Editor’s note: Finding capable teachers is a challenge for all school systems, especially rural systems.  Which is why efforts to “grow your own” makes so much sense.  The program at the University of West Alabama is doing a great job with their Black Belt Teacher Corps.  This effort, and others around the nation, are gaining attention, as pointed out in this article.  I was pleased to play a small role in helping get the UWA effort up and running.

A sustainable American future depends on a thriving rural landscape. Unfortunately, our diverse rural regions are experiencing unprecedented challenges. These include the erosion of social capital, a brain drain of talented young people, and the impact of globalization. Exacerbating these issues is a growing rural teacher shortage, a thorny problem that may be complicated by a wave of Covid 19-related teacher retirements.

Dr. Allen Pratt, executive director for the National Rural Education Association, believes the rural teacher shortage is undermining rural schools. Pratt said, “The search for highly effective teachers is an ongoing quest for small, rural school districts across the nation. It is one of the greatest challenges facing rural district superintendents and their boards of education.”

The rural teacher shortage is the result of a confluence of factors. Urban to rural discrepancies in teacher pay, higher education access challenges, and the perceived lack of social amenities in small towns have resulted in unfilled teaching vacancies and shrinking pools of candidates.

There is no panacea for alleviating the rural teacher shortage, but the rural teacher corps concept —an intentional effort to produce teacher-leaders — squarely tackles issues related to rebuilding social capital, fighting rural bright flight, and, of course, preparing and placing outstanding rural teachers.  Rural teacher corps-like efforts have been adopted by a growing number of institutions as a viable alternative to the status quo.

Intentional efforts that recruit, prepare, and place teacher-leaders in underserved rural communities should utilize the most prevalent form of infrastructure available in rural locales — public schools. As corporatization, consolidation, and budget cuts have reduced the number of rural small businesses, healthcare facilities, and social service programs, public schools are often the only remaining vestige of rural “institutional infrastructure.” Therefore, a rural teacher corps program not only prepares qualified instructors, but they also provide vehicles for attracting young professionals to rural places in need of the energy, ideas, and creativity that young people bring (i.e. social capital).

Our public schools are a national imperative, and advocacy organizations need to work hand in hand with colleges and universities to prepare future teachers who possess skillsets that strengthen the bonds between school and community. Rural America desperately needs teachers who:

Have a strong sense of place, mission, and rural identity;
Have a more comprehensive understanding of rurality and how that relates to economics, climate change, and social justice;
Are savvy communicators, networkers, and users of new media;
Practice collaboration throughout the school, community, and nation.
Are perceived as community leaders and catalysts for change.
Rural teacher corps programs are tailored to meet the needs of a respective region, but they share some common attributes:

Developing networks of positive role models to encourage people to become rural teachers early on;
Reframing the rural narrative — the positive aspects of the rural experience;
Promoting initiatives to recruit mid-career professionals who may be tied to a given
community;
Seeking opportunities to formulate programs that include scholarship incentives for
future teachers to commit to rural teaching placements;
Speaking to the community roles of educators — creating a more mission-
driven dialogue.

Several excellent rural teacher corps models have been developed and launched over the last few years. Although some programs are still in early implementation, some regional efforts have seen promising outcomes.

The Ozarks Teacher Corps is funded by the Community Foundation of the Ozarks, where a $1.8 million endowment funds scholarships and administrative support. The program has rural school placement and retention rates of more than 90%, with 3/4 of the program’s graduates still teaching in their “original school” after three years. Nearly 100 “rurally-prepared” teachers now teach in more than 40 rural Ozarks school districts.

The University of West Alabama’s (UWA) Black Belt Teacher Corps is based out of Livingston, Ala. The program is state-funded and has grown from an annual budget of $250,000 to $500,000 in only its fourth year. UWA has also developed a future teacher academy in cooperation with rural school districts, where they begin working with students at the high school level.

The Eastern Illinois University Rural Teacher Corps (EIU) is a comprehensive effort with multiple funders. Completing its third year, the EIU Rural Teacher Corps includes more than 30 students, and there is an active planning council made up of area school leaders. EIU has launched a robust social marketing effort.

Take Action
Even modest investments can drive significant change in rural areas. Here’s how you can help:

Donors can support the Rural Schools Collaborative, or RSC can connect donors to rural-based, under-resourced colleges that could utilize rural teacher corps planning grants.
Rural school advocacy is of the utmost importance, and we encourage folks to learn more about the National Rural Education Association.
The Rural Teacher Corps Network consists of 15 diverse teacher corps programs. These efforts are grateful for support.