Equity in education: Rural teaching opened my eyes to district disparities

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My equity in education moment came when I returned to my rural hometown after teaching in an urban district. Image by Flickr user RichardBH

Two of my colleagues have shared their experiences as a statistic and a child who could have been left behind.  I too have my own story that helped drive my passion.  All of us define equity in different ways.  Equity is a concept that is hard to define, and we often only can recognize it by its absence.  I grew up in a rural part of the southeast, and I am a first-generation college student. However, my passion for equity is most influenced by my career as an educator and as a mother of four.

I knew that one day I would return home as a classroom teacher.   But before that, I needed some experience. I felt that a larger district would afford me more professional opportunities on which I could build my foundation as an educator.  And, to be honest, the pay was better in a large urban district.

After eight years as a high school teacher and leader, I left my large and financially strong district to helm a classroom back home in my poorer, rural district.  When I returned as an adult, I saw my school and its students in a different light than I saw things as a student 20 years prior.

I always believed that my hometown would afford the same opportunities as any district in my state.  My idealistic bubble was burst soon after the start of the school year.   My students did not have the same opportunities as the students in my former large urban district.   It was a harsh realization that equity and equality are two very different things.

One of the first inequities I noticed is that my rural district has a difficult time recruiting and retaining teachers.  Rural districts across my state have known for many years that if you do not grow your own teachers, you will face a teaching shortage.   I was an example.  I knew most of my teaching colleagues because we either went to school together, had common friends, or they were my teacher many years before.  Though I worked with some rock star teachers in my hometown, we continued to start school every year with teacher vacancies in crucial courses such as math and special education.

Living and teaching in a rural district has its challenges.  Lack of pay, lack of housing, and minimal social opportunities limit a rural district’s ability to lure in new teachers and to keep them.  Turnover is high and new teachers from out of town don’t stay very long.  Teaching matters.  We know it.  Research proves it.  If teaching matters more than any other factor, we have an obligation to ensure that all students, regardless of their zip code, have access to effective teachers every year.

The second big inequity I noticed was that students had little to no access to Advanced Placement (AP) courses.  Even with a larger gifted population than other schools in our district, we had very few AP opportunities for our students.  Fortunately, my district was not okay with this.  Over the course of 7 years, we worked to have at least one AP certified teacher in each of the core subject areas.  Additionally, our state has pushed for greater access to more rigorous courses. Through North Carolina Virtual Public Schools, more students have access to more AP courses, that regardless of location.

Before my first day in my very own classroom, I wrote down on a note card three reasons why I chose to be a teacher.  Every year, even now, I refer to this note card.  I am just as idealistic now as I was 20 years ago.  I believe every child can learn.  I believe teachers open doors.  I believe education is the best gift we can give.   We have an obligation to ensure that barriers such as geography and poverty do not shut out these opportunities. Equitable access to great teachers and rigorous coursework is not as universal as we think.  How can we work to ensure that regardless of whether you live on a farm, in a city, or in the suburbs, all students have access to equitable opportunities?

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About Author

Jennifer Bell

Customer Account Executive

Hello! I’m Jennifer Bell. I’m a wife, mother of four, and avid runner who loves to laugh! I am a NC Teaching Fellows graduate of Meredith College and am currently pursuing my Master’s degree in Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment. Before coming to SAS I served the public schools of North Carolina as a National Board Certified teacher and data coach for 15 years. As an education nerd and passionate teacher at heart, my role at SAS as an education specialist is a perfect fit. Working with schools, districts and states to use data to drive school improvement and improve student outcomes allows me to continue to champion every student.

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