Montana’s rural school districts are struggling to recruit and retain teachers, but administrators from small schools are pitching the benefits of a more intimate school culture to appeal to potential hires.
Funding challenges, geographic isolation, and difficulty hiring out-of-state teachers has hampered efforts by rural school administrators to draw in new talent, complicating what’s already a “Critical Quality Educator Shortage” across the state.
But officials from dozens of rural schools recently trekked to Montana State University to discuss the benefits of small schools with future educators, in hopes that some may consider the option.
The Billings Gazette outlined the problem:
Pay for beginning teachers in Montana is the lowest in the nation, and small schools typically pay less than larger districts. Factors like geographic and professional isolation play a role, and many rookie teachers feel unprepared for rural schools. Montana has a stringent process for out-of-state teachers obtaining Montana certification.
At MSU, rural administrators from across the state spoke with students about life, professional development, and financial situations, but continuously stressed the biggest benefit for small schools—an intimate culture that allows educators to have a bigger impact by working with fewer students.
“It’s easy to control five kids in a senior math class,” Colstrip Principal Aaron Skogen told the Gazette. “In smaller classes, you know those kids in a different way.”North Start superintendent Bart Hawkins joked that “if you like going to weddings, teach in a small school.”“That’s the kind of relationships you build with the kids,” he said.
Education researcher Richard Fournier also noted how rural schools bolster character formation as part of the School Cultures and Student Formation Project at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.
Fournier documented his field research in The Content of Their Character, a new book set for publication in February.
“One got the feeling in each of these schools that because ‘everybody knows everybody,’ these school communities often provided students with deep-rooted loyalties and convictions, however parochial, that bonded each member to the character and citizenship traits so vital to each community’s moral orientation.”
It’s a unique dynamic of rural schools that’s undoubtedly attractive to many teachers: small classes mean educators bond with students and their families in ways teachers in suburban and urban schools find it harder to do.
Educators working in rural schools, or considering the option, can find more information and support through the Rural Teacher Corps, a network of rural teachers who share their stories to learn from each other.