Getting into the Groove in North California: A Tutorial for Future Rural Teachers!

April 1, 2020 |

“I Am a Rural Teacher” is a national advocacy campaign that gives voice to rural teachers. The program is a collaboration between the Rural Schools Collaborative, National Rural Education Association, Community Foundation of the Ozarks, Ozarks Teacher Corps, and The University of West Alabama’s Black Belt Teacher Corps. The “I Am a Rural Teacher” campaign is made possible by a grant from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Getting into the Groove in Northern California: A Guide for Future Rural Teachers

Johnathan Imhoff knew he wanted to be a music teacher from his freshman year of high school.

“I went to a jazz camp. I went with a perfectly naive thought, like ‘Oh, ’ll just get by with my basic ability to read notes’. But I just had a culture shock. And there was a really crazy sense of shame at the time… From that point on, I was like— I’m going to be a music teacher, and I’m going to make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else.”

The campus of CSU-Chico.

Newly motivated, Johnathon applied himself to learning the skills necessary to prepare students for more than just the basics. Hailing from Chico, California, he knew that Chico State was the best place for him to get a music education degree.

“They had a great program, a world-class band director and jazz educators,” says Johnathan.

Looking around for places to teach after graduation, Johnathan found Weaverville, California, a quaint town tucked into the mountains of Northern California.

“It reminded me of The Sound of Music. I came mid-April, you have flowers on the hillside, and I just thought, I could reinvigorate the music culture here again."

Weaverville lies in Trinity County, one of the counties that comprise North State Together, an organizational network using data-driven tactics to improve the educational success of every child in the North State. Along with California State University-Chico, North State Together anchors the Rural Schools Collaborative’s Northern California Regional Hub.

A purple sunset falls on Weaverville.

Integrating into Rural Life

Johnathan’s first year as a teacher wasn’t easy, but it improved the more he got involved with the community.

“As a rural teacher, you just gotta start finding organizations in your town that you can invest in, and that’s how you meet people. If you invest in the community you end up having a more rewarding experience.”

He started with a trail-cleaning group, hiking around the many beautiful trails around Weaverville. Then he joined the community band and even played a role in a local theater production of Mary Poppins.

“That’s the thing, rural towns allow you to do things you wouldn’t necessarily be able to do in bigger places.”

Johnathan singing in the community choir.

“If you invest in the community you end up having a more rewarding experience.”

Sometimes, getting involved just meant having coffee with his colleagues or saying hello to the parents of a student.

“I know it’s hard, especially when you’re first starting; you’re treading water, there’s paperwork and all these other things, and it’s like, ‘Oh now I’m gonna go volunteer.' It’s probably like the literal last thing you want to do, but your life will improve if you do. My life improved a lot doing community band.”

Now, Johnathan is the director and conductor of the community band. He’s been able to meet many friends and mentors through the local choir and band.

“There’s a small-town pride in Weaverville. We’re gonna take care of this place."

Johnathan conducting the local community band at a practice.

“There’s a small-town pride in Weaverville. We’re gonna take care of this place.”

The Opportunities of a Rural School

When Johnathan started at the Weaverville schools, the music program was in dire straits. Over the past five years Johnathan has dedicated himself to resurrecting the program.

“The opportunity [to re-start the music program], it’s kind of like soul-affirming. I get to provide this thing that wasn’t really offered before. I remember my first year there was a senior who was really thankful, they wrote a letter afterwards like, ‘You know I had real doubts whether or not they were ever gonna get the music program back, so thank you.’”

But connecting with students is about more than just teaching the fundamentals of music.

“There’s no way to do this program successfully if you can’t build relationships. You have to be invested in these kid’s lives. You’re one of a few role models in their lives.”

Johnathan playing along with a student in his Orchestra class.

For Johnathan, it’s the rural school that offers this opportunity to develop meaningful and lasting connections with students.

“You can really build a relationship that you can’t really in an urban school. You get to build that rapport with that kid over the years.”

There are also opportunities for the students to connect with the broader community in ways that might not happen in larger cities. For instance, some of the students in Johnathan’s band class also play with him in the community band.

“You have these fun intergenerational opportunities between students and members of the community, and they can support each other. We have community members come through. They’ll come in and sit in the pep bands. That sort of opportunity happens all the time, whereas in cities there are a billion things community members may be distracted by.”

Johnathan showing students chords in his Guitar class.

“You have these fun intergenerational opportunities between students and members of the community and they can support each other.”

Overcoming the Challenges of Rural Schools

Teaching in a rural school comes with its fair share of challenges too. The main two that have struck Johnathan are lack of capital and long commute times for students.

“There’s just not a lot of money and capital that flows through here. That leaves a lot of people in sort of less than optimal situations. There’s a lot of adverse conditions for a lot of these kids.”

The adverse conditions that kids face put Johnathan in the position to be more than just a passing face for students.

“You’re working as a counselor as well as teacher. You’re trying to help kids through very difficult things… I want them to know, yeah, I care about you as a musician, but I also care about you as a person.”

Johnathan smiles as one of his students shows him a recent piece on the saxophone.

“You’re working as a counselor as well as teacher. You’re trying to help kids through very difficult things… I want them to know, yeah I care about you as a musician, but I also care about you as a person.”

Johnathan shows students that he cares by making sure he’s keeping up to date with the other things that his students are passionate about. For Johnathan, teaching rural is all about being engaged and sharing in people’s lives.

“Rural looks and feels like people with good hearts. They’ll go to bat for you, if you go to bat for them. If you show you’re invested in them, they’ll definitely give you as much if not more back.”

For his part, Johnathan hopes that by sharing his passion for music, it might become a passion for his students too.

“There’s a quote, “Music wipes off the dust of everyday life”. Whatever way [the students] use it, by joining choirs or just listening, I want them just to have the sense that this is something that makes life that much richer."

Johnathan directs the students in his choir class through different notes.

Editor's note: The Rural Schools Collaborative recognizes the challenges that have presented themselves to all of us at this time. We also want to recognize that this is not the first time Northern California has faced challenges as a community. If you'd like to read more about the trauma-informed practices that some communities implemented after the Camp Fire in Paradise, you can find that here.

Watch a video of Johnathan here:

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