Missouri State 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.
McKenzie Moreland has dreamed of becoming a teacher for years. “Growing up I used to play teacher all the time,” she says. “My little brother was my victim – I used to make my own handouts and make him fill them out over summer break.” This love of learning and teaching has carried over into her college career. Moreland is a senior at Missouri State University, an education major specializing in cross categorical special education, with a minor in sign language.
Moreland also is a recent graduate of the Ozarks Teacher Corps. She found out about the Corps through a friend, and says that the program has shown her how rural schools can come together and work to fix common problems. “Growing up in a small school, I didn't know most rural schools faced the same issues” she says. “The Corps showed me we weren't alone in dealing with our problems, and that rural schools could collaborate.”
Moreland is no stranger to the rural lifestyle. She graduated from Pierce City High School, where she says the school gymnasium was the largest building in town. “I have a lot of memories of growing up at a rural school,” she says. “Most schools typically have a senior prank. Well, being in a rural community we had a lot of farmers, and so one year the senior prank was to put goats and chickens on the roof. That was pretty memorable.”
She remembers that anything the school did was a big deal for the small town. Even the third grade science fair was a large-scale event that included the entire community. “The school is the axis for everything,” Moreland says. “It's where people gather for meetings, it's where they hold dances, it's where they hold funerals, it's where they hold auctions. And in our small town, it's the biggest source of jobs. We have a Town and Country and a Casey's, but nothing else supplies as many jobs as the school.”
Another memory Moreland has of her rural school experience is of the one on one teacher relationships she was able to build due to smaller class sizes. She says these teachers are largely responsible for her love of learning and teaching. “I had a science teacher who was really difficult, but really made me grow,” she says. “And my fourth grade teacher constantly asks me to come sub for his class, so all these relationships are really the best part.” Her dad was another role model for her. A teacher, principal and superintendent in the Pierce City district, he often came and read to her classes.
She was originally interested in going into elementary education as a kindergarten teacher, but that changed when she had the opportunity to participate in a cadet teaching program in an early childhood special education classroom. “It was awesome,” she says. “Our school was very small and didn't have a lot of diversity, so I'd never gotten to work with students with special needs, so it was really eye-opening, and that's what the turning point was. That experience changed everything for me.”
Rural School Challenges
Having grown up in a rural community, Moreland is no stranger to the challenges she will likely face when she begins her work at a rural school. She says that, due to the higher rates of poverty in rural areas, students who come from these communities will likely be disadvantaged. “Students who come from poverty are less likely to have had books read to them, have had access to books and less opportunities to learn their letters,” she says. “They're coming in already behind the other kids, and it makes it that much more crucial to get them in a school as soon as we can and get them caught up.”
Another difficulty she expects to face is low school funding. She says that the lack of funding in many rural schools can lead to a lack of adequate equipment and technology in the classroom. “There's not usually a lot of technology, which can hurt a student's education because the world is becoming more reliant on technology,” she says. “If we don't have that technology to show to our students and allow them to use and practice with it, they may be at a disadvantage later in life.” However, Moreland is ready to face these challenges head on. She plans to begin student teaching this fall, and hopes to one day bring her skills back to her home town and teach in Pierce City.
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.