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.
For Kendall Goldman, the best thing about going to a rural school was that everyone knew everybody. At least, that was her experience growing up in Uriah, a town of just about 400 people in southwest Alabama where “pretty much the only thing there is the school,” she says.
“It just felt like a family,” she adds now — not the least because her mom was a first grade teacher and her dad was the P.E. instructor. “All the students in my class used to go tell my dad if I got in trouble talking too much.”
It was a culture shock, then, when Goldman walked into her first college classes as an honors student and was surrounded by students and professors that didn’t know her name or history.
“I went from being 1 of 20 students in a classroom to 1 of 120,” Goldman says. “Especially being a people person, it just took me a while to find people that I knew and felt comfortable with.”
She went on to graduate with a communications degree from the University of South Alabama and spent five years as a marketing coordinator for CDG Engineers & Associates, a civil engineering firm. Ultimately, though, her early education experiences in rural Uriah made her feel called to enter teaching herself — despite the significant challenges the profession has been facing with attracting and retaining new talent.
National teacher shortages have hit the South particularly hard. Roughly 14% of teachers were uncertified or teaching “out of field,” such as a high school math-certified teacher assigned middle school history instead, according to a Southern Regional Education Board analysis published last year.
Southern states are preparing up to 50% fewer teachers than a decade ago, according to Department of Education data. And Alabama is not immune to those challenges. Nearly 2,000 of the state’s 47,500 teachers (around 4%) didn’t hold a full certificate in 2020-21, double the state’s reliance on emergency educators five years prior.
And, the state is in particular struggling with a lack of teachers who specialize in science, technology, engineering, and math. Alabama legislators have pumped roughly $13 million into various programs to build up STEM grants and apprenticeship programs. And this fall, six Alabama universities enrolled their first UTeach cohorts, allowing STEM students to also receive teaching credentials with no additional cost or class time – previously only the University of Birmingham had a UTeach program.
The University of West Alabama has been a key driver for addressing the teacher shortage in the state, and is unique as one of the few rural universities that also has its own on-site K-12 charter school for prospective teachers to get hands-on experience.
The university also runs two major teaching grant programs. The Black Belt Teacher Corps supports 84 students with $5,000 annual scholarships plus ongoing teaching education once in the field. Meanwhile, Project REACh offers a $50,000 annual living wage stipend to support new teachers that commit to teach for at least three years in a partner school or district.
Goldman was well aware of teaching’s challenges while making her career switch, both from talking to her peers and from previously working as a teacher’s aide for her mother, watching the late nights, weekends, and summers spent preparing courses and helping students.
“Teachers aren’t shown a lot of grace from parents and the community at large, and there are some behavioral problems we have to deal with,” she says.
When making her career switch, Goldman applied for the Project REACh program for more than just the stipend. The opportunity to co-teach with a more experienced mentor for the first year, plus receive ongoing online education and coaching support, was essential.
That hands-on help was equally transformative for Stephanie Bondora, who spent more than two decades in the hotel industry before the pandemic motivated her to pursue a more meaningful professional path.
“I feel like this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, having this co-teaching role with insight from someone who has two decades of working as an educator,” says Bondora, who is co-teaching science in Mobile County.
Although hitting certain demographic benchmarks isn’t mandated by its U.S. Department of Education grant, Project REACh program director Susan Hester says the university “would always love to recruit more diverse candidates.”
Across America, public school teachers are significantly less racially and ethnically diverse than their students: about 4 of 5 identified as non-Hispanic white in past years, as Pew Research reports. Project REACh has tracked similarly with those national trends: 36 of its 44 residents in its first three cohorts have been white, and 30 have been white women.
Project REACh recruits most of its resident teachers from the same districts as its partner schools, which their federal grant requires to be in communities that the U.S. Census Bureau has designated as economically distressed.
“Since most, if not all, of our residents are already established in the communities of the schools designated as our partners, we spend lots of advertisement dollars near these schools and throughout these communities,” Hester says.
(For more: One of our previous fellows in our HBCU Student Journalism Network wrote about the shortage of Black male teachers in Louisiana, and how historically Black colleges in the state are trying to change that.)
Goldman, who is set to graduate with her master’s degree from UWA in December, is now teaching her own class at a Title I school in Baldwin County. The area has a high percentage of economically-disadvantaged students, and many come from families where English isn’t their first language.
“There is a lot of need,” Goldman says, and co-teaching with a mentor through Project REACh was essential to her hands-on education, giving her practical experience and direct feedback on things like how to create a lesson plan and modify it to her students’ specific needs.
“I would learn all the concepts in my UWA courses and then go into the school and put into practice what I was learning,” Goldman says. “At the same time, I had somebody with me all the time to give me advice. It was really helpful: In my opinion, it’s a much better way to prepare someone to be a teacher.”
More Rural Higher Ed News
The impact of ‘free consulting’ in Durango. Last week, Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle, returned to Fort Lewis College four years after the Native American-serving university began a “turnaround” tied to receiving $2 million worth of “free consulting” from a San Francisco-based consultancy.
- “What I saw is that keeping momentum going requires 24/7 attention. There’s no coasting, especially for tuition-dependent colleges that serve disadvantaged students,” Blumenstyk writes.
The ‘horror’ of rural loneliness. While not specifically education related, this episode of Rural Remix: The Rural Horror Picture Show asks a question many rural folks may quietly be asking themselves this Halloween: why is it so scary to be alone?
- “Sometimes the monster isn’t so literal, and deeper fears take center stage: isolation, grief, disillusionment, despair. In these cases, rural landscapes often play a supporting role,” write the hosts of Rural Remix, a co-production of the Daily Yonder and Rural Assembly.
‘We didn’t want to go into this deficit.’ Jason Gonzales, an Open Campus local reporter with Chalkbeat Colorado, spoke to the Education Writers Association about his thoughtful approach to reporting on the rural Colorado town of Fowler, where great advisors and community support have led to a surprisingly high college-going rate for the area’s lone 110-person high school.
- “I think rural Colorado is often talked about from sort of a deficit: the things that they don’t have,” Gonzales told me in a previous edition of Mile Markers. “If you look at the numbers, you see that there are some who are able to do really great work with their students to get them wherever they want to be.”