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.

How I Teach

Crazy contraptions, Chemistry Cat, and climbing stories: How this Colorado science teacher connects with kids

PHOTO: Courtesy of Shannon Wachowski
Shannon Wachowski, a science teacher at Platte Valley High School, holds a toothpick bridge as a her students look on.

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 this series here.

Shannon Wachowski once started a parent-teacher conference by sharing that she was concerned about the student’s lack of motivation. The boy’s mother quickly began adding criticisms of her own — alarming Wachowski enough that she started defending the teen.

It was then the student’s behavior began to make more sense to Wachowski, who teaches everything from ninth-grade earth science to college-level chemistry at Platte Valley High School in northeastern Colorado. She realized that school, not home, was the boy’s safe place.

Wachowski is one of 20 educators who were selected to serve on the state Commissioner’s Teacher Cabinet. The group provides input to officials at the Colorado Department of Education.

She talked to Chalkbeat about how she uses parent conferences and classwork to learn students’ stories, why making Rube Goldberg contraptions boosts kids’ confidence, and what happens when she raises her hand in the middle of class.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
Originally a practicing chemical engineer, I became a teacher because I wanted a more fulfilling career. I had tutored chemistry in college and really enjoyed it.

What does your classroom look like?
Because my students work in teams 90 percent of the time, my tables are arranged so that students can sit in groups of four. I wrote a grant last summer for standing desks so each two person desk raises up and down. They are convenient for labs or when students need a change of scenery. My walls contain student-made license plates (an activity I do on the first day of school) and other student work from class, including various Chemistry Cat memes!

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my ________. Why?
My heart. Initially I became a teacher because I loved my content. I soon realized however, that while content is important, developing relationships with students is paramount. No learning will happen if positive relationships are not established first. When I am frustrated with student behavior, I try to put myself in their place and respond in a caring and compassionate manner.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?
One of my favorite lessons is when my students build Rube Goldberg devices. It gets somewhat chaotic because they are working in teams and materials are everywhere, but every single student is engaged. In the end, they can apply what they know about energy to design a multi-step contraption. I have seen very low-confidence students excel at this activity, and it is very rewarding to see them experience success in a science class.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
One strategy I’ve recently started using came from my experience leading professional development for other teachers. I will be somewhere in the middle of the room (usually not the front) and raise my hand. When students see me raise my hand, they will raise theirs and pause their conversation. Then other students see those students and raise their hand, etc. Once everyone is quiet, then I’ll make my announcement. Like all other strategies, I need to practice being consistent with it.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
I always plan the first couple of days for “get to know you” activities. My students design their own paper license plates using whatever letters, numbers, or design they would like. They then have 30 seconds to talk about their license plates.
I noticed that in some of my more challenging classes I needed a way to better connect with my students. At the beginning of most class periods I share some sort of funny story about what happened to me the evening prior — for some reason, I am never short of these stories — or a picture of my dog, or my latest climbing adventure. Sharing this information does not take long and eventually, students will ask if I have a story to share if I haven’t done so in a while. This also leads to them sharing stories with me, and finding that we may have more in common than we think.

Tell us about a memorable time-good or bad-when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
At parent-teacher conferences one year I had a parent come in with their student. This student was not the most motivated individual — not disrespectful, just did not seem to want to do anything with his time. As I was explaining this to his parent, the parent started talking very negatively to and about the student, so much so that I found myself trying to defend the student and bring up positive qualities about his character. This interaction helped me to understand some of the student’s behavior in class, as well as realize that for some students, school is their safe place. There are often lots of reasons for a student’s behavior that I may not be aware of, which is why it is important to get to know each student and their situation as best as possible.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
When I have time outside of school, one of the things I enjoy doing is throwing pottery. I am currently reading “Science for Potters” by Linda Bloomfield. It combines my love of science and art into one book.

What is the best advice you ever received?
Since I teach a variety of levels, I often have one class that challenges my classroom management skills. This can be frustrating as I am the type of person that would like to achieve perfection in every circumstance. When I have a discipline issue in my class, I often see it as a personal failure. My husband often reminds me that “You can’t control other people’s behavior, you can only control your response to it.”

behind the music

‘We just wanted to help the movement’: Meet the NYC teacher whose students wrote a #NeverAgain anthem

PHOTO: Kyle Fackrell

Among the many creative displays of protest that stood out during Wednesday’s national student protest against gun violence was an original song by Staten Island students: “The truth: We need change.”

The song, uploaded to YouTube Wednesday morning, features John W. Lavelle Preparatory Charter School students in a soaring anti-gun counterpoint, led by seniors Jerramiah Jean-Baptiste and Aeva Soler.

“Don’t run away from the truth,” Soler sings during one exchange. “If we don’t act now, what should we do?”

Jean-Baptiste picks up where she leaves off: “We need change in this time of doom. It shouldn’t be the case that we’re losing lives too soon. I shouldn’t feel afraid inside my school. We need change.”

We checked in with Kyle Fackrell, Lavelle Prep’s longtime music teacher, who has worked with Jean-Baptiste, Soler, and their classmates for nearly five years, since their introductory eighth-grade music class. Here’s what he told us about the song, his students, and their ambitions.

How the song came to be: “I knew that my students were very passionate about this subject. When I learned about the walkout coming up and that it would be coming up soon, I was aware of these students and their songwriting abilities, and I suggested the idea of writing a song. They really just ran with it.”

What the process was like: “We’ve worked together a lot and have made a lot of music together. When I proposed this idea it was like clockwork. It was really exciting to see how fast Jerramiah could come up with the ideas.”

On the students’ goals: “We just wanted to help the movement. I was having that conversation with my students today, should the song get the success we hope it gets, that would be great, but really want we to maintain our genuine interest in making a difference with the song. I’m just supporting them.”

What the reaction has been: “It’s been very positive. … Everyone who hears the song is blown away. It really is thanks to the talent of the young students that I’m blessed to be helping them develop.”

On what motivates his students: “None of them were coming at it from knowing people who were in a shooting. They’re just very aware and intelligent students. I think the point that the students in Florida are making is that a lot of people underestimate kids and youth, and I think these students are also underestimated — about how much they are aware of what’s going on in the world, and that they should have a say.”