Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a new email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.
Taylor McCabe-Juhnke is the incoming executive director of the Rural Schools Collaborative, an organization that is dedicated to building sustainable rural communities through focusing on “place, teachers and philanthropy.”
Coming from a long line of small-town educators, McCabe-Juhnke is very familiar with the myriad barriers to equitable education, especially in rural places where schools often serve not just as institutions of learning, but also as cornerstones of the community.
As the new executive director, McCabe-Juhnke has big plans to grow the Rural Schools Collaborative’s network. She believes in the power of mobilizing locally, and has experience connecting community organizations, volunteers, and educators. Now, she’s looking to expand the Rural Schools Collaborative nationally by building a team of young people from, and in, rural communities who can bring fresh perspectives to the national education dialogue.
Throughout our conversation, we focused on the idea of community building as a tool for progress, the role of schools in local infrastructure, and how we can all support the education community.
Haley Cush, Daily Yonder: Could you provide some background on Rural Schools Collaborative and how it was founded?
Taylor McCabe-Juhnke: The mission of Rural Schools Collaborative (RSC) is to “build sustainable rural communities through a keen focus on place, teachers, and philanthropy.” The organization started in 2015 based on successful programs led by the Missouri-based Community Foundation of the Ozarks, a rural philanthropy innovator. RSC is supported by a small staff and regional hub contacts. It works to build the social capital of rural schools and their communities and to grow strong rural teacher leaders, give them a voice, and provide them with supportive networks and resources.
RSC implements its mission through four signature programs: Grants in Place, which awards grants to rural teachers in support of place-based learning; the Place Network, a collaboration with Teton Science Schools and their work to build out a national network of place-centered schools; the Rural Teacher Corps, a learning community of intentional rural teacher preparation programs; and a Catalyst Grants Initiative—planning grants to support rural development programs.
Finally, the I Am a Rural Teacher Campaign supports our efforts to give voice to teachers and advocate for rural schools.
DY: Often, when discussing education and teachers we tend to think of just the classroom setting, but in reality teachers do so much more than instruct students. What is a narrative you’ve heard recently that you think gives a holistic perspective on the impact that rural teachers have in their communities?
TMJ: It is important to remember that in many rural communities, public schools are the largest employers, and, often, these schools are the last vestige of public infrastructure that engages the people of a given community. Therefore, the role of the teacher in a small town is often outsized.
Michael Melton, a teacher in Whitesburg, Kentucky spoke eloquently about this phenomenon on our podcast: “We’ve got to be aware that not only are we an example, 8-3 or 7-4, whatever the time-frame is during the school day, but in a rural community, we’re an example for [students and families] away from school. Because they see us in the community. Their parents see us in the community, and that was always something that I have taken very, very consciously. That my behavior away from school reflects upon what happens to me inside the building of a school and how students respect you, how families respect you.”
Michael makes an important and valid point, but we might add that the role of a teacher transcends that of simply being a visible role model outside of the school. Oftentimes, rural teachers truly are the builders of the “commons.” They are the social capital, or the community builders, that are sometimes lacking in rural places.
DY: A part of RSC’s project involves social media networks for rural teachers. Why is connecting rural educators across the country, and the world, important for advocacy promotion?
TMJ: Our Young Educators Council is a wonderful example of why connecting rural teachers through networks is so important. First, there can be a sense of isolation for rural teachers, especially if those teachers are new to a community or region. Second, sometimes a teacher is the only science teacher in a school or even a small district. So, the connectivity can be both personally cathartic and important in terms of professional development.
DY: In recent history, teachers from various geographies have been making their voices heard, for example, through the “Red for Ed” strikes all over the country in 2018. In your experience, why is it crucial that we are specifically supportive of rural teachers and the work they do? What is the biggest obstacle rural teachers are facing right now?
TMJ: We believe that rural America is approaching a very tough intersection—a crossroads where the undermining of public institutions meets what is a very real rural teacher shortage. Not only do we have to encourage talented young people to become teachers and serve in rural areas, we also have to remind rural citizens and their political representatives just how important rural schools are to the collective futures of their communities.
DY: How can people who are not in the education sector or directly in these communities support rural teachers and programs?
TMJ: Get involved at the local level. Certainly, how you vote or how you give charitably makes a difference, but if more community members would truly immerse themselves in their local schools, better decision-making and stronger funding would most likely follow.
And we are not referring to simply attending sporting events. Volunteer in classrooms, graciously host new teachers, make “school” part of your life as much as possible. This truly is imperative.
DY: As the I Am a Rural Teacher campaign continues, how do you hope to expand your reach? Are there any projects in the works right now?
TMJ: This is occurring on two fronts. The first is that RSC continues to expand its national footprint. With the addition of an Iowa Hub, we have grown to eleven regional Hubs. This allows us to engage more and more teachers through the I Am a Rural Teacher campaign and its various programs.
In addition, we have received another round of funding from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to build on this work. This second phase, which is in collaboration with the National Rural Education Association, will build on the I Am a Rural Teacher campaign by developing regional rural teacher caucuses, creating a national website to connect future rural teachers to the school districts that need them, and continuing to enhance advocacy efforts with a strong emphasis on universal broadband.
This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.