First Grade Teacher
Willow Springs Elementary School, Missouri
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.
“Good morning, Mrs. Wardle!” I imagine students exclaiming this when Kelly Brown Wardle asks her first grade class to form a circle inside her room. Wardle calls this morning routine the “good morning circle,” where students greet each other with a positive statement each morning. Through this, Wardle teaches students how to create a sense of community, which is something that she has been stressing to her classes at Willow Springs Elementary School for the past five years.
No stranger to rural life, Wardle grew up in the “little teeny tiny town” of Lone Jack, Mo. Her graduating high school class consisted of 24 students. Growing up in a small community inspired Wardle to work and live in one.
Before finding her calling as an educator, Wardle worked at a bank and as a professional nanny. She then worked in human resources for 22 years for companies like Bass Pro, Carousel Unlimited and Lamson & Sessions, a Mountain Grove, Mo., manufacturer. In January of 2010, Lamson & Sessions closed. However, Wardle believes that as one door closed, another door opened. The following fall she was able to go back to school to pursue a career in education.
Wardle did not plan to be a teacher; she claims the profession chose her. As a child, she did not like school. “I would say I was one of those kids that probably quit school in the third grade. I checked out,” she says. Describing her childhood self as a “struggling student,” Wardle says that she had trouble retaining information. Her experiences as a young student are why she chose to teach first grade. She feels that she can “build a good foundation” for her students, paving the way for them to be successful in the future.
While studying at Drury University’s Cabool campus, a professor recommended that she apply for the Ozarks Teacher Corps scholarship. After two tries, she was accepted into the Corps and granted a scholarship. As a self-described late bloomer, Wardle graduated college at 45 with the support of the Ozark Teacher Corps.
“The most important thing they taught me is how important it is to keep rural schools and communities working together,” says Wardle. The Corps provided her with numerous opportunities to learn, grow, and network with other professionals. Being a part of the organization also showed Wardle how to write grants for her classroom and community. “[Ozarks Teacher Corps] taught me everything,” she says. “They provided us with so many resources and opportunities that there was no way you could fail.” Having a wonderful experience as a member of the Teacher Corps inspires Wardle to give back to the organization, its members, and her rural community whenever she can.
Rural School Challenges
While Wardle loves teaching in a rural area, she does note that there are certain difficulties that come with the job. For one thing, her rural school does not have the budget that bigger schools have, so Wardle must write grants for many of her classroom supplies. Her salary also is a downfall of teaching at a rural school. She explains that her cousin, who teaches in Kansas City, earns a salary almost twice her own. Technology is also hard to come by in a rural school. “[My cousin] has all new technology and I have three iPads. I had to write a grant for all three. She’s never written a grant, and I am continuously writing grants to get the supplies I need for my classroom.” Using skills and connections that she acquired from the Ozarks Teacher Corps, Wardle has received eight grants.
In the Classroom
Wardle adapts her teaching style to fit the students she teaches each year. She is determined to do all she can do for them, so she often researches new activities and strategies to implement in her classroom. She also develops tools for her students to use as ways to cope, de-stress, and release energy. “I feel that outside sources in the home and life may be contributing [to stress]; there are a lot of kids in school that are on survival mode,” she says. “I do everything I can to let them know how important they are to me and how important they are to society.” Wardle supports and encourages all her students, building a lasting relationship with each of them. She knows where almost all of her students from the past five years are now because of the connections she builds and the rural community in which she lives.
Continuing Her Education
Wardle currently is pursuing her Master’s degree in literacy. In the next few years, she hopes to become a reading specialist. She also would like to start an after-school program to teach middle and high school students about business, research and grant writing as part of a Youth Empowerment Program, so that they too can give back to their communities.
Being an educator is much more than a job to Wardle. Her students inspire her, make her laugh, challenge her, and give her purpose.
“They have fulfilled pretty much every aspect of my life,” she says.
The Ozarks Teacher Corps develops a cadre of talented teaching candidates who will explore rural education issues, serve as teacher interns in small schools, and commit to teaching in their respective home communities for at least three years. The overarching purpose of the Ozarks Teacher Corps is to encourage extremely capable and passionate young people to become educators and return to their rural hometowns as teacher-leaders. This program is made possible by the Chesley and Flora Lea Wallis Trust, a $1.7 million Community Foundation of the Ozarks charitable fund. In 2016, the Rural Schools Collaborative established the Rural Teacher Corps to promote similar programs across the country with the help of a dedicated network of rural education advocates and funders.