photo of a school bus on a narrow winding road along green cliffsides and the ocean running into the distant horizon
A school bus navigates one-way roads on sea side cliffs in the rural northern shore of West Maui (Photo by Nick Fouriezos).

Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in Mile Markers, a twice monthly newsletter from Open Campus about the role of colleges in rural America. You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article to receive future editions in your inbox.

An advertising exec at a television station. An Army veteran. A marine biologist and DNA scientist. A traveling businesswoman in retail.

Each person — from Alabama and Mississippi to Iowa and California — had successful careers outside of education before switching gears and becoming teachers. And, they made the switch at a time when the profession has been drawing headlines for how many people are fleeing it.

“In the past six months especially, we’ve noticed a lot of interest from people wanting to do teaching as a second career path,” says Taylor McCabe-Juhnke, executive director of the Illinois-based Rural Schools Collaborative.

“It’s particularly fascinating at a time where the profession gets a lot of criticism, but not only are they choosing to teach, but they’re choosing to do so in rural areas.”

There don’t seem to be any clear numbers showing how many are choosing to leave behind their first careers to become rural teachers. 

However, where that shift has happened, the Covid-19 pandemic likely played a role. In 2021, a third of U.S. workers under 40 said they considered changing careers during the pandemic, which also led many to move out of city centers.

Some regional flagships are already noticing this trend, increasing their offerings for adults who want to transition into teaching from other fields. And the extra teachers could help rural students apply to more colleges, with greater access to instructors credentialed to teach subjects that are often required by more-selective universities, such as calculus or physics.

Each teacher has their own reasons for entering the field, but their interviews with the Rural Schools Collaborative show a few are shared: a greater sense of purpose and a desire to be more engaged with their local community.

After giving birth, Jamie Fehring moved to Corning, Iowa to raise her family and was convinced to try her hand at substitute teaching … and was immediately hooked.

“I got home that day and I sat down with my husband and I was just like, ‘I have never loved a job so much. That’s what I’m supposed to do. I am supposed to be an educator.’”

The classroom has now been her laboratory for three years, after almost a decade studying plant DNA in a genotyping lab and working for local fish hatcheries before that.

Jennifer Shealy worked at a television station for more than two decades in Greenville, Ala. When COVID hit, she began volunteering with the school system to help deliver meals to low-income students — and discovered a new passion.

“Just seeing the way teachers and administrators came together to serve and make sure their students were okay, I really started feeling like my purpose and my place would be to teach.”

A studio portrait of a smiling woman
Jennifer Shealy, a high school math teacher in Greenville, Alabama (Image courtesy of Shealy).

Having helped her four kids with their homework over the years, Shealey was already familiar with the “universal struggle” that is math. When she found out the high school was short a math teacher, pursued an emergency certificate to teach — and she is committed to staying.

“I plan to be here for a while, and I think that’s important,” Shealy says. “In rural communities, the emphasis on relationships is more important and the students need to feel that connection with you.”

She has especially enjoyed watching students apply their education in practical ways, including at her rural school’s coffee shop, which is run by students in the special education department.

“I love that we are giving this taste of real-world math and work in the service industry, and we have them deal with the money,” she says.

New Pathways

As director of the Rural Schools Collaborative, McCabe-Juhnke has noticed a number of higher education groups working to make that path easier for those turning to teaching later in their careers.

As director of the Rural Schools Collaborative, McCabe-Juhnke has noticed a number of higher education groups working to make that path easier for those turning to teaching later in their careers.

In some rural areas, collegiate education departments have started offering after-hours education classes or alternative online course pathways to help meet the need for more credentialed teachers.

The state of Iowa created an alternative pathway to help eligible adult learners who already hold a bachelor’s degree get teaching students in a classroom faster.

Meanwhile, the University of West Alabama launched an effort last year to train and pay more rural student teachers to work alongside mentor teachers for one school year.

Demand for teachers continues to grow nationwide, and some studies suggest the teacher shortage has grown worse.

More Rural Higher Ed News

All aboard! For 16 years, the family medicine department at Southern Illinois University has shuttled a physician’s assistant, a registered nurse, and a social worker between high schools in southern Illinois, with the “Care-a-Van” providing students with services from mental health counseling to pregnancy and STI testing.

“It’s not enough to just be in the Van and be a provider. We need to be visible in community groups to show that we are invested,” Jennifer Hammonds tells the Daily Yonder’s Path Finders newsletter.

Listen: The nation’s ‘report card’ on remote learning. “On the first nationwide test of American students since the pandemic, scores plummeted to levels not seen in 20 years,” the New York Times writes, teasing its recent education-focused episode of The Daily. “What do the scores tell us about remote learning, who lost the most ground academically, and what can schools do to help students recover?

Will focusing on outcomes help rural Texas colleges? The state’s higher education coordinating board proposed a new funding model that would reward institutions for helping students transfer, graduate and move into high-demand fields – a shift small and rural community colleges believe will help them get more funding to meet workforce training needs.

Source Call: I‘m looking to talk to freshmen at rural colleges about how the pandemic affected their high school experience, and what that has meant for their transition this fall. Know somebody? Email me.

“Bad working conditions, low salaries and the pandemic are among the factors contributing to the shortage of teachers,” a recent study by scholarship search tool Scholaroo concluded.

A quick glance at Scholaroo’s teacher shortage map shows a mixed bag for rural states.

A number of Great Plains and Northeastern states had some of the best student-to-teacher ratios: North Dakota, Nebraska, Vermont, and Wyoming were in the top 5 nationally, each boasting nearly 13 teachers per 1,000 people.

In general though, rural areas – particularly in the Southeast and Mountain West – have struggled to attract talent, according to the Scholaroo study (although not all researchers agree that teacher attrition is so far out of step from historical trends). 

a map of the United States showing states color coded based on their teacher to student population ratios
Teacher-to-Population Ratios by state across the U.S. (Image courtesy of Scholaroo).

In many cases, new career teachers are searching for a purpose that eluded them in their former jobs. That was the case with Jan Mathews, who wanted to be more involved in her children’s education and the dual language programs she loved.

“I wasn’t available and there was some general dissatisfaction with, ‘Really? Is this going to be the mark I leave on the world?’” she says of leaving behind her successful (but travel-filled) retail career.

Her first day as a substitute teacher didn’t go as expected, after she ended up getting called in to teach 7th grade science and P.E. at a nearby rural school.

But she got used to the whistle, and within a week she had sent a letter to nearby Chico State asking how to enroll in their education program. 

a stylized photo of a smiling woman tinted in yellow and green
Jan Mathews, a middle school science teacher in Gridley, California (Image courtesy of the Rural Schools Collaborative).

Now, Mathews feels like a true community leader … because she empowers her students to be leaders. “What I give to them is what goes out into the community,” she says.

This article first appeared in Mile Markers, a twice monthly newsletter from Open Campus about the role of colleges in rural America. Join the mailing list today to have future editions delivered to your inbox.