Devon Brenner, Ph.D., Professor of Teacher Education, Assistant Vice President for Outreach and Initiatives, Mississippi State University
Diana C. Outlaw, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Biological Sciences, Mississippi State University
Dana Franz, Ph.D., Professor of Mathematics Education, Mississippi State University
Rural schools can be amazing places for STEM teachers to work. Rural schools may be a new teacher’s first choice because of a location near family or friends, or because they are seeking outdoor recreational opportunities—skiing, fishing, boating, or natural beauty—that can be found in rural places. Rural schools offer opportunities for leadership that may be more accessible than in larger, urban places. In smaller communities, teachers may find it easier to build relationships with students and their families or to engage in meaningful ways with a local community. STEM teachers in rural schools often have more variety in their workday. They may teach multiple subjects, rather than the same preparation over and over each day or have options to coach or lead an afterschool club or wear other hats in the district. Most importantly, rural teachers often see the difference they make for students and families—as when rural teachers get to teach multiple siblings or generations of a family or see a former student return to the community to start a business or work on the family farm.
However, these benefits do not seem to be enough to truly address teacher shortages, particularly STEM teacher shortages, in rural areas. About one-half of all U.S. school districts, one-third of all schools, and one-fifth of all students in the U.S. are rural (Showalter, et al., 2019). Those numbers add up to more than 9 million students nationwide (Hesbol, 2020). Rural schools consistently report challenges staffing rural classrooms (Anthony, et al., 2017; Gagnon & Mattingly, 2015, Carver-Thomas, 2018). Staffing challenges include smaller community populations that result in a limited pool of potential teachers, lower overall school funding which tends to result in lower salaries, a perceived lack of community amenities, concerns about geographic or professional isolation, and higher poverty rates. These realities are exacerbated by negative stereotypes of rural people and places (Aragon, 2016; Miller, 2012). Often, the overarching message many students and potential teachers hear is that success is associated with working in an urban or suburban setting and that rural places are places to leave. As one rural administrator said about STEM teacher recruitment, “Our biggest challenge has been finding teachers who are willing to work in a rural community” (Ossola, 2014, unpaged). Rural schools have challenges recruiting teachers and retaining teachers once they are hired, and even bigger challenges recruiting and retaining a diverse teaching workforce in spite of the fact that rural areas are increasingly becoming more diverse. Eighty-four percent of the nearly one million rural teachers in the U.S. are white, and 75% are women (NCES, 2012). It may be that teacher education programs can help challenge stereotypes, dispel myths, celebrate strengths, and prepare new teachers for the reality of working in rural classrooms.
Preparing Educators for Rural Classrooms: Context, Curriculum, and Conveyance
There is evidence that programmatic features of educator preparation programs (EPPs) such as a focus on pedagogy, content area coursework, field experiences, and preparation to work with diverse students can improve teaching practices and support retention in the profession, (e.g., Darling-Hammond & Bransford, 2005; Fuller & Pendola, 2019; Ingersoll et al., 2014). However, these findings are place-neutral and do not address the unique contexts of rural STEM teaching. Azano, et al. (2019) have developed the three Cs framework for teacher education, summarizing both theory and research about the features of teacher education that might better prepare educators for placements in rural schools. With this emerging framework for rural educator preparation, Azano and colleagues suggest that EPPs that prepare teachers for rural schools should focus on three areas, or three Cs: context, curriculum, and conveyance.
Rural teacher recruitment can be impacted when programmatic features of EPPs address rural contexts. Such features help preservice teachers better understand the advantages and challenges of rural teaching, including challenging negative stereotypes of rural places as backward and isolated (Theobald & Wood, 2010). A focus on the strengths of rural schools and communities can replace deficit stereotypes with a more nuanced understanding of the histories and resilience of rural places. Rural students often possess place-based knowledge or ways of living—unique linguistic patterns, outdoor living or recreation skills, knowledge of place and community, characteristics of independence, and interdependence. These distinct funds of knowledge (Moll, et al., 1992) may not be recognized or valued by the standardized curriculum or by teachers who come from other places—preservice teacher education may help new teachers identify these strengths and use them as an asset-based foundation for teaching and learning.
Features specific to context also address the realities of rural teachers’ work lives (Azano, et al., 2021). For example, in small rural schools, teachers are often assigned non-traditional tasks and are asked to fulfill multiple roles. It is not uncommon for rural educators to teach multiple grades and/or a variety of courses within and across content areas (e.g., chemistry, biology, and physics or both calculus and Algebra I) or to teach and work in other roles in the school such as coach and bus driver. In light of these realities, EPPs may encourage teacher candidates to obtain multiple or composite licensure and prepare them to plan for and teach multiple preparations. New teachers who are prepared for these multiple roles may be more likely to succeed (and stay) when they are asked to wear multiple hats in rural schools.
EPPs can also work to explicitly prepare teachers for aspects of teaching that are unique to rural schools such as social and professional isolation. In small rural schools, teachers are likely to be the only one of their kind—such as the only science or math teacher. Geographic distances may make it difficult to find a colleague or mentor to support a new teacher. EPPs can focus on support mechanisms such as helping new teachers build professional networks that connect teachers to others in their specific content and providing focused and purposeful mentoring to help novice teachers assimilate into the community (Azano, et al., 2021; Moffa & McHenry Sorber, 2018). Finally, technology, when available, can provide rural educators and students with resources beyond the local community, however, knowledge of how to access and integrate technology is important for successful execution (South, 2017).
Programmatic features related to curriculum can help prepare teacher candidates for rural placements and support preservice teachers in developing instructional practices that focus on place and leverage local resources for STEM teaching (Avery, 2013). Carefully designed and guided rural field experiences can support preservice teachers in understanding the rural context as an important and a distinct site of practice (Eppley, 2015; Hudson & Hudson, 2008). When EPPs require assignments that foster an understanding of local communities, that may strengthen educators’ ability to plan instruction for rural students. For example, some EPPs engage teacher candidates in a “community walk”, inviting them to learn about the community by visiting local businesses, walking in neighborhoods, and engaging with residents who live there about what they value for their students. In both California and Montana teacher candidates learn about the rural communities where they have field experiences. They visit local businesses, walk through downtown, talk with rural residents about their aspirations for students and schools, and identify rural resources for teaching. These powerful experiences change teacher candidates’ assumptions about place (Downey, 2021; Schulte, 2018).
Another example is a focus on place-based pedagogy. Most common in the sciences, place-based pedagogy communicates the importance of local contexts as valid and important sites of study, engages learners, and provides a bridge to the wider curriculum (Dubel & Sobel, 2008; Smith, 2017). Teacher preparation programs can prepare teachers to identify local resources and use strategies such as citizen science to center place in STEM teaching and learning (Dani, 2019).
Programmatic features related to conveyance focus on access to teacher education programs. EPPs may attempt to recruit local residents who have knowledge of, and attachment to, the community or familiarity with rural living, and who may therefore be more likely to persist after the first year of teaching (Gagnon & Mattingly, 2015). “Grow-your-own” programs are one strategy for helping rural communities identify and nurture local talent to staff rural schools. Offering courses on site in rural communities or through distance learning can address geographic barriers that make enrollment in teacher education programs a challenge. Field experiences in rural schools may introduce suburban and urban preservice teachers to rural contexts and lead them to consider teaching careers in rural locations. Scholarships and loan forgiveness programs are also features of conveyance that encourage prospective teachers to consider teaching positions in rural schools. Montana State University, for example, recently received federal funding for a post-Bachelor’s licensure program to address rural teacher shortages for remote Montana schools that includes a combination of scholarships and incentives, online coursework that includes a residency in a remote rural community, and place-focused mentoring across the first years of teaching.
Research on Rural STEM Teacher Preparation and Retention
There is a broad collection of literature focusing on urban teaching and learning and resources for EPPs that want to address teaching in an urban environment. There are many fewer resources that explicitly address rurality in teacher preparation—and even fewer that focus on preparing diverse teachers for high-need schools in rural communities. A limited number of teacher educators and EPPs are engaging in practices that address context, curriculum, and conveyance for rural teaching—including some NSF Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship programs. However, to date, much of the scholarship about rural-focused teacher preparation is theoretical or qualitative in nature, focusing on teacher candidates’ perceptions of rural teaching (e.g., Azano & Stewart, 2015; Eppley, 2015; Moffa & McHenry-Sorber, 2018) and does not follow new teachers through the first years of teaching to evaluate impact on teacher retention.
Our Noyce Track 4 research project, Teacher Preparation for Rural STEM Teacher Preparation and Retention (TPR)2 strives to learn more about the impact of the three Cs in STEM teacher education. Housed at Mississippi State University, (TPR)2 is a collaboration with rural serving institutions of higher learning from across the U.S. The (TPR)2 project will identify features of EPPs and Noyce programs that focus on place in context, curriculum, and conveyance. Most of our partners have specifically designed their Noyce programs to focus on preparing teachers for high-need rural schools through a combination of scholarships, incentives, and experiences (e.g., Fort Hayes State). Data include interviews with faculty and administrators seeking to identify any recruitment incentives, programmatic design elements, course assignments or readings, field experiences, or other ways that programs address rurality. We are also tracking program completers through their first two or three years of teaching and inviting them to respond to surveys about their plans to teach in rural schools during the final semester of the program (typically, during student teaching) and during the first and second years of teaching. The surveys address the attitudes of preservice teachers towards rural placements as well as the success and satisfaction of in-service teachers in their initial teaching positions. Through analyses of these data and careful reflection, we seek to identify features of EPPs that either hinder or facilitate STEM teacher recruitment, retention, and persistence in rural schools.
Although we are just getting started, our collaborating partners are already sharing how they purposefully and explicitly address rurality in their programs. Some offer seminars about rural teaching, provide early and intensive field experiences in rural schools, engage teacher candidates in rural community visits that focus on understanding the role of schools in rural places, and provide scholarships for future STEM teachers who plan to work in rural classrooms. A few programs are using a new textbook, Teaching in Rural Places: Thriving in Classrooms, Schools and Communities, as a resource and discussion guide for aspiring rural STEM teachers. Co-authored by one of the (TPR)2 PIs, the book focuses on concrete strategies for learning about, living, and working in rural communities and can serve as a resource for educator preparation. Over the next four years, the (TPR)2 project will provide new information about how STEM teacher preparation programs are preparing educators for roles in high-need rural schools and whether those features are related to teacher persistence and retention.
The three Cs—conveyance, curriculum, and context—can serve as a framework for reflection on teacher preparation coursework and programs and not just those that are preparing teachers for rural schools. This framework may be a powerful starting point for any teacher educator whose goal is to address equity and prepare teachers for high-need schools.
- Conveyance: Consider whether and how prospective teachers with ties to local communities have access to educator preparation programs and how to structure programs to provide experiences in schools and communities that teachers might not otherwise consider as potential teaching places.
- Curriculum: Think about how we are preparing teachers specifically for the schools and communities where our candidates are likely to teach through field experiences, place-focused teacher preparation, readings, and assignments.
- Context: Examine assumptions about the places our institutions serve (and the teacher candidates from those places), to challenge stereotypes and to learn about the complex histories (including both the strengths and historical inequities) that will influence new teachers lives and work in those places. The work of teaching happens with people—with students, families, and colleagues—in the places where they live and that they care about. While most teacher education is place-agnostic, a specific focus on place can be an important step toward equity.
We look forward to the next four years as we gather data to document how STEM teacher preparation programs are preparing teachers for roles in high-need rural schools and determine through our research if those features are related to teacher persistence and retention.