The following excerpt is from a story shared by our friends at Rural Schools Collaborative as part of their I Am A Rural Teacher project. Please view the full story on their website: https://iamaruralteacher.org/stories/vinnie-rivera-mcleansboro-il
Vinnie Rivera didn’t grow up in a rural place, but he is no stranger to small town life.
“My mom grew up on a dairy farm in Iowa and I went to that farm multiple times a year as a child, so I've never really been a stranger to rural, very, very small town areas. Some of the greatest memories of my life are in towns even smaller than McLeansboro. It's not foreign to me, and I do feel like I have that advantage.”
He had thought about being a teacher before, but it took some persuasion and guidance from the mentors in his life to finally pursue teaching as a career.
“When I went to college the first time, I initially went to be a teacher. By the time I graduated, I didn't have an education degree and I had convinced myself that I didn't want to be a teacher. My mentor, Hector Hernandez, encouraged me to apply for a tutoring job at the school that he worked at, so I did. Within one hour I felt so much regret. I got there and I got to working with students and I was like - ‘This is what you should do, this is what you should do.’”
When it came time to start his teaching career, Vinnie was excited for the opportunity to teach in a rural place. It was no accident that he relocated to southern Illinois from the Chicago area; the power of relationships led him directly to McLeansboro.
“I heard about this particular position, at this school, two years before I even had an interview. The person who had this job before me is a very, very close friend of mine. She told me all the things that she got to do, and that she got to do band and theater. I was like, ‘Wait a minute, band and theater? That's the dream. I want that job. If you leave that job, I want that job.’ For some crazy reason, it opened up and I got it. I’ve felt really lucky the entire time.”
Relationships continue to be a focal point for Vinnie, especially in his classroom. The bonds forged between himself, his band members, and his community are integral to the music program’s success.
“One of the advantages about teaching in a small town is the family aspect can go way deeper. I student-taught at a high school that had a band of 180 and there were kids that had never talked to other kids in that band. That doesn't happen here. All these kids - they talk to each other, they respect each other, and we're a really solid family here in Hamilton County. I think that we have that advantage over a lot of bigger programs because we're a smaller program.”
More than passing familiarity between teacher and student, Vinnie remarks how these relationships are founded on a genuine sense of trust and determination to see students achieve their very best:
“You can't ask a student to do more than what they're able to do, and if you throw a challenge at them and they're not getting it, you can't just let them sink. I was just talking with a student today and they were struggling and I asked them, ‘Do you trust me?’ They said yes and I said, ‘I will not abandon you.’ I just try to get the kids to not put roadblocks in front of themselves. It's not ‘I can't, it’s ‘I can't yet, but I can get there.’”
On the other hand, a lack of funding and resources can pose a particular challenge to arts programs in rural places.
“Being in a place where I'm the only band teacher in the whole district, you just can't accomplish as many things as you can accomplish in bigger programs that have four or five directors and multiple private lesson teachers for all of the kids.”
Still, he remains optimistic:
“At the end of the day, it's still band. Whether it's band in a big town, or band in a small town, it's still band. And if there's one thing in this life I know how to do, I know how to do band.”