deep roots in the community in his classes, to deal with students and pull in the town’s history.

It’d be really hard for me to teach where I don’t know anybody. Here, I know everybody in town. I also know what kids’ parents do and I can make math more applicable to them. So kids whose folks work in construction, we can talk about the triangles in the house, how they work in the rafters or…using the Pythagorean Theorem rather than a laser or a GPS or something.

And he often knows kids’ families and their issues and can adjust to students’ needs.

Sometimes you don’t know everything but you know something is going on so you can be a little less restrictive of them.

Nic and Allie Balog, social studies and special education teachers, Holyoke Senior High School

Sometimes, the barriers are as simple as a lack of housing. When the Balogs first moved to Holyoke to take up teaching positions, there was only a single house in the entire town available for rent. The house lacked amenities and was in rough condition.

Nic Balog: When the wind blew, the curtains would blow open and move [even with the windows closed].

Eventually, the couple purchased a house, that was in better shape.

Nic Balog: It probably kept us here, to be honest…Conveniences like the garbage disposal and air conditioning made Holyoke a lot more livable.

But the transition wasn’t easy, especially for Allie Balog.

Allie Balog: I’ve never been away from my family. I know it’s only two and a half hours. But for me that was still hard. And not only that, I love to shop and go out and do things. I couldn’t do any of that. That was what I felt at first.

But I think doing it together, we always had each other at the end of the day, you know playing cards in our house for three months straight, because we didn’t have anything to do.

When the couple first accepted the position, they arrived with a group of five other young teachers. Today, only one of that group still teaches in Holyoke, along with the Balogs.

Allie Balog: We have a life here and I don’t know if that’s true for the others. You have to try really hard to fit in with people. Once you do and you are willing to do that, people are willing to do the same back to you.

Bret Miles, superintendent, Holyoke School District

Getting teachers is harder and harder for rural districts, as pay stagnates and cuts made during the recession linger.

It used to be that we’d sit down and say, “Any elementary opening, we’ll be able to fill that.” Social studies, no problem, we’ll fill that anytime of day…Now, all of them are really hard to find. We’re going into the last week of June and we haven’t filled our social studies opening, which used to be no-brainer.

We’re trying to make the work environment so attractive that people will just want to stay. So we try to improve technology, we try to make sure we focus on a collaborative structure for how we make decisions in the district.

We have to have all those other things working because we don’t pay as well as in the city. That’s a really a school finance formula issue, partially.

And the competition for a small pool means districts are competing with each other for candidates.

At the baseball game in Haxtun last weekend, I spoke with the elementary school principal there. It took her five offers to hire a fifth grade position. We found out two of them had interviewed in every school in northeast Colorado [including Holyoke] and only one of us gets him.

So Miles has started to search for teachers farther afield.

Tomorrow, we will interview international candidates because we haven’t had a math teacher application…we’re Skyping with someone in the Philippines.

the best

Indy counselors share secrets to get middle schoolers on track for college scholarships

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkebat
Students at Northwest Middle School

Indiana makes a promise to students from low-income families: maintain a 2.5 GPA and fulfill basic steps throughout high school, and the state will foot the bill for up to four years of college tuition.

But there’s a catch: For students to qualify for the aid, they must sign up for 21st Century Scholarships by the end of eighth grade, before many students even begin considering how to pay tuition. It falls on school counselors to let families know about the program, help them apply — and follow up relentlessly.

So it was a feat when counselors at Northwest Middle School in Indianapolis Public Schools were able to get nearly 100 percent of eligible students to register for the scholarships in 2017, the latest year with state data. That’s nearly double the signup rate across Marion County.

Now, the city is hoping that other educators can learn from Northwest and other successful schools. In May, Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett’s administration launched Indy Achieves, a campaign to help more residents go to college or other post-high school training. One piece of the initiative is a coordinated effort to boost participation in 21st Century Scholars that includes a newly released toolkit for other guidance counselors.

The toolkit explains how educators can track which students have enrolled in the program, and it includes sample recruitment plans and letters to parents. It also offers practical tips, such as giving parents the paper worksheet instead of asking them to apply online and sending the form home with other permission slips. Finally, Indy Achieves offers administrative assistance submitting applications.

“I’m here today in no small measure because you all have this process figured out,” said Hogsett in a ceremony Monday.

At Northwest, the campaign to get students money for college had two prongs. First, it depended on getting students, teachers, and even counselors excited about the scholarships, staff say. Classes competed against each other to see who could get the most students signed up, with the promise of a pizza party for the winning class.

Last year, they upped the ante by offering ice cream and candy bars to students when they brought in their applications. When students saw others getting the rewards, it was a reminder to bring in their own forms, said counselor Vernita Robinson.

It was also important that teachers were enthusiastic about the effort, say the counselors who led the initiative. Even the counselors developed a spirit of competition as they tried to sign up as many students as possible.

“You just have to make it fun for the kids, and you have to make it fun for yourself,” said counselor Theresa Morning.  “I don’t know if we really changed any of our methods last year except for, we made a point to make sure last year that we had every child signed up.”

That dedication to getting students signed up is the second reason why educators at Northwest believe they were so successful. Beginning in September, they told parents about the scholarships, and for months afterward, they used a spreadsheet to track which students had applied. They sent home official letters telling families about the program. And as the year progressed, they called families to follow up.

“I think the key is to not stop at a handful of applicants,” said counselor Nicole Reid. “Just keep going until you have everyone on your roster that’s in eighth grade enrolled.”

All three counselors have left the school for other Indianapolis Public Schools campuses this year, following a districtwide high school reconfiguration that ultimately led Northwest to convert from a school serving grades seven through 12 to a dedicated middle school.

Indianapolis Public Schools interim superintendent Aleesia Johnson challenged the new students at the school to continue the success. “You all have to now carry on that legacy,” she said.

“We are all as a city committed to our students and our young people being able to go on and be successful,” Johnson said. “You do your part, and we commit to do ours.”

This Air Force veteran switched to teaching, but his military mindset still comes in handy

PHOTO: Ariel Skelley | Getty Images

Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Daniel Ganoza spent years in the U.S. Air Force before becoming a science teacher at Woodland Park High School west of Colorado Springs. Despite the career switch, he found the military mindset useful in the classroom.

“In the Air Force everyone is valuable to the mission,” he said. “You have no choice in training them the best you can. The mission depends on it and your reputation as a leader depends on your folks knowing their job.”

Ganoza, who won the 2018 Secondary Excellence in Teaching award from the Colorado Association of Science Teachers, talked about how the military mentality motivates students, why environmental science is so important for the current generation, and how vaping and marijuana are affecting his school.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

PHOTO: Daniel Ganoza
Daniel Ganoza, right, flying with Iraqi troops on a C-130 aircraft, during his Air Force career.

I had selfish reasons for wanting to be a teacher. When I was in the Air Force I had been away from home so much. My oldest two daughters were born and graduated high school while I was still in the military and I’m afraid I missed much of their growing up.

But my youngest child, my son, was starting high school as I was set to leave the military. What a better way for me to try to connect with my son than to be a teacher at his school, to have him and his friends in class, and to coach their sports teams? And it worked. For my first four years of teaching my son was a student in my school. He graduated last year.

How has your experience in the Air Force shaped your approach to teaching?

Everyone in the Air Force was necessary to complete the mission and that is the same mindset I try to bring to the classroom. In the military, every person had value and their success influenced your success. If they failed, it made things harder on the whole organization.

Unfortunately, some kids fail my class and some kids drop out of school. But if I treat my students as if they are one of my troops in the military — if they feel like they are important to me and that I need them to do well, if they feel like my success depends on their success, if they feel like there is something unique and special about them that makes them valuable to me — then maybe for some kids that’s the difference it takes.

How do you get to know your students?

PHOTO: Daniel Ganoza
Teacher Daniel Ganoza, first row on left, with his students during their annual trip to Arches National Park.

We all get to know our students in the classroom. But those students I know the most are those students I see outside of the classroom. Whether it be weekend field trips or optional Saturday trainings or even the high school soccer and basketball teams I coach, those kids are the ones I get to know the best.

I suppose we all put in our time during the duty day, but when kids see you outside of those prescribed hours, when kids know you don’t have to be there, they appreciate that and let their guard down a little.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

Not so much a favorite lesson, but my favorite course to teach is environmental science. To be honest, I don’t think I thought about environmental issues during my most of my life. But now that I teach it, the subject is everywhere.

There are some really life-altering environmental decisions that the generation of kids I teach is going to have to make someday (thanks to my generation and past generations). Without being too much of an alarmist, I need to make them aware. This is about as deep into math as I get. Scientists say the earth has enough resources for 10 billion to 12 billion people, and we are at around 7.5 billion now. We are adding 1 million people to our planet every five days.

We reach capacity when kids in this generation are in their prime. I don’t know the answer, but these kids are going to have to figure it out. I wouldn’t call myself an environmentalist — that has had negative connotations most of my life. But I do find this topic fascinating, I appreciate the work that environmental scientists do, and I’m nervous about potential environmental outcomes if we as a people are not careful.

What object would you be helpless without during the school day?

Someone told me once, “Be like a duck — calm above the water while paddling frantically below.” I pretend that nothing rattles me or makes me feel helpless, although secretly there are many things that would — missing my notes for the day, my overhead projector, my thumb drive with my lesson plans, my student aides who help me in so many ways, and a functioning printer and copier. Oh yeah, and Coke Zero Vanilla.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

Vaping. Our school is waging a war against vaping. The kids just don’t seem to understand how bad it is for you. It is so easy for them to get it in the community and then they bring it to school and some of them get caught and it just doesn’t register that vaping is bad.

Also marijuana. I have a few kids in class that reek of marijuana — because their parents smoke it legally in their homes or illegally in their cars. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt that these students are not smoking it, but if they’re surrounded by marijuana fumes at home, it can’t be good. And their grades and motivation usually reflect it.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

A few years ago I was a member of our school’s attendance committee. If a student has 13 or more absences in a class in a semester they automatically fail that class (regardless of their grade) unless they submit an appeal to the attendance committee. Unless there is something medical going on, appeals are almost always rejected.

In one case, a young lady gave an appeal — she was a senior and needed the credits to graduate, but had been absent a considerable amount of time. Although there was nothing extraordinary about her story, we showed a little grace and we allowed her to graduate. I’m not sure why, it just felt right.

Recently, I ran into her in our little town where she was working at a Sonic restaurant. She remembered that I was part of the decision to allow her to graduate. She was very grateful and seemed excited to see me. She told me that she got pregnant toward the end of her senior year, but didn’t know it until after graduation. She is married now, her baby is healthy, and she is working hard to try to make ends meet. She’ll be fine, but she has a tough road in front of her.

I scare myself thinking now how much harder I would have made this young woman’s life if I would have followed our norms and denied her the credits she needed to graduate. Sometimes grace has a way of humbling you and reminding you that one of the best attributes you can have is kindness.

What part of your job is most difficult?

Some of the kids I teach have impossible home life situations. That’s the most difficult part of being a teacher — when something happens to a great kid that makes them jump into survival mode and justifies them putting academics as the lowest priority, and you are powerless to help. I don’t like being in that spot because I feel I should do something to help. I try, but often it’s just not enough, and then I feel like I’ve failed them.

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

Before teaching I thought that every kid should be on a college-bound track. I brought that into my first year of teaching. But now I understand that some kids will go to college and some kids won’t, and there is nothing wrong with that. Although college is a fine path to take, going to a trade school or joining the military right out of high school might be the right choice for some.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

Right now, I’m reading “Killing England: The Brutal Struggle for American Independence” by Bill O’Reilly.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

Kids just want someone to think they are important and care for them. I have to believe that because I’m short, stocky, bald, and slur my words when I talk. But I’ve done well for myself with these students because they see me as someone who cares about them and wants them to do well.

Sometimes, all it takes is for just one person to believe in you and you can do anything — you can do the impossible. I’m not sure if I’ve ever been that one person for any of my students, but I strive to be.