The Worldwide Woes of Rural Education

It’s no secret that there is a shortage of teachers entering the workforce in Washington (OSPI has a page on this). But have you seen the news from rural China? Recent articles explain how education in rural China is in a crisis. Due to the developmental divide between urban and rural areas, and the low wages for teachers, young Chinese teachers entering the profession have little incentive to work in rural areas, far from the conveniences of the larger towns and cities. Likewise, wealthier rural families send their children to schools in more urban areas for better opportunities. Meanwhile, the students who remain in rural schools suffer from ever-decreasing quality of education, high teacher turnover, and limited programs of instruction.

Yunnan Rice Fields

I wish these articles were as exotic and foreign to me as the locale would suggest, but, line after line, I kept seeing a parallel to my own teaching context.

First of all, Chinese villages are inconvenient, with transportation issues for students and teachers. Transportation is a problem in rural Lewis County, too. Some students who attend my small, rural school in Southwest Washington, ride the bus for more than an hour from their remote homes. And, teachers who want to eat at a nice restaurant, shop at a large store, or get the oil changed in their car will have to drive at least forty minutes from our little neighborhood. Okay, it is probably worse in rural China, but who wants to drive forty minutes for fast food?

Another parallel? Rural Chinese teachers have little or no social life. Likewise, although many young teachers take rural teaching jobs in our region, it takes very little time before they realize that these remote, depressed areas are not exactly conducive to meeting other young singles. They have to travel for socialization, and, let’s face it, first-year teachers don’t have the time or money for the traveling.

Yamdrok Lake, Tibet, China

Other Chinese programs have cropped up to create incentives for teachers and young college graduates, even if they have no long-term wish to teach at all. These young people are encouraged to “volunteer” to perform a service for less privileged populations. They often start out enthusiastic and effective, but rarely last as teachers. They are a temporary fix that leaves needy rural students feeling abandoned after a short time.

This is a problem in our school, too. We have several positions filled by people who would not normally qualify for the jobs. For instance, our secondary special education teacher is a long-term substitute without prior experience in special ed. This is her second year. That would be especially terrible, but we are lucky, and she is doing a super job. But how fair is it that someone is doing a job they were not trained to do, without receiving benefits? She doesn’t plan to stay in the job.

Riffe Lake, Mossyrock WA

Another program that China is developing is a pipeline for rural educators, starting with high school students. They are incentivizing young people, getting them to promise to work in rural areas in exchange for their college education. This is where the parallel ends. I wish we had incentives for young people in rural communities to go into teaching. Our rural county is lacking in high school programs for future educators (such as Recruiting Washington Teachers), and that is especially frustrating.

Look, it takes a certain kind of educator to work in a poor, rural area. We are remote. We lack conveniences. Plus, we have kids that need us desperately due to poverty, homelessness, and domestic issues. We have diverse populations with needs that are sometimes hard to meet with limited resources and staff. It is hard to come from somewhere else and fall in love with this community, despite its beauty and the charm of the people who live here. Candidates for teaching jobs need to be up to the challenge.

My idea of a solid solution is our own local pipeline. I can imagine some of my current students as future teachers in rural Washington. They would know what they were getting into. They would understand the rhythm of the place. They would know the people. They would speak the languages. They wouldn’t mind the drive “out town,” which is our particular colloquialism for the big cities of Chehalis and Centralia. These kids would be perfect for the jobs. And we need them- desperately.

Lewis County Blueberry Fields

But this is not China, and no one is offering them money to become teachers and come back home to teach. In fact, we struggle to get programs for these promising students to earn college credit in high school. Unlike most urban schools who can attract teachers with advanced degrees to teach college courses in a high school setting, our teachers are often teaching several subjects, some of them far removed from their original major. Like rural China, our best students leave us for the better offerings of larger towns, such as Running Start or schools that offer more AP courses, clubs, or arts programs.

So, despite having students who would be excellent future teachers, we are losing the opportunity to give them an early start on that journey, to win them over to the joys of rural education.

Because it is joyous.

It would take so little to solve so much. Before it is worse, before we seem even more like rural China, we need to get our policy leaders to incentivize the education of future rural teachers.

7 thoughts on “The Worldwide Woes of Rural Education

  1. Jessie Towbin

    You really effectively present the parallels between the teaching shortages facing rural China and rural U.S towns such as yours. Yes, it would take so little to solve so much. This seems like a perfect issue for the legislators representing rural districts to collaborate on. I think that your story should inspire them to action.

    1. Lynne Olmos

      Thank you, Jessie. It is a big issue and this story is just the tip of the iceberg. I hope that we can get some legislators looking into how their actions impact rural education– sooner rather than later!

  2. Mark

    This is such a true representation not only of the struggles of schools in small town, but small rural towns in general. I grew up in a town of 500, closest “big city” was Bend (which at the time was about a third of what it is now) an hour away by highway. The economic and social divides in these kinds of communities seem to be amplified, which makes the work of the schools all the more challenging.

    1. Lynne Olmos

      Thank you, Mark. The kids in rural communities deserve the same level of experience and commitment from their teachers as those in bigger towns and cities. It’s just so hard to get the teachers they need.

  3. Gretchen Cruden

    I too teach in a rural, high-poverty school and can fully attest to all that you say as truth. These are all intense challenges for our unique schools. And yet, I fear the greater challenge is just ahead in that school boards are going to now be responsible for setting the salaries for teachers in their districts. I worry about the salaries the school board members will decide are “fair” in the years to come and the type of educators this will attract.

    1. Lynne Olmos

      Oh, Gretchen, I know. We are about to see some even greater challenges. It is heartbreaking. How can rural schools become competitive markets for talented teachers? I think the new legislation is going to make it so much worse.

  4. Mandy Manning

    This is such a great post. I recently went to China this past June. We were able to tour a couple of schools, but the organizers (on the China side) were very particular about which schools they had us visit. We didn’t get out into the villages, but we did drive through. There is a huge disparity between rural and urban and even inner-urban and outskirts. It’s shocking, but not surprising, and does mirror much of what is happening here in our nation.

    I also spoke with a couple of educational entrepreneurs who were trying to develop a program to attract foreign English language teachers to teach in the rural areas of China. They really do have such a huge struggle in attracting teachers both domestic and foreign.

    Thank so much for this thought-provoking post.

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