The Heinemann Fellows: Tamara Ward on Giving Voice to Rural Schools

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.

20 thoughts on “The Heinemann Fellows: Tamara Ward on Giving Voice to Rural Schools

  1. Michele


    Your research on application of vocabulary in writing is a topic for all educators.  It is challenging to measure students' vocabulary growth, and looking at student writing is spot on.  Thanks, also, for representing the voice of the rural and Montana educator!

  2. Tami Ward

    Michele, you are an inspiration to me and the reason that I continue to question and grow as an educator!  Thank you for all you do to challenge me to search deeper.


  3. T Jay

    Rural schools across the U. S. have long be overlooked by the educational community and it is refreshing to see them given a voice, I hope many wakeup to the fact that these small rural schools are an important part of the American educational system. Rural educators, get involved share your concerns and ideas! Keep up the good work Tamara.

    1. Tami Ward

      Thank you TJay for your shared enthusiasm of the importance of rural education.  I appreciate your call to action for rural educators to get involved and voice concerns.  Together we can make a difference!

  4. Ginger Jay

    Great job!  Small schools seem easy to those of us working in the big city- but of course they have their own troubles and challenges as well- NO STAFF BATHROOM?  Eeek.  Perhaps we should play city mouse/country mouse one day and switch for a while?  Yes?

    1. Tami Ward

      It would be a great project to give students a peek into the lives of students in schools different than their own. Often we live in the bubble of our own environment assuming all teaching and learning is the same.   Thank you for taking the time to read and comment about the challenges rural teachers face.  Possibly the research completed in a rural school environment could be used in both rural and non-rural schools alike.

  5. Logan

    Rural schools are an extremely undervalued portion of our education system. Just think! You are instructing our future farmers, ranchers, miners, and forestry workers. This is an irreplaceable part of our society and should be revered as an irreplaceable part of our education network. 

    1. Tami Ward

      Logan, thank you for your support for rural schools!  I hope to partner with you and others in the mining/science industry as we work to prepare students for future careers.  Stay tuned to the discoveries we are making in future blog posts.

  6. Hazel Jay

    Even if you were not my daughter, I would still think this was one of the finest articles I have read concerning education. I spent five years as an English teacher in a high school of about 80-90 students . . . challenging, exciting, rewarding, and at times frustrating . . . but one of my finest experiences. You've nailed it! Good job!


  7. Eliza A. Thomas

    Wow!  What a great picture you've painted with your words of the important role of the rural educator!  You are a leader among them and I can't wait to see where the conversation goes as other rural educators from across the US share their insights with you on your action research project.  We're proud to have you in our consortium as you give locally, learn nationally, and educate passionately in both arenas–you are an educational gladiator!  You go girl!  

  8. Rachael Munday

    Tami, well said! I had the opportunity to teach in an amazing rural school for five years.  The experience was both rewarding and challenging; all too often rural schools and their teachers are over-looked.  However, I was fortunate enough to work with and learn from dedicated and extremely hard-working professionals.  My experience was invaluable!

  9. Debbie Savik


    Wow!  I can't even begin to imagine wearing all of those hats.  Although I'm from a rural town myself, I taught in the big city and I hadn't even considered some of these challenges.  Thanks for sharing and for opening up this much needed discussion!


  10. Bridget Martel


    Incredibly written and totally spot on!!  Your words took me back to a wonderful time in my teaching career.  My first teaching job was teaching grades 1-3, music, and tumbling – then later I taught grades 5-8, Music, PE, Art, was a Janitor, sometimes a Plumber, and so on…  :-)

    There is just something special about a rural school and the minds that grow with in it. I look forward to following your blog. <3

  11. Ellin Keene

    As you already know, Tami, I love this piece for so many reasons and now we know that rural educators have responded and seem to hope for more conversation about the unique challenges you face.  Your study has suddenly morphed into a whole new arena.  I couldn't be more delighted!!

  12. Lorilee Cabrera

    Tami, it is so true how we live in our own worlds and assume every other classroom is the same. I love the new perspective you bring into our conversations and I look forward to hearing/reading more about your research. This is something I will recommend to a team of teachers I work with. They are looking into expanding students' academic vocabulary and are hoping to see it in their writing. So you see, inner city schools will also find this research extremely helpful. We all have so much to share and so much to learn from each other!

    See you in June! 

  13. Annie

    I had Mrs. Ward as a teacher at Creston Elementary School and am now studying to be a teacher myself. I'm so thankful for the rural education that I received. Now looking back, I can see all the extra time and effort that the teachers have to put in to make Creston run smoothly. 

    Thanks for sharing your insight into rural school education Mrs. Ward! 

  14. Deb Craig

    Thank you for all your challenging work.I've been thinking a lot about rural schools since DeVoss is so into school choice. In a rural school I wonder how much choice children have? I look forward to reading more about your journey.


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