Rural Schools Collaborative (RSC) was able to participate in a one-of-a-kind Rural Teacher Retreat this July hosted by its Iowa Regional Hub partners at the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque (CFGD) along with colleagues from the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) at Camp Courageous in Monticello, IA. This event marked the culmination of a yearlong collaboration between RSC and the CFGD to plan and launch an Iowa-based Rural Teacher Corps as part of the Catalyst Initiative Grant. This grant opportunity is made possible through the generosity of an anonymous donor and enables rural-serving organizations to design and implement their own rural teacher recruitment, preparation, or retention effort with $25,000 of flexible early planning dollars.
For CFGD’s Jason Neises, Community Development Officer, and Kelly Krause, Education Officer, focusing their Rural Teacher Corps concept on educator retention and resilience aligned with the Community Foundation’s overall local philanthropic mission. They reasoned it is often the case that much is expected of educators with little by way of appropriate compensation for all that they do for students and the larger community, a hard reality that has become even more apparent over the past three years as rural teacher retention has worsened. Along with adequate teacher pay and benefits and administrator support, mental health is a major contributor to the long term health and success of rural educators. It was therefore a natural next step for them as they collaborated with RSC through the Catalyst Grant to create an intentional time and space for rural educators to convene, celebrate, and recenter on their personal wellness and resiliency.
Asking educators to go above and beyond to convene for an in-person conference during the summer holiday was an ambitious vision, but Neises and Krause were enthused that over 70 educators from around Eastern Iowa, and across the Mississippi in Wisconsin and Illinois, readily signed up to take part in the Retreat. All told, the final cohort of educators present represented early years grades as well as high school, school administrators and staff as well as teachers, and even college students as well as 20-plus-year veterans of the profession.
While the bulk of the day was spent migrating around to a number of different small group sessions, the first activity of the day was an opportunity for CFGD to ask their audience to reflect on the state of rural education. Working at their tables, educators brainstormed around what they loved about their career, what concerns they had, and what hopes they had for the future. Despite the differing ages and focus areas of the participants, there was an amazing degree of agreement among the educators’ responses. Love for people and place, and for education, were widely lauded as the driving force behind their passion for what they do, and ongoing structural instability and resource deficits ranked high among common challenges they saw in their schools. Nevertheless, many saw great signs of hope in growing interest in rural-specific teacher pathway programs and the growing national conversation for rural school support. This information was essential to situate the educators for the day of activities ahead, and to inform CFGD how best to continue crafting their Rural Teacher Corps program.
After reflecting on the state of the education sector, the educators were next delighted by a keynote talk by Clint Darr, a certified Laugh Therapist who extolled the mental and physical health benefits of reframing one’s experiences to embrace the humorous side of life. Though oftentimes silly, Darr’s presentation was an incredible combination of instruction and therapy. This duality sparked by Darr’s talk was carried on throughout the day in the five unique small-group sessions educators could choose to attend. These included:
Forest Bathing: A slow-paced, therapeutic walk promoting wellness through a series of quiet individual activities.
Navigating Politics & Public Relations: An informational session aimed at helping educators navigate volatile situations, de-escalate heated interactions, refresh useful crisis response techniques, and manage difficult social media situations.
EQ for Educators: An exploration into emotional intelligence, which is correlated with increased academic achievement, better health, stronger relationships, greater self-efficacy, and improved quality of life; improving teacher and staff wellbeing and student success.
Compassion Fatigue & Energy Healing: Caring for students with trauma can be difficult. This session showed how trauma governs the physical body, identified where trauma is stored and the impact it has on both children and adults, and revealed how to work with areas that may be impacted.
Breathwork for Educators: Using our breath to regulate our nervous system is one simple, yet powerful strategy in managing and minimizing anxiety, depression, and burnout. This session offered a calm, relaxing period of quiet time to reflect and practice this new skill.
Having spent a day unwinding, reenergizing, and learning new skills for the school year ahead, everyone convened together one final time to unpack what they experienced at the Retreat. Much like the brainstorming session that kicked off the whole event, this wrap-up was intended to allow the educators to have an active hand in shaping both the future iterations of the Retreat and the forthcoming Iowa Rural Teacher Corps. Given the personal nature of wellness and learning exercises at the event, each educator had their own unique highlights of the day. However, most agreed that the Retreat was an amazing breath of fresh air from other teacher conferences for actually giving educators clear and easy-to-implement wellness strategies. Likewise, they were excited to share back with their colleagues all they had experienced during the event.
Most elated of all were RSC’s partners at the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque and their colleagues from the University of Northern Iowa. Having seen the great need and excitement from rural teachers for this sort of event, both organizations were looking forward to not only coming back together to host a second event, but also to collaborating more intimately to support the recruitment, training, and resilience of rural educators across Iowa.
Thank you to the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque and the University of Northern Iowa for inviting Rural Schools Collaborative to attend this fantastic event, and to the generosity of both donors and supports of the Catalyst Initiative Grant alike for helping sustain efforts like this retreat nationally.
September 29, 2023
The Rural Teacher Corps model showcases how national philanthropy can serve as a catalyst for local solutions.
September 11, 2023
Lessons from three exemplary efforts on building and sustaining high school pathways into the education field.