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.

Belittled as a child, this Memphis teacher sets a high bar for her students

PHOTO: Ginny Terrell
Ginny Terrell poses with her Aspire Hanley third-graders. Terrell has been teaching for four years and will move to Aspire East in the fall.

Some 20 years ago, Ginny Terrell’s third grade math teacher called her “stupid.” Now, Terrell laughs as she names her current position: a third grade math teacher.

“I was that kid in school that everybody was like, ‘What’s wrong with her?’” said Terrell who has been teaching at the local charter Aspire Hanley for four years and will teach at Aspire East in the fall.

Terrell was held back in kindergarten and struggled from there on. Luckily, she had teachers that stayed with her after hours to give her the support that she didn’t have at home. At that moment, she knew she wanted to be like them.

PHOTO: Ginny Terrell
Ginny Terrell and her Aspire Hanley students.

As middle and high school loomed, Terrell told herself she had two options: sink or swim. So she worked hard — often twice as hard as her classmates, she said — and eventually enrolled in the University of North Texas in her home state.

During college, which took her seven years to complete, Terrell spent time in New Orleans doing service projects, where she often interacted with local youth. Then, she interned at a Title I school, where she noticed that her fellow teachers were unprepared to handle disciplinary issues, and that the “kids weren’t getting what they needed.” (Title I schools, eligible for certain federal funding grants, enroll a high percentage of students from low-income families.)

“I felt like it was the blind leading the blind,” she said.

That work, Terrell said, prepared her for a career in urban education. After graduation, she signed up for Memphis Teacher Residency, an alternative teacher licensing program that places college graduates at urban schools.

“They endure more than I could ever dream of,” she said of her students, 88 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch. “… I can relate a lot to their home lives, their struggling in school and their not wanting to even be there.”

In this installment of How I Teach, Chalkbeat spoke with Terrell about why her decision to teach in urban schools was such a personal one. (This Q&A has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.)

How do you get to know your students?

I get to know my students by really utilizing my first month of school. I really try to use every moment and every conversation to truly understand each of my students. I give them a little survey that is like a Facebook page on paper the second day they are at school. I send home a survey [for parents to fill out] about his or her child and that helps me know even more. I spend time talking with them at lunch, recess, and moments during instruction. I try to observe how they respond to my questions, how they respond to hard situations, how they respond to their peers and how they handle learning. I use morning meeting time to know each of my students by playing getting-to-know-you games and simply letting them do a show and tell.

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

For a lesson on perimeter and area, our class took a little trip to the playground.They counted blocks and other items around the playground and added them up to get the perimeter. My students tried teaching each other and asked questions during the lesson on the playground. They told me at the end of the year that was their favorite lesson because they could understand it. This idea came from reading a book “Becoming the Math Teacher You Wished You’d Had: Ideas and Strategies from Vibrant Classrooms,” by Tracy Johnston Zager. In the book it discusses the importance of including real life examples students can relate to in math and gave multiple examples in other classrooms. I thought that we should use the playground, which will stick with them because they use it every day and they love it!

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

An object I would be helpless without during the school day would be our clip system [moved up and down to track student behavior]! They could see where they were at behaviorally and how they can improve at every moment of the day. I could not live without a behavior system in my classroom. It is the basis of giving students structure and consistency. If you do not have a behavior system that is a well-oiled machine, you will not be able to get to your instruction and plan the engaging lessons. The culture you set, from day one, will drive your classroom.

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

Something that is happening in the community that affects my classroom is the crime rate. I have heard students coming in telling me they could not sleep because of the gunshots or abuse in their homes. Some of the crime happened on our [school] property between parents. This [hurts] student’s ability to focus, and [discourages] parents from coming to the school or even being involved. Students will start following what they see in their community, [so it] is hard for them to learn how to treat their peers or even teachers in a different way.

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

One of my students had a hard time functioning in my classroom. She could not really get along with peers and was sad a lot of the time. I reached out to the mom and discussed what was going on with her. Mom shared with me her life story and what has been going on at home. She wasn’t at all playing a victim or making excuses for her child. She instead asked me for help and support. We prayed for each other and I built a beautiful relationship with that family. It is so easy in the heat of the moment to snap or get angry with a student if he or she is not following directions. It showed me to seek to understand first, then take action. I could have done a lot more damage to the student in the classroom if I did not seek to understand. From that point on, I always make sure I take a step back and understand the situation instead of snap judgements. It taught how I can love each student in the way that will benefit them as future contributors to our society.

What part of your job is most difficult?

The most difficult part of my job would be not having enough parent involvement. There will be some parents that were very involved and supported the best they can in and outside the classroom. However, it has been difficult for some parents due to working three different jobs, not having enough resources or just not having the mental capacity to support. I cherish their thoughts and their support, so not having that [makes it] difficult to hold my students accountable outside the classroom.

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

I thought I had to dumb down my lessons so other students can learn. It is actually the opposite; having high expectations, students can reach the bar you set. I think I viewed my students as “low” academically, but they are not. Maybe they’re behind, but never low. They are so smart and can do anything you ask. It might take some time and you have to go back, but they are able and more than ready.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

“Nothing to Prove” by Jennie Allen and “Hope Heals” by Katherine Wolf and Jay Wolf

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

If you think you have arrived in teaching, you need to retire.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to cburke@chalkbeat.org

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.