Rural Schools — Tiny Incubators of Possibilities

By Educator and Guest Blogger Scott Anderson

Often, when I talk about how I love teaching in my small rural district, many teachers find it hard to comprehend how few students there are (and, thus, staff). Our single-building district is just over 300 K-12 students in total (about 20–25 per grade level). That means we have one building with one teacher per grade or subject — which does pose challenges. But, it also presents great opportunities.

One my favorite jokes is about the “HS Math meeting” where “we”, as a math department, were debating how to organize curriculum with a greater emphasis on problem solving/real life skills versus topics about 6 years ago. It went like this:

Me: “I think we need to have a greater emphasis on habits such as persistence and problem solving.”

Myself: “I agree, it means trading some conics out of Algebra 2 into Pre-Calculus.”

I: “That is okay, choosing great over good is our job.”

Luckily “me”, “myself”, and “I” agreed.

I make this joke because in a rural district I can make changes just like that, and they’re seamless because I’m the only HS math teacher in the entire district. If students are excelling I can go faster, if they struggle I go slower. The courses are named Algebra 1, Geometry and Algebra 2 — but I get to hand off the students to myself. So, in high school, we truly have a comprehensive, continuous 3 year math program to make sure the students are ready for what waits beyond the school’s walls — whether that be college (four year or two), military, or career.

When I am able to address the student’s learning needs as a whole versus trying to teach him or her “geometry” as an isolated skill, it really gives me the ability to really differentiate and try new things. I often hear my larger school colleagues say they must cover this or that for the next year; as a small school teacher that problem seems foreign. The challenge for all of us is to use our topics to teach 21st century skills, and in a rural district, you can really focus on what is important — which is preparing students to be able to solve the unknown problem of tomorrow.

In a rural district teaching the “soft skills” is an easy choice — curriculum is important and a driver but it is not the only thing. Practicing problem solving and making sure we are achieving conceptual understanding without worrying about next year’s teacher is powerful — because “me” asked “myself” if the teacher of the next class is okay with the decision to differentiate for 21st century skills and “I” said yes.

Scott has taught 11 years in Juda and is a “second-career” teacher. For 12 years prior to teaching he worked as an engineer and manager using his Mechanical Engineering degree from UW-Platteville. To make the career change he spent three years taking night courses in education and mathematics, graduating from St. Mary’s University in Minneapolis and finishing a Masters in Instruction of Mathematics. He has been actively involved in the Wisconsin Mathematics community and has worked tirelessly on integrating STEM into his school (see YouTube: Juda STEM). He is believer that all students can succeed, just their paths to success are different. He also reflects/blogs his thoughts with respect to math education at 21stmathteacher and tweets at @21stmathteacher.

Are you an educator in a rural school? Future Ready Schools ® , a planning and resource hub for personalized, digital learning, has recently released a personalized learning implementation guidebook specifically for rural schools. Download the full guide here:

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