Last week, I had the privilege of hosting (or being shadow by) another colleague in my school district. Alistair is a beginning teacher (first couple of years into his career) who this year has assumed a role at his school (not unlike my own) that is multi-faceted and broad in its scope. Today we met to discuss the role of the teacher-librarian: maintaining library collections, purchasing items for collections, developing a reader advisory capacity, effectively organizing the physical space, managing educational technology, supporting our teacher colleagues in our respective schools, and even looking after one’s health and balance. But I found our wide-ranging conversation about teaching and learning in a rural school setting to be the most insightful of all (at least for me!).
I am very positive and at ease knowing that our kids, and the future of rural education, in this province is being left in the very capable hands of our young teachers, beginning teachers, and teacher-candidates. I have also come to the realization that now more than ever, teaching is a calling. It’s not something that one does ‘on the side’ or as a holding pattern towards something ‘bigger’. Alistair gets it. He gets that our rural learners need different. They need different. They need ways to connect and engage. To learn. To solve big hairy problems. To inquire. To take risks. To fail. And to persevere.
Rural education has also changed dramatically over the past two decades. As the metropolitan areas in the province continue to expand unabated, our rural communities are witnessing families uprooting to larger areas for employment opportunity. School enrollments are on the decline or at best, fairly flat with no appreciable increases on the horizon. Rural schools are getting creative and innovative. The importance of teacher collaboration and connection to the broader community has become essential. The teaching approaches that are occurring in many of the schools in our district represent the future of rural education and what its means for student learning.
Alistair is kind of a new breed of teacher. The kind we so desperately need. The requirement of teaching multi-grade, and at times, multi-subject groups of students has required him to approach his role as guide and mentor rather than teacher and keeper of highly sought after knowledge. The recognition that it takes a community to educate a child is very evident in school settings like Crawford Bay School and JV Humphries Elementary and Secondary School. The result is often an increase in student engagement and responsibility for learning. For what they learn. How they learn. When they learn it.
Our provincial government has also recognized the challenges that are unique to rural education and the learning needs of its students. Rural Education Enhancement Fund (REEF) for K-12 was launched last year. And according to the Ministry of Education, school districts are taking full advantage of the program in support of their students. Was this a politically motivated decision by the beleaguered Liberal Party to garner votes for the upcoming election? Absolutely. But in the end, our rural students benefited from the largess. And while the current NDP government has threatened to end the REEF, I don’t believe that the plug will be pulled. There’s a lot at stake here. Politically. And yes, even morally.
That brings us back to Alistair. What does he feel is the most pressing issues in education today? “Choice. Engagement through choice for students.” Declining enrollment has forced schools like Alistair’s to get creative and innovative. And for the rural student that’s a very good thing.