The I Am A Rural Teacher project highlights outstanding rural educators and shares their voices. These profiles showcase the stories and philosophies of rural teachers from around the country. Ms. Rebecca Washington, music teacher at Dongola Unit #66 in southern Illinois, is our latest feature. The interview speaks for itself - Rebecca is a shining example of how a passionate teacher can positively influence the lives of students and families in small towns. Be sure to read all the way to the end for a touching small town story!
When did you realize you wanted to be an educator? And when did you realize you wanted to teach in the rural context?
When I was a toddler, my Mom went from being a stay at home mother to working on her Master’s in Art Therapy, and I went with her. Some of my earliest memories are from the back of a college classroom where she had set me up with toys while she attended lectures. When I started Pre-K, she went back to teaching full time in a nearby rural district, but continued to cart me along with her to hours upon hours of working in her classroom, art shows, after school projects, and on field trips to art museums. This was my entire world, so when I was in 2nd grade and they asked us to dress up for Career Day, I raided my mom’s closet and dressed like her. Mom was a very gentle teacher and cared very deeply for all of her students, and I don’t think there is a person on earth that would deny that. Everywhere she taught in her long career ended up having to add periods of art and every class she offered was jam packed. One school she taught at actually built her a new wing because she outgrew her closet-sized classroom. So, if you can’t tell by now, she was my inspiration for going into education. There was no question for me from a very early age that I would be a teacher someday, though the subject I would teach was a matter all its own.
My subject matter and my passion for rural education are part of the same story. I was a 5th grader at St. Mary’s Catholic School in Quincy, Illinois who had a bit of an anger problem, so when we went to the open house night for beginning band students, my Dad jokingly decided that I needed something that would take care of my aggression… So we left with a set of beginner bells and I became a percussionist. Music changed my life in so many ways and opened so many doors for me that I didn’t even know existed. When I graduated from St. Mary’s and started at Quincy Notre Dame, all of my friends were in band. My entire social life was band. We had a large marching band that di field shows for football games, two choirs, a jazz band, a week long band camp with an outside percussion instructor, an annual spring variety show, etc. This was all wonderful, however, my senior year I transferred back to the rural school near my family’s farm (Payson, Illinois) and I witnessed a music program that did not have all the frills and budget that QND had offered me. There was no annual band trip to the Bahamas or Disney World. We went to Six Flags St Louis… and we loved it. There were, I think, 20 of us in the 7th-12th grade band that year. We didn’t win many awards but we had fun trying. I had this idea of what a music program was supposed to look like because of my experiences at QND, and then I was struck with the reality that not every program was going to look like that. Because I experienced this inequality in our education system first hand, I decided I wanted to teach at a small school. As a small town music teacher, then, I could to build a music program that leveled the playing field for students in our rural schools.
There were tons of openings the year I graduated college, and I sent out a dozen applications. However, as I read job descriptions I found myself scrolling past the ones that were in big cities, were for “assistant” directors or “junior” directors, or were only for elementary music, middle school band, or high school band only. I was drawn more to the schools who were looking for a K-12 or K-8 music teacher. I got a few interviews, but I’m big on “following my gut instinct”, and there was only one place that felt good on my gut… Dongola Unit #66, a rural school in Southern Illinois that was looking for a K-12 music teacher. During my interview, we talked about the school wanting a music program after having had a strong one for decades and it falling apart in recent years. The idea of growing something from all but scratch got me excited. After my interview, I got a brief tour of the school building, and was transported back in time to those hours of following my mother around her schools. Everything from the distinct smell, to the trophy cases displaying decades small town pride, to the windowless music room felt like home. There was a simplicity, a warmth, a genuine hometown spirit with which those hallways embraced me. I remember calling my Dad as I drove away from that interview and saying “Dad, it’s home. This is the one.”
What are some of your favorite things about teaching in a rural place?
There are so, so many things I love about my rural teaching experience, but it all boils down to the deeply-ingrained sense of community. Most of the students in this area don’t have much experience outside of the region, and being a music teacher allows me to make the world much more accessible. I love teaching them about music from other places and seeing their eyes grow wide and I welcome their questions, even when they stray from the subject at hand. In my elementary classes, I always introduce songs by first talking about where they are from, showing the world map on the board. I point to “us” on the map... and they tell me what town we live in, what state, what country, what continent, and then I show them where we are “traveling” for the day. There is no learning music without learning history and geography at the same time in Mrs. Washington’s room.
Right now, I am planning a performance trip to Universal Studios along with three other band directors in the county (since none of us have enough students to go alone), and the students I am taking are so excited, and so dedicated to the process. We have to plan the rehearsals for the trip outside of school, and my students have missed next to none of the practices, and if they have to miss they talk to me well in advance and apologize for not being there. Many of them will be going to Florida for the first time in their lives, so they have a deep respect for the chance to be part of this trip. It isn’t just about the students going, though. I’ve had community members donate to the trip to help defray the cost burden on the individual families, I have grandparents paying their grandchild’s way in increments that they can afford, I have a whole community excited that Dongola is part of this trip in a bigger way than ever before. This kind of excitement doesn’t happen in cities where these trips are annual, taken for granted, and easy to afford for the majority of the students.
Another thing I absolutely love about teaching in a rural district, specifically a K-12 building, is how much impact students can have on each others’ education. The atmosphere of school family is huge at a district the size of Dongola, and I attempt to take that one step further in developing the idea of a “band family”. I have made a point of involving students of all levels with the music education of their peers. I often pull in high school students to help with beginning band, and even that limited interaction gives those 4th grade students someone “big” to look for in the hallway, to think of when they get in a funk over something being “too hard”, someone to aspire to that is much more tangible than a YouTube video. I also have peers mentor each other, especially when I have a junior high or high school student transfer in and want to join band that has never played an instrument before. When I couldn’t be at Family Reading Night, it was easy for me to ask one of my high school students to step in and lead the elementary students in singing. I knew she would have no issues because she had been in my classroom helping with elementary music classes and those students look up to her. You don’t get this at big districts where building are set up in a grade range system.
Teaching in a rural setting has unique challenges and opportunities. What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered as a rural teacher teacher?
The two major challenges I have experienced as a rural teacher are scheduling and funding. Scheduling is an issue because our size means we have less teachers, therefore less classes offered, and that makes it difficult to create a class period when students can take music classes once they enter middle school and high school. I’ve been lucky enough to have an administration that allows me to be part of the conversation when it comes to scheduling and now, in year 4 at my district, I have a schedule that allows all students to put band in their schedule. That is not how it was when I started, however, and it has been a long hard conversation to have to make it the way it is now. Scheduling is also an issue when it comes to sports because rural students are worn thin across several teams and clubs who all have their own schedules.Resolving these issues requires communication and vigilance from all stakeholders. Funding is an issue because rural communities are generally poorer communities, and this includes the school district. Everyone is doing a fundraiser all the time, and parents can only afford so much. Because of this challenge, I have reached out to numerous grant foundations and donation sites to raise money to fund my growing music program and have brought in more than $67,000 in grants and donations in the past four years.
What unique opportunities do you have as a rural teacher?
Specifically as a K-12 music teacher, I have the unique opportunity to “grow my own” band students. I get them in Kindergarten and see them every day of their educational career until they have to choose between band and art in middle school. This is a special blessing that most classroom teachers don’t get, because they only have them for a year in elementary school or a handful of years in middle school or high school. I get to watch my students grow up and develop into teenagers and then into young adults, and do my best to influence them in a positive manner along the way. They learn everything needed to be successful band students from me by the time they reach 4th grade and pick their instruments. If they don’t know something, I am able to tweak my elementary curriculum to make up for the deficit. This is an incredible opportunity as well as a great responsibility, and I have seen many directors use the fact that they teach in a rural district to be lazy with their curriculum and expectations. Our rural students deserve just as much of our attention and focus as students in any other demographic.
What would you tell future educators who may be looking to teach in a rural setting?
I would ask that they be sure to give it a few years if they have never experienced a rural school before. Many new teachers use rural schools as “launch pads” for careers in more appealing districts. This is hard on the students in rural schools because there is no consistency, especially in middle school and high school or in the fine arts where there may only be one teacher per subject. Teaching students in rural districts requires earning the trust of students and their families before any learning can occur. It took me over a year to gain a lot of trust from my students. When they started to trust that I wouldn’t leave them, that’s when they really started to buy in to what I was teaching and the program started to flourish.
Is there a story from your rural teaching career that stands out to you? An “ah-ha!” moment or particularly influential time in your journey as a teacher? Please share it with us!
During my 3rd year at Dongola, I was told that the district’s long former music teacher, Mrs. Corinne Brown, had been hospitalized and asked if there was any way my students could play for her and lift her spirits. In 48 hours in the middle of exam week, I pulled together four students to perform 3 part Christmas carols and we hopped in the school van and went to the hospital. We got all set up and out came this sweet, diminutive woman who had an intense sparkle in her eye. We played for her, and she cried and thanked us over and over again.
My students presented a level of respect and compassion I didn’t know was possible for these teenagers. She took them each by the hand and had them get very close to her face so she could talk to them and see them properly. It turned out that she knew each of their families and had taught several of their parents and grandparents. I sat back and watched the interaction and held back tears of my own, and then it was time for us to go and for Mrs. Brown to go back to her room. I sent them with the van key and she asked to talk to me for a moment. I got down on her level and she got really close to me and thanked *me* for being at Dongola, told me to keep it up, and that these kids need it more than I know. It was an incredibly influential and emotional moment for me as a young teacher and one I will never forget.
Any other thoughts on the idea of “the rural advantage?”
The old adage “it takes a village” is no better represented than with a rural school. Rural students graduate with an array of skills, memories, and a whole community of teachers, school staff, and other students who love them and want to see them excel in life that students in other settings don’t necessarily have. That is the rural advantage.
Thank you so much for sharing your clear passion for rural education, Ms. Washington! We want to thank David Ardrey for bringing this story to our attention. David is the executive director of the Association of Illinois Rural and Small Schools, which is a founding partner of the RSC. Dongola Unit #66 is an AIRSS member school.
David is also a founding Rural Schools Collaborative board member and chair emeritus.
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