Rural Schools Partnership News

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Lara Strong was a member of the Ozarks Teacher Corps class of 2014.

Ozarks Teacher Corps Profile: Lara Strong

January 10, 2018

Lara Strong, High School Foreign Language: Chinese, French, Spanish, and German, West Plains

Cassie Atchley, Philosophy major at Drury University

Since 2010, scores of young educators have graduated from the Ozarks Teacher Corps, with a rural school teacher-placement rate of better than 90 percent. This summer we will profile 13 of these teachers who are making a difference for rural Ozarks students and schools. These interviews were conducted and profiles written by English and Writing students at Drury University.

Dingshuo “Lara” Strong exudes warmth and patience, two qualities necessary when you see over 130 high school students per day and are responsible for teaching four languages. Strong moved to West Plains, Mo. from Dalian, China 13 years ago. After working at the Missouri State University campus in Dalian, she found herself relocating to West Plains after two years in a long-distance relationship with her now-husband. The close-knit community of West Plains made the stressful move much easier for Strong. “I feel like I blend in pretty well. It’s a really small town. Everyone pretty much knows everyone, and I think that makes people more accepting,” Strong says. Strong has 12 years working in the West Plains school district under her belt, and is just concluding her first year teaching foreign language classes at the high school.

Past

Strong didn’t always think she’d be a teacher, though she’s always worked around them, both in Dalian and in West Plains. Before beginning teaching classes in West Plains, Strong worked as a Chinese interpreter, classroom aid, paraprofessional, and a one-on-one tutor in the district. Being in this environment pushed Strong to want more out of her career. “In my work I saw how the teachers were really devoting their lives to their kids and put students first. I saw that they changed student lives,” Strong says, “That had a huge impact on me. I wanted to be one of them.” Strong sought out the Ozarks Teacher Corps to help her refine her teaching abilities and relate them to her community. When asked what was the most important thing she learned during her experience in the Ozarks Teacher Corps Strong quickly says, “Community is the root. If the school leaves a positive impact, once [students] experience the outside world, they will see home and they will want to come back. But the root has to be strong.”

Present

After graduating from Missouri State University in June 2016, Strong’s workload quickly increased. Yet Strong says the challenge of her new job is what she likes best, “I’m never doing just one thing. I have four different languages in one class, with four different levels. I like the challenge.” Strong speaks about her demanding work load with a sweet laugh, “Right now I’m trying to facilitate four different languages: Chinese, Spanish, French, and German. I want to master these different languages so I can further help my school district.” A daunting task for some, Strong instead sees the benefit of learning alongside her students.

However, her rural district in southern Missouri poses some unique challenges for foreign language instruction. “Sometimes it’s hard for students to see how being bilingual or multilingual is useful. In a rural town there is not too much diversity. It’s hard for them to foresee how knowing another language will help them,” Strong says. Strong hopes to change this sentiment, both through her own example and the example of former students. But Strong acknowledges that some of these challenges are beyond her control. She sees how differing economic and social backgrounds can impact a child’s education. “So many parents here really care about their children’s education, but some don’t, and this really impacts the students. They can’t do as well in these situations.”

Future

And this is why Strong has no plans on leaving. Strong feels a sturdy sense of community in West Plains, and wishes to instill this ideal in her students to help improve their educational standards and futures. “West Plains is my second home town, other than the one I have in China. I have never lived in other places, so this is my home,” Strong says.

Already Strong has seen the rewards of dedicating her life to students in West Plains and adopting it as her home. Strong speaks fondly of a recent student who was just recently accepted to medical school and found that his strength in Spanish gave him a leg-up on the competition. Strong joyfully recounts a conversation she had with his mother, “She told me that him knowing Spanish made him stand out and contributed to him being accepted to medical school.”

In her classroom today Strong is working on an experimental classroom dynamic where students are taking ownership over their language learning. The first 20 minutes of class time is spent self-learning, and the last 25 consists of peer learning. In a class comprised of different grades, abilities, and languages, Strong sees the benefit of this set-up. “The students are the learners and the teachers,” she says. Her goal for this year is to strengthen her abilities in French, and then move on to German. Strong’s effectiveness as a teacher is furthered by her own example. She serves as proof to her students of the benefits of language, and also shows them that learning is a lifelong pursuit.


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