The Small Town and Rural Language Teachers of Georgia (STaRLT) is an online community designed to connect rural educators who teach second languages. The group holds virtual events, provides resources for teachers, and shares successes in rural world language classrooms. RSC had the chance to interview Shannon Borum, a French teacher in rural central Georgia and the Founder & Facilitator of STaRLT, about the program and her own experiences as an educator, which drew her to creating this collaborative effort.
Shannon is in her 13th year of teaching French at the middle and high school levels. She explains how this career change let her feel more involved in advocating for other teachers.
“I came to teaching after a very brief and unremarkable career as a legislative staffer here in Georgia. I'm still a political junkie but teaching is where I belong. I love working with students but have recently realized how much I also love working with teachers. Teaching is such a hard job and it's only made worse in unsupportive environments, so my mission when working with other teachers is to be someone who makes them feel confident, knowledgeable and valuable.”
Like most teachers, Shannon explains that she got where she is thanks to a teacher in her own life. In fact, it was a language instructor that got Shannon’s gears turning toward education.
“I was an average kid: neither the top nor the bottom of the class, neither the hardest worker nor the laziest, and generally just doing school and trying to keep my parents happy. I met Madame Arnold and my life was forever changed. She was dignified, brilliant, well-spoken, and generally the most graceful human I've ever met. She ignited my love of learning languages and about the people who speak them.”
“I knew I wanted to do something with my life that put me in a position to impact the lives of kids like me: to make them feel like anything is possible and they are capable of doing great things in life. One of the many things I love about teaching a language class is that most of my students come with no French knowledge, so they're all in the same boat: everyone is starting fresh, regardless of whether or not you've been an outstanding scholar in the past.”
After transitioning out of politics and into the classroom, Shannon knew she wanted to work for a rural district. Despite the narratives surrounding rural places and schools, she saw rural education as an asset and an opportunity.
“I think sometimes people have an impression of rural as this place where nothing good happens. In fact, it's really the opposite. I teach in a town where most folks will be at the football game on Friday night, where my colleagues are now teaching children of their students, where you run into students working at local restaurants and stores when you're out and about. The longer you stay, the less possible it is to be anonymous, for better or worse. I chose to teach in a rural area because of all these aspects of our community. Our students have grown up together, they know each other's families, they know their teachers' families. The folks making decisions in our community are members of our community, and the bureaucracy typical in larger districts simply doesn't exist. What isn't to like about teaching in a rural setting!”
This isn’t to say, however, that the transition was easy. Rural teachers face unique challenges, with professional isolation being one. As a foreign language educator, Shannon remarks how those same challenges endured by all rural teachers often seem amplified.
“The challenges of a rural setting, for me, come down to my content. I am the only French teacher in our district, and my entire department is me and two Spanish teachers. We're a small thread of the k-12 fabric of my district, which typically means we are an island unto ourselves when it comes to content-specific professional learning. Before I was at my current school, I was in a slightly larger district that still had the same problem: no dedicated professional learning for my content. The reality of what we do in language classes is that we don't often use the same strategies and methods that apply to other content areas. This challenge is what led me to create the Small Town and Rural Language Teacher (which I call STaRLT, pronounced like starlight) virtual professional learning community in early 2021. I needed a place to go where I could talk about language-y things with other language teachers who have similar teaching situations to mine. So since its inception, our STaRLT group has had monthly hour-long professional development webinars on topics that apply to teaching a language in rural settings.”
As much as STaRLT was an answer to a need of Shannon’s, it has also proven to be a rallying point for rural language teachers across Georgia, providing a critical touch-point of community and professional growth.
“I hope it's having a positive impact! Probably the biggest takeaway from our group is the community building: it's so great to connect to teachers across our state (and the nation!) just to know that there are other professionals working with the same sets of challenges as we all are in rural settings. Teachers are generally tough and independent, but it's such an important aspect of our professional lives to have a network of people you can reach out to who understand what's going on. One of the things I love is sharing when I find cool resources online or grant opportunities or any kind of cool tip for the classroom. Our state DOE recently rolled out a couple grant opportunities specifically for language teachers, so I organized a webinar for our Program Specialist to walk us through the grant process and give examples of some projects that were previously funded. I hope that webinar helped more of our teachers feel confident in submitting grant proposals to get their projects funded.”
STaRLT is an incredible example of the innovation, tenacity, and passion of rural educators to do what it takes to make sure they and their students receive what they need to thrive, but no single measure is sufficient. Shannon explains how foreign language instruction is essential for students, and how more should be done to strengthen it:
“Foreign language classes have so many benefits aside from language acquisition: strengthening connections to English, activating different parts of the brain, learning about how other people and places think and operate, and developing an understanding of the beauty of ‘otherness’ outside your own culture. Much of the job force right now wants to see an improvement in soft skills, and I think we strengthen those in foreign language classes. In Georgia especially, skills in language and cultural awareness are becoming increasingly more necessary: we have a lot of international companies setting up shop in rural locations so the linguistic and intercultural skills learned in a foreign language class can be attractive to prospective employers in our rural communities.”
From building community and hosting professional learning experiences to publishing curriculum planning guides and activity ideas, STaRLT is an exceptional opportunity for rural language teachers across Georgia, and the country. Please check out their website to learn more, and feel free to reach out to Shannon with any questions!
Thank you to Shannon Borum for reaching out to Rural Schools Collaborative to share about this amazing rural resource. Rural schools across Georgia are part of RSC’s Alabama & the Black Belt Regional Hub, headed up by the University of West Alabama.