“Having a connection to our family, our neighbors, our schoolteachers, and our fellow towns people is something that I believe is inherent to our existence. It gives me purpose and a reason to get up every morning. It's the reason I've always wanted to be a teacher, because my community supported me from a young age and I want to be a part of that support system for future generations.”
Brittany Witt, Ozarks Teacher Corps member and Missouri State University student, sharing her reflections on the Mountain Grove seminar.
The Ozarks Teacher Corps is all about place. Where you were born. Where you live. Where you want to teach. These various connections to place were readily apparent during the Corps' fall seminar on the Missouri State University—Mountain Grove campus, where 18 Ozarks Teacher Corps members were joined by regional advocates, Community Foundation of the Ozarks leaders, Rural Schools Collaborative board members, and Grants in Place recipients.
The Ozarks Teacher Corps was established in 2010 in conjunction with the Community Foundation of the Ozarks' Rural Schools Partnership. Accepted students commit to returning to their hometown or a similar rural Ozarks community to teach for at least three years. Corps members receive an annual scholarship and participate in a wide range of seminars, where they learn about a variety of rural topics.
The overarching goal of the program is to develop teacher-leaders who will serve as catalysts for positive change. Missouri State University, Missouri State University-West Plains, Drury University, and Evangel University teacher education students are eligible to participate in the program. With a placement rate of 93%, the Ozarks Teacher Corps has been lauded nationally by media such as Education Week, Council on Foundations, the Washington Post, and National Public Radio.
The October 29 convening in Mountain Grove focused on place-based education and its importance to rural schools and communities. Place-based learning has five basic tenets:
- Learning that is rooted in the unique history, environment, economy and culture of a place;
- Community is the context of learning;
- Student work focuses on community issues or problems;
- Community members are part of the teaching/learning process;
- Student work, when possible, should be shared with the public.
In addition, Teacher Corps members discussed the reasons behind utilizing place-based concepts in and out of the classroom. These include:
- Place-based education gives meaning to learning;
- Strengthens the bonds between school and community;
- And instills pride and wonder in students about the cultures, history, and geography of rural places and small towns.
Finally, seminar participants also enjoyed presentations by 2015 Grants in Place recipients Kelly Wardle (Willow Springs, MO), Rachel Hamby (Mountain Grove, MO), Zachary Hamby (Ava, MO), and teaching artist Kate Baird (Placeworks and Springfield Art Museum). Everyone got particularly energized when Zak Hamby showed his Ozarks Research Project introductory film (see end of article), which filled the room with bluegrass music and beautiful images from the region.
Still, for all of the talk on place-based education and its relevance to rural students, there was an underlying focus on the essence of the Ozarks Teacher Corps and its importance to building stronger communities. We believe a sustainable American future must include a thriving rural landscape and that strong public schools are the key to vibrant small towns. Why is this so? Consider the following:
- Public school systems are the reasons many small towns still exist;
- Families that are coveted by small communities will not relocate unless they believe public school systems are strong;
- School systems are usually among the largest, if not the largest, employer in any rural community;
- Education has always been a starting point for meaningful change.
If public education is as vitally important to a healthy rural future as we suspect, then rural advocates must do all they can to develop energetic, enthusiastic, and committed teacher-leaders with the following characteristics:
- A strong sense of place, mission, and rural identity (in other words—not just looking for a first job until going to a larger district);
- A more comprehensive understanding of rural “issues,” including those that are economic, environmental, and justice-related;
- Are savvy communicators, networkers, and users of new media;
- Recognize the value of collaboration and social capital—within a school, across the community, and between diverse rural regions;
- Perceive themselves as community leaders and catalysts for change.
This is what the Ozarks Teacher Corps is all about, and this is why the Rural Schools Collaborative is committed to advancing the concept of a rural teacher corps movement throughout the United States.
And, you know, with good thinkers like Brittany Witt on board, we might just get it done!
Check out Zak Hamby's excellent "intro video" to his unit on local research. Student films will be featured in a cooperative film festival that includes both Ava (MO) and Mountain Grove (MO) high schools.
August 30, 2023
RSC and Compeer Financial announce Rural Schools ROOTed in Place Grant Recipients