The Rewards of Teaching in a Rural School

By: Paradise Forbes, teacher at the Williamstown Independent School District in Kentucky.

As a high social studies teacher, I have the weighty responsibility of introducing the students in my rural school in Kentucky to historical, civic, geographical, and economic issues that are quite often beyond the scope of their day-to-day lives. The subject I teach has many rewards and challenges. I get to paint a picture, weave a tapestry, and open doors for my students into the past. As a result, there are few greater rewards for what I do than when they come to me and say these very simple words—“I am glad I know that.”

I teach in the Williamstown Independent School District, a small, one-building school district with 800 students in kindergarten through the 12th grade and a graduating class of roughly 55 each year. My school is located in a rural part of the state where unemployment is high and the workforce is largely reliant on agriculture and small-scale manufacturing. In short, very few jobs require a postsecondary education, and my students have limited exposure to the vast array of possibilities beyond the county line.
As an educator in this setting, it can be difficult to know what students should learn about certain historical and current events. Teaching math is concrete. There isn’t much controversy around Pythagorean’s theorem. Social studies, on the other hand, delves deeply into American values and traditions, making it paramount for me to provide my students with a balanced view of our global society while still respecting the traditional community views that exist within our small town.
I plan my lessons in a way that helps my students see the commonalities between their lives and those of people from other cultures and other parts of the world. Take, for example, world religions. The majority of my students are raised in Baptist households, so I make sure to focus on the commonalities as well as the differences that exist between their belief system and Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, etc. I want them to have an understanding and an appreciation for diverse points of view before we study certain world events, such as the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, so that when they look at first-hand accounts and images of what happened that day, they can distinguish between the acts of a select group of people affiliated with an Islamist militant group and the religion itself.
For many of my students, my class is pivotal to their understanding of the world beyond our small Kentucky county, which leaves me with a cogent responsibility, one that requires me to make constant judgment calls about the scope of what I teach. On the other hand, one of the innate benefits of working in a rural setting is the strong sense of community that’s pervasive throughout the school.
To walk the halls and see kindergarteners walking alongside high school seniors has come to be one of the greatest rewards in my tenure as a rural school educator. Our school’s motto is a “Tradition of Excellence,” and it’s evident in everything we do. Class photos dating back to the early 1900s serve as a reminder of the value we place on the traditions of past generations. I find it comforting to know that the community within my school is as strong as the roots in our fields, and I appreciate the many benefits that a tight-knit community has to offer.
Most recently our school was greatly affected by one of our high school seniors who was diagnosed with cancer. The community as a whole rallied behind her, and I was grateful to play a very small role. I took her, along with her mother and friends, to buy a wig. It was a small gesture, but it meant a great deal to me, and as a group, we were able to share an enjoyable and meaningful experience.
Another upside of the “Cheers” effect—of everyone knowing your name—is that it is very difficult to fall through the cracks. Take, for example, one of my former students who one particular day turned in his homework late and failed to get it signed by one of his parents, which is a requirement when student work is past due. When I asked him why he didn’t get his mother’s signature, he said she wasn’t home, she was at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. It wasn’t an excuse. It was an explanation, one that we all understood, and I’m proud to say that with the support of our school community, he graduated high school and now works in a local factory. For this and many other reasons, I, too, have ample opportunity to say these simple words—“I am glad I know that.”