In 2020, Kymberli Wregglesworth wrote to the campaign advocating for mental health resources in rural schools. As part of a project for the National Forum to Advance Rural Education, we followed up with Kymberli to learn more about her experience as a rural teacher in Onaway, Michigan.
Onaway is a rural remote community at the very fingertips of the Michigan “mitten.” Kymberli attended high school in the same building where she now teaches, though she never thought she’d be a teacher, let alone in her hometown.
“It wasn't necessarily my plan to come back and teach in this community, but it was where a job was available when I finished school. [Teaching] definitely was not my original plan at all when I went into my undergrad study. Traditionally there's not a whole lot you can do with a history degree, you know; you can work in a museum or you can teach. I found out that I was kind of good at it and that I really enjoyed it! Once I was hired I really couldn't imagine necessarily teaching anywhere else. It was never my original intention but I'm really, really happy that it's where I eventually settled.”
Kymberli enjoys spending the day with her high schoolers because, she says, they keep her young and on her toes. She teaches students from grades 9-12 in a variety of social studies topics including world history, civics, current events, and United States history. But her favorite topic, by far, is women’s studies:
“I just feel really, really passionate about that particular class, and I'm really invested in teaching students about the women's suffrage movement. I don't think that it really gets the coverage that it deserves, being that it is something that affected literally half of the population of the United States.”
“I really couldn't imagine necessarily teaching anywhere else. It was never my original intention but I'm really, really happy that it's where I eventually settled.”
Kymberli uses that passion for civil rights to encourage her students to become active community members through place-based, student-led projects.
“My civics class does a civic action project, and I try to really encourage them to pick out a school-based or a local community-based topic because it's easiest for them to find stakeholders. I've had students do things regarding student mental health, which is a big issue that I really feel really strongly about. They've done stuff for our local rivers and streams. We've got a lot of kids that are active fishermen so just a lot of different topics like that…trying to solve or at least come up with some ideas for solutions for some local issues.”
She shares that her favorite memory as a teacher is of one of the times her current events students took initiative to create change:
“We read an article that had to do with child soldiers in Africa, and these kids got so fired up about this issue, they're like, ‘We have to do something about this!’ So, they started planning out a school-wide assembly. They managed to find a speaker to come in, we found some videos that we showed, and they came in the night before and we completely covered our school building with posters that the kids had been making in my room for weeks, and we'd been hiding them in my cupboards in my room so no one would know. The following week they did a fundraiser where they sold paper chain links for a dollar, and all the money that was raised, we sent to Amnesty International for their work with child soldiers. It was really amazing to me to see these students grab onto this issue and just run with it. They came up with everything themselves, and they worked together as a team. I think that we raised something like $2,000 in a week that they sent away. I still look back at that as one of the high points of teaching, but at the same time I didn't even really do anything! I had just gotten them to the point where they were passionate about something, and then they just ran with it.”
“It was really amazing to me to see these students grab onto this issue and just run with it. They came up with everything themselves, and they worked together as a team.”
Kymberli and her students have done good work to make full use of their community’s unique assets, and with the COVID-19 pandemic, they’ve been able to get creative in utilizing digital field trips.
“Because we are in such a rural location, and on top of being rural, we're very remotely located. It's hard to get our students to places where they can maybe have an experience outside of the school. One of the blessings of the pandemic was so many places making virtual visits available. We did one with the Holocaust Memorial Center that's in the Detroit suburban area We had the museum up on the screen, and the kids were able to ask questions and it worked out pretty well.”
Kymberli’s remote location lends itself to another common issue in rural communities:
“I think one thing that a lot of people miss when they think about rural areas is they don't necessarily think that a majority of people living in those rural areas are living in poverty. It's still a huge, huge problem, and it's very difficult in a rural area for people to break that cycle because they might not be able to find a job that they can get to. They might not have a vehicle that's reliable enough, and there is no public transportation. I’ll never forget when I was interviewing for a college scholarship, they said, ‘Well, why don't you have any work experience on here?’ And I said, ‘Well, I don't live close enough to anywhere to be able to get a job.’”
Despite these obstacles, Kymberli shares that there are also distinct advantages to living in Onaway.
“We're able to build those relationships with students, and I think that that is really the most important part of all of education–letting those kids know, ‘I'm in your corner. I've got you. I'm your biggest cheerleader, but I'm also there for you if you have a problem. Come see me; talk to me,’ and that makes our entire school like a big family. I can't imagine teaching in a place where I wasn't able to build those relationships with kids.”
“The most important part of all of education is letting those kids know, ‘I'm in your corner. I've got you. I'm your biggest cheerleader, but I'm also there for you if you have a problem.'”
While some people are skeptical about the joys of living in a remote location, Kymberli shares that the natural features make it a wonderful place to be.
“One of the things that I always tell people when they say, ‘Oh, you live so far away from everything,’ is always, ‘Yes, but I live where everyone vacations!’ I get to live in a place where I can enjoy the outdoors whenever I have free time. I can literally walk out my back door and walk across the field into the woods, and go and enjoy nature. I think it makes people physically healthy just because you can go biking, or walking, or running outside, but more than anything I think it makes us hopefully more likely to be mentally healthy.”
With mental health being a huge focus for Kymberli, we asked how her school helps students with this major issue. In addition to a conscious effort from staff to be there for their pupils, Onaway is in the unique position of having an on-site health center to serve the student body.
“We are lucky enough to have a school-based health center, and so that has given us a leg up on being able to help our students with their mental health. The other thing I have really been doing a lot of is personal professional development on integrating social emotional learning for my students. I just try to let those kids know that they're not alone, in whatever they're facing, and I'm going to try to help them out and try to help get them services if they need it.”
“I think [enjoying nature] makes people physically healthy just because you can go biking, or walking, or running outside, but more than anything I think it makes us hopefully more likely to be mentally healthy.”
A passion for both physical and mental health thrives in Onaway, thanks in large part to the wooded landscape, and Kymberli explains that this is what truly allows the schools and the greater community to succeed.
“If there is someone that has a problem, someone that has had some kind of a tragedy, the entire community is going to pull together so fast it will make your head spin.”
We are grateful to Kymberli for sharing her story with us about how rural schools foster the next generation of leaders. If you would like to share 30 minutes of your time for an interview, please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. The I Am A Rural Teacher campaign is a collaborative effort with the National Rural Education Association and made possible through a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
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