Tamara Ward is a Heinemann Fellow with the 2014–2016 class, and has been an educator for 11 years. In today's post, Tamara offers the firsthand perspective of a teacher in a rural setting, with all of its unique challenges.
by Tamara Ward
Let’s be honest, being a teacher from a rural school of less than 80 kids in a state that has more cows than people just makes you a little less noticeable. So when I opened the email informing me that I had been selected as a Heinemann Fellow, I almost fainted. When I say I almost fainted, I mean I almost passed out, hit the ground, and needed a bucket of cold water dumped on my head. I am not being overly dramatic when I say I was shocked. You see, I knew in my heart of hearts that my chance of being selected would be slim to none, but I still felt I could provide a unique perspective from an often forgotten population of teachers. But, to my shock and amazement, my application was noticed and selected.
Like me, Heinemann knows that I am only one of many teachers across America working hard to make a difference for children attending rural schools. In fact, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly one-third of all public school children receive their education in a rural school with roughly 57% of all operating public school districts being located in rural areas. I hadn't really planned on becoming a teacher in a rural school, but that's where my search led me.
When I completed my teaching degree at the age of 34 after staying home with two little ones of my own, I could hardly wait for my first job. I was willing to try anything and applied for everything. After searching for the perfect job, I finally found an opening in a rural school district near where I graduated and prayed I would be offered an interview. The job posting said, “Part-time kindergarten and multiple other duties.” It sounded perfect—and it was. I knew the minute I walked into the one hundred year old building, with a recess bell you pulled by hand, that it was perfect! I was offered a job as a teacher of kindergarten, K-6 physical education, K–6 music, and Title I reading.
Because small rural schools lack the resources and staffing of larger schools, teaching in them is more than just teaching.
And it has been perfect in so many ways, but teaching in a rural school is also filled with its own unique challenges. For one thing, because small rural schools lack the resources and staffing of larger schools, teaching in them is more than just teaching. Like so many others in these settings, I am called on to wear many hats and have to roll up my sleeves and pitch in no matter what needs to be done. At various times I've been called on to be janitor, nurse, handyman, counselor, snow shoveler, classroom painter, lightbulb changer, technology trouble-shooter, and field trip driver. But no one told me any of this as I prepared to become a teacher in college. I would have remembered this multi-tasking detail; I’m sure of it.
I also wasn't really prepared to face another of the common challenges specific to rural schools. Many years I've been asked to teach all subject areas to multiple grade levels, often in a single classroom. While the actual number of students in my classes is similar to the average class size in urban schools, the number of required standards doubles, and in my case this year even triples as I teach a combined class of 4th, 5th and 6th graders.
This is the challenge that keeps me up at night. It’s not the lack of all the luxuries that come with a bigger school, like a staff restroom! It’s not the lack of grade level cohorts. It isn’t even the dead field mouse I stepped over in the school basement, although that one has merit. What keeps me up at night are the twenty eight children from three grade levels with diverse learning styles and needs, in addition to the seven-hundred-seventy-seven common core state standards I must teach and assess.
So, my hope as I begin my journey as a Heinemann Fellow is that I am not alone. That somewhere out there in rural America there are other teachers who are struggling to meet the needs of the children in their charge. I invite you to join me as I examine the effects a multidisciplinary literacy block has on the types of vocabulary students use in their writing. Together we can share struggles, solutions, strategies and musings—from a rural school perspective.
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Tamara Ward is a fifth and sixth grade teacher at Creston Elementary School in Kalispell, MT. Her action research question will focus on the ways a multidisciplinary learning block in the fifth and sixth grade setting affects the vocabulary that students use in their writing.
Please visit the Heinemann Fellows page to learn more.