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  • General Information
    I Am A Rural Teacher is a national advocacy campaign funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that wrapped up in December 2020. It is a collaboration between the National Rural Education Association and the Rural Schools Collaborative, and AIRSS assisted in facilitating the digital aspects of the campaign. Although it "ended" in December, the work continues, and RSC is still accepting perspectives. Official statement from Rural Schools Collaborative: We are pleased to announce the launch of the I Am a Rural Teacher Campaign, a national conversation that will give voice to rural teachers, share their powerful and diverse stories, and advocate for the rural teaching profession. This effort will also complement our ongoing efforts to strengthen the recruitment of rural teacher-leaders. I Am a Rural Teacher is a collaboration between the Community Foundation of the Ozarks, Rural Schools Collaborative, National Rural Education Association, Alabama's Black Belt Teacher Corps, and Missouri's Ozarks Teacher Corps. The project is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. ​ Thanks again to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for providing a national platform for authentic rural teacher voices. Stay tuned for more information in the days ahead! Get involved with the #IAmARuralTeacher campaign by doing any or all of the following... ​ Submit stories at Share stories by tagging the IAART page (type @ and then I Am A Rural Teacher) and using hashtag #IAmARuralTeacher Join the teacher-to-teacher discussion at Read more IAART stories at ​ ...and of course remember to follow @IAARTCampaign on all social media platforms to know the latest about the campaign, see our story features, and share perspectives with your community! ​ IAART Facebook: IAART Twitter: IAART Instagram: IAART Illinois-level Facebook:
  • Submit your story here.
    Tell us about your experience as a rural teacher, or nominate another outstanding rural teacher. You may choose to one of our above prompts or feel free to write about anything you feel is important. Click here to submit to I Am A Rural Teacher.
  • Read the Illinois Feature Story - Kylee Payne, Monmouth, IL"
    Imagine being a first-year teacher, in a school where kids speak 19 languages, in the age of COVID-19. This month IAART is featuring Kylee Payne of Monmouth, IL. Thank you to partners at Monmouth College, Galesburg Community Foundation, and the Teton Science Schools Place Network. Read Kylee's story here.
  • Bridging the Digital Divide: COVID-19 Brings an Illinois Community Together
    Adapting to the new realities of work, home and social life brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in higher levels of stress and uncertainty for most people. These worries are no less true for public schools--- especially in our rural school districts. With this advent of this crisis, rural schools had to quickly transform lesson plans and teaching methods---at times having been given just days or even hours to prepare, while also needing to teach a student body that is typically more dispersed, lacking in critical infrastructure, and less economically stable than their urban counterparts. Despite these challenges rural schools are stepping up to the task at hand and creating effective systems for handling the crisis while boosting school morale and fostering community solidarity in the process. Situated at the western edge of Illinois along the Mississippi river, West Central CUSD #235 serves roughly 800 students spread across a patchwork of small communities in Henderson County. In many ways, West Central and Henderson County are characteristic of much of rural America, with widespread poverty, an aging infrastructure, and a historic trend of economic, capital, and population flight. When Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker recently ordered schools to close across the state, West Central teachers and staff were forced to recreate curricula and redefine the role of their school in the community. Despite the daunting task at hand, Superintendent Paula Markey is excited with how the response has evolved in Henderson County. Before becoming superintendent, Markey was a teacher in numerous rural schools throughout the region, even serving as an instructor at Spoon River Community College for a time. Over the course of her career, Markey became familiar with the range of challenges and limitations all too common within rural schools, as well as the resolve often found in these communities in times of need. So, she was overjoyed when district faculty and staff also rose to meet the needs of its students in a variety of new ways, and that community members themselves poured out to support and show encouragement for all the school has instituted. Markey remarks that West Central had a relatively “smooth” transition into the new realities of digital learning, social distancing, and community outreach. She expresses both excitement and pride in discovering that they were “…really more prepared to go this route than we thought before,” and over the course of just a few days, teachers and staff were able to provide what has proven to be vital services for their students and hometowns. Digital Transition Like schools all over the country, classrooms and lesson plans at West Central went digital. However, many rural districts across the U.S. often do not have the infrastructure, funding, or training to make this necessary change. Despite facing similar challenges, Superintendent Markey proudly explained how West Central had for a number of years fought to provide “one-to-one” services for students, offering them personal, school-issued laptops from grade school until graduation. An integral part of this strategy was to acclimate students to Google Classroom, Khan Academy, and similar educational websites to enrich in-class experiences. Now, as Markey details, this preemptive move gives West Central a “leg-up” in the current situation. According to West Central 4th Grade teacher, Amy Wolf, “this has definitely been an ‘accept things as we go’ kind of situation.” Wolf has been a member of the West Central team for 13 years, and over the course of her time at the school she has come to find that the “…district is blessed with many different personalities and teaching styles, along with incredible administration and technology. As a school, we’ve come to depend on those differences as we adapt to this new normal.” Describing this transition to the new digital format, Wolf feels they have “…gone through phases [or] steps with accepting this situation. As I watched the news…I started thinking about maybe needing to buy some extra Clorox wipes for more frequent wiping down of desks, door knobs, etc.…Looking back, I guess it was kind of nice to be able to be that naïve! About a week prior to the closings, I wondered if we might need to have some things in place for maybe a week or two, so I started thinking about some very broad range planning and how I could take what I already had planned and adapt those plans to a remote learning situation.” Amidst all the changes going on in the students’ daily lives, Wolf explains that “I’ve tried to keep as many of our regular daily routines in place as possible because I feel like those routines bring the students feelings of comfort…” And along with an assortment of educational websites for math, science, and reading, Wolf says that they have also “tried to incorporate virtual field trips into some of our days, and we’ve tried to think outside the box on how to assess those experiences.” In all, her “tactic has been to try to integrate the things we do on a routine basis into the unfamiliar remote learning process to make this change easier for all of us.” And while teaching virtually can never fully make up for an in-class experience, Wolf shares that “the students have been the saving grace for me personally throughout all of this. I am beyond proud of each and every one of my students and their families! It’s not the ideal situation, but together we’re trying to make the most of it!” Challenges Remain Yet not everyone has transitioned as smoothly, and important challenges remain for some teachers and their students. Most notably, Superintendent Markey reveals, kindergarten through 2nd grade classes and the district’s special education and educational assistance programs are not set up to operate digitally like other grade levels. Additionally, parts of Henderson County, like many rural communities, have insufficient internet infrastructure to support the full range of virtual classwork, or simply do not have access to the internet at all. But this added challenge has not stopped teachers, like Julie Ricketts, from meeting the challenges. Having taught at the school in various roles for 19 years, Ricketts is a West Central veteran and has actually worked at the school since before the district was consolidated in 2005. While Ricketts taught early elementary in the past, she has since become one of West Central’s three “Title One” teachers, a program which offers learning assistance to early elementary students. Even on a typical day, Ricketts recalls that “…to do our jobs you have to be extremely flexible because you can start the day with a plan and then due to the many needs of our students and staff the day can do a complete 360 and you either end up spending a lot of time with one student who needs some emotional assistance or you could become a sub for a class.” Now with the demands to offer her services to a range of students across different grades and with widely differing home situations, Ricketts remarks that “with any change, we have had our difficulties…there has been a definite learning curve to it all.” But she has found success in the new rhythm of staying-at-home, “…I have assisted 1st and 4th grade the most with their curriculums. 1st grade has been doing packets, so the students having internet access [have] not been as big of a concern. 4th grade on the other hand [has been] trying to do most of their work using Google Classroom and it has worked pretty well.” While Ricketts, Superintendent Markey, and their colleagues have overcome the immediate challenges by utilizing work packets and special offers from local internet service providers to extend coverage to students, the absence of the classroom community remains the hardest felt challenge of them all. The hardship was evidenced by Mrs. Wolf when she spoke about teaching from a distance, “We have had Zoom meetings as a class, and I can see in their eyes how comforting these times together as a class are for them. I have to fight back tears when I see them, and I know that’s the case with all of the other staff as well!” Meal Delivery Along with the innovative methods West Central teachers are implementing for student education, staff at the school have also stepped up in a big way to serve the community at large through offering meals for students. Aside from providing education, many rural students and their families are deeply reliant upon public schools as a distributor of critical food resources throughout most of the year. With schools planning to remain closed for the remainder of this school year, this has put an unexpected and unsustainable economic burden on families already at risk. Answering the call of the Illinois State Board of Education to ensure that families in need are not cut off from these crucial resources, Superintendent Markey acted quickly with her food and transportation staff to organize a system of preparing and delivering meals across the county. Markey notes how “free and reduced lunches are about 55% of our student population, so this is a way for those students to have a way through this time…and it offers [parents] a little peace knowing that they have this for their kids.” She ensures that all students, regardless of their situation, are eligible to receive these meals and can begin receiving them after opting into the program online or with a phone call to the district office. Once registered, students are able to pick up three days’ worth of meals, twice a week at nine different locations in various towns across the county. Since launching meal services the same week schools were shuttered, Markey says how the “number of people who’ve signed-up has increased every day.” She estimates that “about 250 kids were doing [the program],” amounting to roughly 1600 meals provided every pick-up day. Hoping to support student mental and emotional wellness through this program as well, Markey explains how she and her staff “printed out positive notes as a little pick-me-up for students to receive when opening their meals.” In a previous meal run, West Central staff and drivers also adorned school buses used for delivering meals with small paper hearts to keep students optimistic and comforted. In response to using the school infrastructure to provide for students and their families in more ways than education alone, Markey remarks how “people that are participating [in the program] have had nothing but positive comments.” In This Together: Supporting the West Central Family from a Distance While it may seem that West Central is an exceptional case with how it has adapted to the new normal and overcome immediate challenges, both Ricketts and Wolf, as well as Superintendent Markey, each acknowledge that the key to the success of the district’s actions is in no small part due to the distinct sense of family--- which unites teachers, students, and their communities—an advantage which strengthens and unifies many rural schools toward a common and collective purpose. In Superintendent Markey’s eyes, all public schools during this crisis, West Central included, have a duty to serve their area beyond education alone. While as a school, teachers and staff at West Central remain concerned with providing education, Markey maintains that they all were primarily committed to the safety and health of their students and communities. She explains that “now is a time for loving each other and doing all one can to help our neighbors and hometowns.” Mrs. Ricketts agrees, “I think that the impact the school is having on the community is amazing...I have seen many heartwarming comments and gratitude on social media to our teachers and administrators.” She recalls how on April 8th, “…the football lights were turned on at the field and many staff members came and parked their cars in the parking lot and students and families were able to drive through the parking lot and we waved and honked our horns. It was one more way to show we were in this together.” And for Mrs. Wolf too, at the school she says how “everyone has pulled together and is sharing ideas, letting each other know what’s working, what maybe could be improved.” For Henderson County, Wolf feels “like it has pulled our community together even more than before. The parents are working so hard to do what needs to be done for their children’s education! They amaze me with how they go above and beyond in finding extra things to do that go hand in hand with what we are teaching online…Beyond education, people are so willing to do whatever it takes to help their neighbors. I see and hear more people showing their appreciation and extending heartfelt gestures…One thing I know for sure is that people from rural communities are some of the most ‘make do’, hardworking, and loyal people in the world!” Key Takeaways While adjusting to the new requirements of life under quarantine have not been easy, students, teachers, and school-families across our rural communities have remained persistent in their fight to find the “new normal” and succeed despite the debilitating mix of challenges, both new and old, which they currently face. For West Central CUSD, the united efforts of the school, students, and towns have proven to all involved what we’ve believed all along: that local schools are a crucial source of vitality and action in rural communities. In Henderson County, the COVID experience has brought its fair share of fear and anxiety, but so too has this novel crisis brought inspiration. Superintendent Paula Markey expresses deep gratitude when reflecting on all that is going on at West Central: “We just step up and help out without worrying about what we’re going to get out of it. This [experience] has just reinforced that. I can’t say how proud I am of our district. Our mission statement is ‘providing opportunity and expecting excellence.’ We are continuing to provide opportunity for our students and the staff have stepped up and stayed positive.” Julie Ricketts also “can’t be more thankful and feel more blessed to work with the educators” in her district. Looking forward to the post-COVID future, Ricketts remains optimistic: “I think when this is all said and done and we can get back to some normalcy there will be a new found gratitude for each other and these wonderful students…This has all been surreal, but in the end I believe a lot of great things are going to come from it…I have to believe that!” And until we enjoy life again after the crisis, Amy Wolf reminds us that “people are resilient. Children are resilient… I see living and raising families in our rural community as a great strength! We will get through this and come out better for having experienced it!” Article written by John Glasgow, RSC Research Assistant in Monmouth, IL.
  • Read Short Illinois Perspectives
    Here we will be including copies of Illinois submissions to the program, including the great response we've had to our COVID-19 Rural Community Impact project. Jordan Bear – Neoga, IL My name is Jordan Bear and I am a K-8 Technology Teacher at the Neoga School District in Central Illinois. I have been teaching at a rural school for my whole 11 year career and I love it. Neoga is a small town with a population of 1,600. Our school district has about 550 students K-12. We have 2 principals, a dean of students/athletic director, 47 certified staff and 30 support personnel. As a teacher many of us get into the field to have a positive impact on students. At a rural school the impact can be felt district-wide and even in the community. I have around 350 students that I see in a year; I see over 150 different students in a week. At a small district it is every student K-8 that I will see in the course of a year. I have a chance to build positive relationships with not only a single student, but their whole family as I often have brothers, sisters, and cousins. I see their parents and grandparents at the student drop off line each morning. I see students transition from elementary to jr. high and I am a familiar face as they make that jump. It creates a much clearer picture for me as a teacher that I can use to help understand where the students are coming from and help them where they are at. Teaching becomes much more individualized and for me it is more meaningful and impactful. I have two daughters and we moved to Neoga shortly after I was hired here in 2015. It is a small town and my wife and I had some concerns about what life would be like for our children going to school in a small town. After having one of my daughters attend here since kindergarten and now in the second grade, I cannot imagine her going to a larger school and having the same support and opportunities that she has here at a smaller rural school. If my daughter has to go to the nurse it is not uncommon for me to get a text message from the secretary notifying me. Almost every staff member knows who my child is; whether it is cooks, secretaries, custodial staff, or other teachers and as a parent there is a huge comfort knowing that people know and are looking out for your child. At a small school it is the norm for all teachers to know every student to some capacity. Another advantage that a rural school can provide is resources. It doesn’t seem like it would be true, but we have many resources available to our students here in little Neoga. I am focusing on technology resources, being a technology teacher. We have classroom sets of Chromebooks all the way down to second grade, as well as three computer labs with new desktop computers and Promethean Boards in every classroom. We have three 3D printers and students as young as 3rd grade are using Computer Aided Design (CAD) to create and print 3D models. Students build and code Lego Robots to complete challenges. We have a drone and a GoPro that we use for photo and video editing. Elementary students do a newscast that we put on YouTube (NES News; check it out!) and we use green screen technology, a camcorder and audio and video editing to put together a small newscast for the school. With some of my jr. high students we have built an arcade using a Raspberry Pi; we are working with the Neoga Agriculture Department to build a case for the arcade using their CNC machine. Jr. high students are also coding using Arduino microcontrollers that were purchased for our classroom by the Neoga PTO. Larger schools may have some or even all of these resources to some capacity, but the difference at a rural school with smaller classes is that every student will have these classes in the elementary and jr. high and have exposure and experience with these technologies. It is not an elective, it is part of the curriculum. Sheila Greenwood - Bement, IL "Our staff has really risen up to the challenge. They are the calm in the middle of the storm and they are keeping kids as their number one priority. We are providing breakfast, lunch and milks for all of the children who need meals over this break. Putting together 800 meals took an army of volunteers and at the center of it was community members and the Bement staff. We are also providing our students with learning opportunities and communicating with them during this time. We are also paying everyone their normal salary plus benefits, so that added stress is gone! We will get through this, we are strong, we are Bement!" Deon Hall – Norris City, IL During this time of E-learning we have all been stretched. We have had to think outside of the box to be able to reach All of our students. What works for one family, may not work for another. We are reaching out to each student via text, email and classroom dojo. Each student has been given hard copies of work that is at their level. We have also been able to Google meet meeting with our students. We have sent postcards letting our kids know how much we miss them. As teachers we are here for our students and their families to help out in any way possible. We love and miss all of our students and we can't wait to see them again! Victoria Norton – Martinsville, IL View the video compilation on our Facebook page: Or our YouTube channel: We are feeding every child who wishes to have meals. Currently, we have 2 delivery routes in town and 2 country routes as well as a curbside pick-up service for students wishing to pick up meals. Over 25 % of our student population has no access to internet/electronic forms of communication. We have staff that volunteer to distribute and deliver meals. Staff are contacting families through whatever means they can: phone, email, class communication tools, home visits (socially distant ones). Our counselor is trying to do phone counseling and does assist with meal delivery to touch base with students who need social/emotional support. Our parents are completely overwhelmed with either having to work and leaving kids home to care for themselves or have experienced job losses and are experiencing social/emotional trauma themselves. Our school administration asks that staff provide a menu of learning choices for our Pre-k through 6th grade so students can complete whatever tasks they can with the supplies/supports they have. For example, for those without internet/electronics, they can do paper-based activities. For those with means, optional educational websites are recommended. We encourage teachers, support staff, and specialty staff to offer family educational activities since there may be several children living at home in various grade levels. We understand the complexities and stress placed on our families; therefore, we have asked staff to follow these 4 C's: Connect: relationships are key; Condense: less is more; Choice: provide meaningful opportunities for students to choose from and when they submit their completed work staff provide meaningful feedback; Communicate: inform parents and students of expectations and give clear instructions. We have tried to use our social media for lots of positive communication from virtual spirit week, student challenges to return work (teachers had to get pie in face or bucket of water on head), partnered with EIU to push out a free coloring sheet for students to color and submit a photo that was highlighted on our social media as well as the University (we get many practicum students and student teachers from EIU so it was a bonus for us and for EIU). Our librarian has sacked up books for every child and we've distributed those as well to keep kids reading at home. Our music teacher made a video of herself playing musical instruments kids can make at home. Our staff members have made 2 videos for our students and put them on social media...the most recent one was to the tune of Rocky. We have a small staff of less than 35 at Martinsville Elementary school, but they do amazing things each day. For students who have not picked up learning materials, they've delivered. For those who need help with activities, staff have stepped up and offered phone or virtual assistance. They are working harder than ever in a unique way. The hashtag I chose at the beginning of the year was "EVERY child counts--EVERY moment matters," I had no idea that we would find ourselves in this remote learning environment where that # is more poignant than ever. Tracy Orr - Carmi, IL "I believe our community is one of the best. Our superintendent, administrators, and teachers have all gone above and beyond to make sure our students stay on track, the best they can. From a parent’s perspective you can, literally, feel the love the teachers sent home with kiddos as they walked out for, quite possibly, the last time. Our community has also stepped up and is providing lunches in different locations for hungry students to pick up. Being a rural community, most of our students depend on the school’s breakfast and lunch program to curb their rumbling stomachs. I’m so proud to be a part of a district that puts those students needs first and make it a priority to make sure they’re provided for. How is this “stay at home” initiative effecting my family? We are choosing to see it as a gift. We’ve always dreamed of the opportunity to slow down. Now we get the chance. We are using the curriculum that was sent home to “home school”. We are spending time reading the Bible and praying together. We are creating things and playing outside together. We are establishing family game nights and eating at the table together. Yes, this is a scary time. Yes, I feel like we are in the middle of a movie! But we are seizing the day and using this opportunity to become the family God intended us to be. One who enjoys one another, helps others, and stands firm in our faith." Timothy Smith - Princeton, IL "Our district is continuing to offer breakfast and lunch to any and all students during the closure. Bus delivery of the food is available at the request of the recipient. Otherwise, designated pick up locations are the school building the student attends. (Food can be picked up for all children at one site if the family has students in multiple buildings). Teachers are currently working remotely to prepare alternative learning instruction in the event the school closure is extended. Our spring break is the week of March 23rd, so no alternative instruction is planned for that week. The "Buddy Bags" program, which provides food for students over breaks will cover the week of spring break." Leslie Varble – Carbondale, IL "I just wanted to take a moment to share some of the amazing acts of kindness that are going on within our Unity Point School. Our staff has been simply incredible throughout the Covid-19 crisis. Every individual within this organization continues to meet the needs of our students. Our kitchen staff is preparing 700-800 meals a day, custodial staff/drivers are delivering food, and our faculty/paraprofessionals continue to reach out and connect with students and families on a daily basis--engaging students but also caring for them. I feel so blessed to be a part of a truly outstanding/caring group of people. They truly are letting their light shine!" Thad Walker - Meredosia, IL "We are working very hard to see that all of students are getting lunches and continuous engagement. As of today we have handed out 155 lunches and breakfast bags. We have everyone pick up their packets for learning. Through this hard time is great to see how small town/ rural people ride tot the occasion. We have had an influx of volunteers throughout the day. The staff has brought a lot of laughter and smiles to the parents and students today. We are 100% free and reduced school with a lot of our families not having access to wi-fi, so we have decided to do packets. The families have been very receptive and appreciative of what we have been able to give. I am the superintendent of one of the smallest rural schools in the state and I could not imagine being any place else, I absolutely love my job and my peers that I work with. We pride ourselves on being a family school with family values." Steve Wilder - Knoxville, IL "I'm so proud of our school district for rising to the occasion in many ways. The two that come to mind are providing e-learning opportunities for students for continuous education, and feeding students. Our kitchen staff has come in without hesitation to prepare meals, and our staff filled a volunteer sign up in short order to help distribute the meals. I participated in meal distribution today and was in awe of how much our staff enjoyed helping our families, enjoyed being together, and were touched by the gratitude of our families. Our staff and community have been rockstars!!!" Ciara Willhite - Franklin, IL I choose to teach in rural schools because of the small class sizes. When I taught in a large city, I would easily see a class size of more than 35 students. Working in a rural school allows me class sizes on average of about 20 students. This allows me to differentiate instruction much easier, work one-on-one with struggling students, and manage classroom behavior. This is a huge advantage that rural schools can offer teachers. Our town has a large sense of community. Being an extremely small town, everyone knows everyone. We are constantly doing outreach, whether it's a food drive for the Lions Club or a blood drive for the blood bank, our students are always supporting our community. Franklin is a small farming community, most of our students have ties to farming. This influences my teaching. I try to make connections in my content to something my students do everyday, like farming. One state-level policy recommendation would be to allocate more funds for professional development. Comparing our PD to that of a large city, we do not have the opportunities that these schools have. Traveling to large conferences would greatly impact rural teachers' pedagogy and instructional methods. It could possibly even strength our content knowledge. We could directly implement things we learned from these conferences to our classes, therefore helping students and bringing their learning to the 21st century. Erin Zinzilieta-Pennington - Carmi, IL "Even though school has not been in session in Carmi school district, meals are still being provided. According to Miranda Stimson, head cook at CWCHS, 962 meals have been delivered to students from March 17th – March 20th; in addition to 125 adult meals. Volunteers from the community, as well as teachers, have been bagging up the meals in the high school cafeteria for delivery. The goal is to continue this trend as long as school is dismissed. Food is currently being handed out Monday and Wednesday from 11:30 – 12, at the following locations: Lincoln School, Church of God, Stewart Street Church, Faith Tabernacle, First United Methodist, Crossville UMC, and Maunie Park."
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