Rural K-12 leaders need more teachers but rural teachers need more support

How 2 organizations are supporting small-town teachers to improve student outcomes
By: | November 15, 2021
The Arkansas Teacher Corps is an alternative certification program that helps staff high-needs positions in rural, high-needs schools.The Arkansas Teacher Corps is an alternative certification program that helps staff high-needs positions in rural, high-needs schools.

An emergency effort to carry rural Tennessee schools through COVID has evolved into long-term teaching and leadership development in some of the most economically distressed districts.

The Tennessee Rural Acceleration and Innovation Network launched in 2020 to help schools shift to virtual and hybrid learning and is now providing free, widespread professional learning for educators, says Laura Encalade, co-president of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching and a leader of the project.

“Rural districts already faced an immense amount of unique challenges,” Encalade says. “The district leaders we work with in rural districts wear many hats, even during the best of times.”

The network’s four main goals are:

  1. Build networks and opportunities for district and school leaders to collaborate.
  2. Train teacher and school leaders to increase support for classroom teachers, and share practices across schools.
  3. Support virtual instruction and the integration of technology into classroom practice.
  4. Apply learning from virtual instruction to classroom practices, and provide support throughout the year.

Participation in the network grew from 15 districts to 33 this school year as administrators sought assistance with reopening strategies and potentially moving in and out of remote learning—and communicating all their plans to parents, Encalade says.

A key to the project is doing a needs assessment for each district and then providing individualized support to accelerate student learning.

“We’ve seen a variety of wins,” Encalade says. “We’ve seen districts able to have strong remote instruction. We’ve seen districts set themselves up for summer to accelerate learning summer. We’ve seen districts that, for the first time, had district instructional leadership teams meeting on a weekly or monthly basis with leaders from all schools looking at the needs for student learning.”

The network is now advising districts on developing out plans to help students catch up from COVID’s learning disruptions with the recognition that traditional remediation won’t be sufficient. Educators are now working to identify specific skills students are missing while maintaining grade-level instruction, Encalade says.

The network’s experts will also conduct site visits to help administrators conduct teacher observations, create job-embedded learning opportunities and produce video training sessions. “Districts want to focus on how to get students engaged in learning but they don’t want to leave it at engaged,” she says. “They want to know how to create an environment where there’s intrinsic motivation and students are owning their learning to move ahead.”

Eye on alternative credentials

Teacher shortages are another pre-COVID challenge that has only been intensified by the pandemic. The Arkansas Teacher Corps—an alternative certification program that helps staff high-needs positions in rural, high-needs schools—has added “community sponsorships” to its strategies over the last year.

This new program allows people already working in districts, such as paraprofessionals and volunteers, to begin working toward their teaching licenses, says Lizzy Hetherington, the organization’s director of teacher development.

The organization has seen a slight uptick in applications to its three-year training program which provides new teachers with ongoing coaching even after they move to their first classroom. During the pandemic, the Arkansas Teaching Corps has enhanced its curriculum to provide more training in virtual and hybrid teaching, Hetherington says.

The Teaching Corps, which is run by the University of Arkansas, makes heavy use of video so its teaching candidates can film themselves in class and get feedback from their coaches. “The relationship our teachers form with their coaches are some of the most important relationships I’ve seen,” Hetherington says. “The coach is a person who’s assigned to them to help problem-solve and think through how to create a better set of outcomes for kids.”  

A climate of collaboration is key to retaining teachers. “People are leaving teaching in droves. It really is going to take all stakeholders working together—schools of education, alternative certification programs, districts, and teachers—to deal with this crisis.”