By: Scott Oosterom
I began teaching in September of 2006, and though my involvement in rural education has been short, as a teacher, I have been part of a rural education system all my life. Coming from a family of teachers who also taught in rural schools, I have been intimately involved with rural education since I started going to school. From the perspective of a student and a teacher, there are many advantages and disadvantages to rural schools compared with larger urban schools. I have experienced a variety of issues ranging from long bus rides, to small class sizes, to limited extracurricular choices. In this narrative reflection paper, I will discuss my experiences with rural education as a student. I will follow this with a description of my experiences as a rural educator, and how my experiences in rural education helped to shape my values as an educator.
Life as a Rural Student
I started my schooling in rural British Columbia, on Vancouver Island. Forestry and farming were the mainstays of the economy, and as such most homes were spread out and often kilometres apart from one another. While I was quite young at the time, I remember all the kids on my road had a ten to fifteen minute walk to the end of the road to catch the bus by about 7:30 in the morning. Even though my own bus ride was about twenty minutes to school, many students who got on the bus before me had long rides of an hour or more each morning.
The school was not particularly small, and had about 200 students, but they were bussed great distances from the farming communities in the area. The school only facilitated students from kindergarten to grade six; so older students were bussed to the high school more than thirty minutes further into town. Since these farming communities were such great distances apart and were not particularly close to the school, I can recall that there was little sense of community involvement. People mostly knew each other from their farming businesses, but otherwise did not associate much with one another. Christmas concerts and field days seemed to be the only events in school that brought all communities together. I can imagine that although parents were at school to support their children at the concerts and cheer them on throughout field days, it is unlikely there was much socialization among parents from other communities because many would be complete strangers to one another.
As increasingly more young people did not return to the rural communities to take over the family farms, declining enrolment and government finances resulted in the school’s closure by the mid-1990’s. Now all students are bussed the extra distance into the town of Port Alberni to attend classes; for many, the already long bus rides have gotten longer.
Before I finished elementary school my family moved to Nova Scotia, to the rural community of Rawdon. Coming from a family of teachers, education is important to my family, and so being reasonably close to a good school was a key to choosing a place to live. Rawdon District Elementary School was only twenty minutes drive from home, so the bus ride was no shorter than I was used to. The majority of students at the school were from within approximately 20 km radius of the school, and so some students did have longer bus rides if they were on the outskirts of the district boundaries.
In 1992, the school had over 200 students from primary (Kindergarten) to grade six, with an average of 30 students in each grade. During the last 15 years there has been a considerable drop in student enrolment, down to 119 students in September, 2010. Fewer families are having children in Rawdon, and there has been an increase in out-migration to Halifax and surrounding urban centres. This decrease means that a number of teachers lost their teaching positions as the school moved toward multi-grade classrooms. Today, with the low enrolment, the principal has teaching responsibilities in addition to administrative duties.
Most of the teachers were from within or close to the community. This meant that there were often extra-curricular activities and clubs taking place after school because the teachers did not have to travel long distances to get home. There was an incredible sense of community and pride in the school. It was a true community school, in that parents and community members, alike, would often partake in school functions. There was never a shortage of volunteers to help supervise sports days, judge the science fairs, and coordinate lunch programs and school yard duty. I remember Christmas and spring concerts; the gymnasium was always filled to capacity, often with the crowd spilling into the foyer. The concerts were an opportunity for parents and community members to support their school in a meaningful way. I have talked to parents whose children currently attend the school, and the atmosphere is not what it used to be. There is new administration and several new teachers; along with the declining enrolment, the open community atmosphere is not as apparent. It is believed that this is largely because the principal is not from the community, and so has no ties to the people and the students the way the former principal did. I remember well, the principal, she was a pillar in the community, who was full of life, and energy. She lived and breathed the school, and put her all her energy into making an active community school, with a strong educational values and parental involvement.
My high school, Hants North Rural High, was one of three major rural high schools in the area; students were bussed in from five different feeder schools from surrounding communities. Although the high school was relatively centralized, the local geography meant students who originally attended Rawdon District School in the lower grades had much longer bus rides than those from other feeder schools. I lived on the far side of the school boundary and thus had no less than a 45 minute bus ride each morning on good days, and often over an hour during the winter. Most times the school board would have cancellations on the radio by 6:30 AM, but occasionally it was a late decision to close schools; being on the bus by 7:20 AM would mean we were mid-route if school was cancelled late. Fortunately, we were double-routed, and had to pick up elementary students in the morning for Rawdon District as well, so parents were often at bus stops, and would inform us of the cancellation so that the driver could bring us home. I remember a few occasions where school was not cancelled (and probably should have been); our 45 minute bus ride was well over an hour long, making us late for classes. Some mornings the driver would be late, or bus broke down, and we would be at the bus stop for over 30 minutes wondering if the bus was coming. In these cases, the school usually sent another driver who had finished his route to pick us up; again making us late for classes.
During the afternoons those on my bus route had to wait for the driver to return from a trip to Rawdon elementary school. With school letting out at 3:00, and being at the end of the route, it was usually 4:30 in the evening before I got home. Two hours on the bus each day left a lot of down time for students. Some would try to sleep, read or do homework. There were often discipline problems on the bus because the driver could not watch all students all the time while he was driving. Students who were to report issues like bullying would often be the bullied more after reporting the incident to the bus driver.
I remember there were always extracurricular activities to be involved in at school – sports teams, drama club, and music clubs. Transportation was often an issue for me and certainly for other students as well. Since our parents worked during the day, we would often favour the bus ride over being stuck at school without a ride home. The distance to school was inconvenient for most people so sports teams and other extracurricular activities were always done by the same students. I have come to realize that this is common place in rural schools, because of the limited number of students. In many schools teams are made up entirely of students who are willing to play, rather than requiring try-outs to construct the team based on skills.
Hants North was often compared with the two nearest high schools in terms of quality of education. They were larger schools with more students, and possibly had more resources available to them. To many people the smaller school meant that the education was of a lesser quality than that of a larger school. Like many of my current students, my fellow classmates assumed they would be getting a better education at the larger school. Though our course options were, in some cases, limited, we had enough students that academic and basic students were usually separated into different streams of courses. Our school made use of all the staff we had to offer as many course options as was feasible; in some cases this did mean that a few courses could not be offered because of the limited resources, and occasionally no basic-level courses could be offered forcing teachers to modify academic curriculum for non-academic students. This lead to some discipline problems in courses where the teacher had little control over the class because students who did not “get” the material simply did not care and instead spent class-time being disruptive.
While most students did have some pride in the school, it was not a community school, and there was no specific school identity because students were from all over the county and not a single community. I found that what little identity the school did have related more to the community where the school resided. Though it was not on purpose, I think many people almost felt like “outsiders” in the school because it was so far out of touch with the rest of the communities from where students resided. The school did try to get communities involved, but I think the distance to school from most communities made it difficult to entice people to contribute in or participate in the school community. In my own experience, school functions like science fairs and Christmas concerts were always open to the parents and community, but attendance was minimal in most cases. Local parents would show up, but those who had long drives to school, as my parents did, would rarely be able to attend these functions due to work. Generally speaking, the school seemed much less a focal point in the community than did Rawdon District.
My experiences in rural schools led me to where I am today. Though I was not sure where I would end up, I knew I wanted to teach in a rural school. The closeness of the students and staff creates more of a community atmosphere among people who are often from very different geolocgical communities. I can appreciate the smaller class sizes that are often expected in rural classrooms because they provide greater student-teacher relationships and allow for more support when it is needed. Though resources were often limited – no field trips because of the distances or outdated books in the library – teachers became more resourceful, using the internet, or bringing people into the classroom to speak with students.
Teacher retention was an issue; throughout my six years at Hants North, many teachers came and went. Some were on one-year contracts and some were on two-year contracts, all were hoping to get permanent positions at the much larger Cobequid Education Centre in Truro. These short-term teachers had difficulty controlling classes, and often students gave them a difficult time. Junior high students knew just which buttons to press to make these new teachers’ lives miserable. I recall my grade eight classes nearly drove our French teacher to the brink of quitting her job. These same students showed no fear of substitute teachers either, who no doubt loathed the long drive from town to come in and teach.
We could, however, always count on some of the long term teachers; they told us from the start that they were in it for the long haul. I checked the school website, and except for the new staff replacing those who have retired, many of those teachers are still teaching today. This is a blessing for the current students, because these are teachers who want to be there, and obviously enjoy the atmosphere within this rural school. I think having these kinds of teachers makes the support systems within all rural schools that much stronger. Knowing that the teacher is not going to be gone next year creates more mutual understanding and respect in the classroom. Students may be more inclined to learn from a teacher who is not just “passing through en route to that better job in an urban school.” That said, when my students ask me how long I am going to be here, I always tell the same thing: “I am not going anywhere, as long as I am needed.” I too, am in this for the long haul.
Life as a Rural Educator
In 2005, during my professional year at Memorial University, I did my internship at Prince of Wales Collegiate (PWC). This was a great experience, but now I was having second thoughts about teaching in a rural school as I had previously thought. I knew in a rural school I would most likely have to teach a variety of courses, possibly even some in which I have no experience or training, plus I would have to move, again. Teaching in St. John’s would have been ideal because I did not want to pack up and move yet again. My last move was, of course from Nova Scotia to St. John’s, and after six years of university, I was getting tired of moving.
When I finished my time at PWC I was set on getting a job in St. John’s; possibly even replacing my cooperating teacher who was set to retire at the end of the school year. I was younger and naïve, and while it would have been nice to have that position secured as a new teacher, part of me knew it was not going to happen. So I started to apply for positions in schools across both, Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. Some forty applications later, I finally heard back from two schools on the same day, both of them rural, one in Nova Scotia and one in Conne River, Newfoundland. Both positions had their benefits, but I chose to stay in Newfoundland and teach courses that were more in line with my training in high school science, mathematics and technology. After meeting with the principal that I found out I would be teaching science 1206, biology 2201/3201, chemistry 2202, mathematics 3103, and one course I had never heard of, integrated systems. Each year the chemistry would be switched up with physics 2204. As an added benefit, the school would provide me with an apartment for as long as I am teaching in the community.
I was completely new to the community, the school and even the Mi’kmaq culture. I had driven through aboriginal reserves in Nova Scotia, and heard many negative stories on the news regarding some of them. I had no idea what to expect when I arrived in Conne River. After a seven-hour drive from St. John’s, I was pleasantly surprised when I arrived; the community was a beautiful sight. When I arrived at school before school started, I was greeted by the director of education and several grade 12 students who gave me a tour of the school and introduced me to all of the other teachers who were busy preparing their classrooms. They showed me the way to the lab, gave me the keys, and told me “this is probably where you will spend most of your time. You can do what you like with it.” Funny, after five years it turned out to be true; students and staff alike are shocked when I am not where I should be.
There was a short period of adjustment as I got used to my new students and my new course load. Planning for five different courses was considerably more time consuming than I was used to, particularly since I was somewhat unfamiliar with a few of the courses. Since one of the courses, biology 3201, had a public exam in June, and I was even more pressured because I wanted to ensure I covered all of the required outcomes. Of course, by the time Easter break came, I was behind in course, and had to assign one of the chapters as an assignment over the break, just to make sure I could finish the course. The next year I would have to pick up the pace, which was difficult, because I often felt like I was not spending enough time on some topics.
The students slowly got used to my teaching style and stopped comparing me to their old teacher. Classroom management seemed to be my biggest concern, not so much with the grade 12’s, but certainly with the grade 10’s, a much larger class with a broad range of students. Some were hard-working and did as they were asked; several others I swore to myself had undiagnosed cases of ADHD, because it was a daily challenge to get them to focus and do their work. Oddly enough, challenges aside, I grew fond of this group of students, and when I could get a couple classes each with minimal distractions, I gave them high praise. It was this group of grade 10’s that allowed me hone my classroom management skills, because if I could keep them under control, the rest of the classes would be easy.
Challenges and Frustrations
Throughout the last five years there have been a number of challenges. As a new teacher there are enough challenges to overcome, as you try to do everything you hoped you would be able to do with your very own classes, and try to meet all the curricula for the first time. You very quickly realize that the two-page lesson-plans that they had us prepare at MUN were perhaps too detailed for the time you have to work with in the real world. I started my career with the goal of being more organized than I had ever been, and keeping track of all my courses and planning on the computer. This turned out to be a highly ambitious plan, and never even came close to happening. I had enough of my plate to make up notes and prepare my chemistry and mathematics.
While I had heard about the Centre for Distance Learning and Innovation (CDLI) in a few of my technology education courses at Memorial, I had no idea what to expect when I was told that I, as the technology teacher, would also be a lead mTeam coach for our CDLI students. This was also the first year that our school had students doing CDLI courses, so it was arranged that I would be taking integrated systems 1205 online with the students for the year in order to learn the course content and how CDLI worked. One of the major challenges I have had to endure is the extra work that is at times associated with CDLI courses, on top of my already full schedule. I get print, copy, administer and submit all tests and exams. If I cannot administer a test I have to find a supervisor to watch over the students during that period. The students tend to avoid the e-classes when they need help with their work, and so they often seek help from me, even though their CDLI teachers are more than willing to meet with them after school to answer any questions they might be having.
Our school has an unusually high rate of documented learning disabilities, at 45% from kindergarten to grade 12. The majority of these cases are on pathway two, and do not require any special assistance, except modified testing or assignments. A few have student assistants with them at all times, but in all cases it is ultimately up to the teacher to ensure that the accommodations are met. In the past this has meant preparing and marking as many as three different sets of tests and exams for one class. Accommodating learning disabilities is always a challenge, and is not always right the first time. There are many instances where I have to meet with our student services coordinator to ensure I am doing things according to the students’ individual support plan (ISSP), as well as work closely with student assistants when necessary. We are fortunate that we have a strong student support staff to ensure that our students’ needs are met, because it is no easy task to teach the regular curriculum to academic students, and monitor six or more ISSPs in a given class.
Another of the challenges I experience is finding resources. I have brought classes to St. John’s on field trips focused around science, but this is not generally a practical solution. The school library lacks new resources, and students are not as interested in reading them as they are in using the internet. Whenever possible, I like to invite a guest in to speak to students about topics we are covering in class, but it is difficult to get guests to come from afar because of the distances that need to be traveled to get here. I often find myself searching the internet for new and interesting ideas, or videos that I can use in class because those in our library are rather outdated.
The watchful eye of the community is perhaps one of the biggest challenges that any teacher has to endure in a rural setting. In the city there is a degree of anonymity, but something I am still not used to, is being watched at all times. Anywhere I go students recognize my car and are very quick to point out where they saw me, and what they saw me doing. I am often reluctant to go places within the community simply because I do like feeling like I am being watched, either by students or by their parents. For some reason, what we do in our personal lives becomes public knowledge if the wrong people see or hear it. I find it frustrating at times, when I would like to go out with friends on weekends, but feel awkward because of the public eye; I often feel like my actions are being watched simply because I am a teacher.
The Joys of Rural Teaching
Even though I was having second thoughts about teaching in a rural school, I have come to realize that it is where I was meant to be teaching. The students, staff and community were quite welcoming when I arrived, and eager to accept me as a member of the community. I have been known around the school for all the extra hours after school that I dedicate to helping students to succeed. I cannot always accommodate students during class because of the sheer numbers, but many students are more than willing to stay after school to get their questions answered. In the past, this quality time with students has allowed me to help some choose a career path, or choose a program of interest in college. I find it fulfilling to see these students go off to school to achieve their goals and bring back these experiences and knowledge back to their community.
For the past four years I have worked along side another teacher to co-supervise the graduation activities throughout each year. We take the grade 12’s under our wings each year to organize fundraisers and ensure that all the little details are taken care of for their big night. Though this is done in larger schools too, the advantage of being in a smaller school is that we can get to know the graduates outside of a classroom environment because we spend so much time together throughout the year. I think both of us teachers that do this each year find that there is generally a greater mutual respect created between us and the students. They realize we are volunteering our time to do things for them, and they, for the most part, do their share to ensure everything is done when it needs to be done.
Our school has an incredible sense of identity. It is often considered a focal point of the Mi’kmaq culture within the community as well, because the students celebrate this everyday. There is Mi’kmaq art created by past and current students on the walls, the performance choir and drummers are known across the province for both their voices and the stories they tell through music. Each year I help to organize our annual mini-Powwow, where students from another school are invited in to learn about the Mi’kmaq culture, and experience a Powwow first hand. This is one of the many events where all of the community is invited into the school to experience the culture and music. I am not even aboriginal, and being able to be part of these shared experiences makes it a joy to be part of this educational community.
Over the last 25 years of my life I have been deeply involved with rural education. From my own experiences, each rural school situation comes with its own benefits and disadvantages. Often this is related to the infamous degree of rurality, since some schools are more rural than others, many of the issues are more of a concern than others. There are a number of characteristics of rural schools that may be looked upon as disadvantages, like longer bus rides or fewer available resources for teachers to use in the classroom. Generally speaking, throughout my lifelong journey in rural education, I have found that the vast majority of theses so-called disadvantages are far outweighed by the benefits of rural schools. There is a particular atmosphere within the small school that connects the students and staff together. Though teacher retention is often a problem in some schools, it is those teachers who are willing to stay and live the rural experience that make the education better in rural schools. It allows teachers and students, I think, to connect on a level that cannot be done in a classroom with thirty students.
When I think about my career so far, here in Conne River; although there have been several challenges to overcome, and endure throughout each school year, I have to say, that the rural experience is one that I would not change. When and if the time comes to change schools, I will certainly seek a position in rural Newfoundland.