MSU to help education students see value of rural schools

In May, 13 students from the Montana State University Department of Education piled into their cars and, with faculty supervisors in tow, headed to the northeastern corner of the state to participate in an intensive, weeklong teaching practicum as part of their degree program.

Traditionally, a practicum course involves spending 45 to 60 hours over 10 weeks during a semester in supervised settings working directly with children, according to Joe Hicks, an assistant professor of curriculum and instruction in the education department and director of the MSU After School Initiative. This special course was compressed, however, as it was an on-site activity intended to introduce students to teaching in small, rural school districts, where qualified teachers are in great demand but are hard to recruit. 

In Montana, 75 percent of schools are considered rural, with 96 percent of those classified as small rural districts, giving Montana the highest percentage of rural schools and small rural districts in the country and some of the greatest need for qualified teachers, said Tena Versland, a professor of educational leadership in MSU’s College of Education, Health and Human Development.

“I first became interested in rural recruitment when I was doing professional development with rural superintendents who were former students,” Versland said. “They were experiencing challenges with hiring teachers.”

“There are some unique challenges associated with recruitment and retention of teachers for rural schools,” according to Jayne Downey, an associate MSU professor of curriculum and instruction, who also specializes in rural education.

“In Montana and across the nation, rural schools are experiencing a shortage of teachers,” Downey said. “We are committed to developing teacher preparation programs that honor and respond to rural communities, schools and teachers’ context, needs, challenges and strengths.”

In part because of her association with school superintendents in the area, Versland felt a responsibility to do something to address the rural teacher shortage.

“I felt that as Montana’s land-grant university, MSU had to step in and try to help find solutions to the problems of recruiting and retaining teachers in those areas,” Versland said. So, she, Hicks, assistant professor of educational technology and curriculum and instruction Nick Lux and John Melick, the director of field placements and licensure, wrote a successful proposal to Education, Health and Human Development Dean Alison Harmon for funding to take 10 students to northeast Montana in May. 

“We worried we might not get enough interest, but we ended up taking 13,” Versland said. 

The schools in these small districts are the heartbeat of the communities, according to Hicks. The teachers there do so much more than simply teach English, math or science, he said.

“Our students volunteered at track meets, writing programs and other events,” Hicks said. “They got to experience a graduation. They learned first-hand that teaching is a dynamic profession that is all-encompassing, particularly in a smaller community.”

Some of the students acknowledged the complexities of teaching and the particular joys of working in smaller communities. Nick Staffileno, a senior English education major from Billings, had a particularly moving experience about three days into his practicum.

“I was working with a group of eighth-graders who had been assigned a project and given huge creative license,” Staffileno said. “One student decided to make a board game. He drafted this gorgeous game, just freehand. I complimented him on his work, and he demurred. But, a student near him started raving about his work, followed by two more. They were so supportive of their classmate, so excited for him and wanting to showcase his work. It made me see just how strong the sense of community was, which was not my experience in school. It made me really want to be part of something like that.”

Staffileno said that, going in, he wasn’t really sure how he felt about the program . 

“Rural schools are often immediately looked down upon by students,” Staffileno said. “As education students gauge where they’d like to work after graduation, rural communities are often the last resort. But, after this program, we saw that the teachers really wanted to be there. They wanted class sizes of five. They wanted to know every student, every family. They wanted that close interaction.”

Matt Lawrence, a senior English education major from Danville, California, agreed with Staffileno about the stigma of rural schools. He said that, coming from the San Francisco metro area without much exposure to rural schools, he held some negative stereotypes about what a small rural district would be like. But, after his experience in this program, he felt differently.

“I found that if you went into the program with a little bit of an open mind, you could get a lot out of the experience,” Lawrence said. “I really enjoyed it.”

Another student in this pilot course was Kayla Olson, a senior English and history education major from Scranton, North Dakota, who came from a small rural district and thought that she wanted to experience a larger district. Olson said she quickly realized that she wanted to work in a smaller district, where she could have the kind of close community she knew from her past. Part of this realization, she said, came from the close bonds that developed among the students.

“This type of compressed practicum mirrors the general experience of being in a smaller community, where you rely on one another more heavily than you might in a larger setting,” Olson said. “I feel like I have a real community now that I can draw on when I go out to student teach, or even when I get my first job.” 

Versland noticed the same phenomenon among the students in the program.

“We held a nightly debriefing session in our hotel. We talked about developing lessons, their impressions of rural kids and teachers,” Versland said. “The students quickly morphed into a professional learning community without any prompting from the faculty advisers. They began to look to one another for ideas and support. That was the neatest thing for me to see and, obviously, what we want all of our education students to experience.”

Versland believes that MSU can be a national leader in rural education programs.

“With programs such as this rural practicum, MSU can develop a pipeline of support from recruitment to retirement for all educators across the state,” Versland said. “And, in keeping with MSU’s land-grant institution initiatives, I believe that we should.”

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