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Baraboo teacher works with UW-Madison researchers examining rural education

January 11, 2019

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are looking to school districts such as Baraboo for insight into what it’s like to teach in rural areas and how to better connect university graduates to those schools.

Based at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, the Teacher Speakout! program started in 2016. Two small groups of rural Wisconsin teachers have been invited to campus for discussions with rural-school advocates and students training to become educators, according to program manager and special education doctoral student Katie McCabe.

The two discussion sessions and surveys sent to 47 rural districts are meant to keep education research informed by classroom realities, according to a program briefing.

East Elementary School special education teacher Meghan Bauer went to Madison on Oct. 5 as one of seven teachers to participate in the second session.

“It was a really good experience,” Bauer said. “I think it’s a really good step in the right direction in terms of how higher education schools are responding to the needs in education right now and wanting to work with districts and hear from districts about how they can better prepare students and want them coming to rural districts.”

McCabe described the key problems she hears repeated from teachers in rural districts: a shortage of teachers, high turnover, difficulty recruiting new teachers, lack of housing and low salaries, among others.

“However, they also share all of the joys and why they love teaching in a rural school,” McCabe said. “It’s like that close-knit, tight community that also keeps them staying there and teaching, and I find that really interesting.”

Now in her ninth year with the Baraboo School District, Bauer said she loves teaching in Baraboo. She came fresh out of college, landing in Baraboo because it’s where her husband was working at the time. She echoed McCabe’s observation about the sense of community in rural districts.

“You feel connected and involved and an integral part of the community, which is important,” Bauer said. “Once you are in a rural school, you see all the positives that are happening.”

But getting them there in the first place can be a challenge. McCabe said Teacher Speakout! found that several issues keep new teachers from exploring jobs outside of the populated areas around Madison.

Some rural areas don’t have many open rental properties, and most young people can’t afford to buy a house. Aside from that “huge issue” of limited housing, McCabe suggested young teachers also might think there’s a lack of opportunities and things to do in a less urban environment.

Another challenge discussed during the session was supporting new teachers who find themselves in their own “department of one” at smaller districts, Bauer said. Since Baraboo is one of the larger districts to participate, she said she didn’t see that kind of problem here. For example, Baraboo has instructional coaches and a mentor program for new teachers.

“In terms of the resources we have available here, we are very rich in those resources and the district has been very responsive in what teachers need in order to, you know, grow professionally and still meet the needs of students,” she said.

Smaller schools can offer other benefits for teachers, McCabe found — for example, more leadership opportunities, autonomy and ability to exercise their creativity.

She said those benefits should be stressed to change the perspective of teachers in training. Testimony from teachers like Bauer could be instrumental for districts like Baraboo looking to hire new graduates.

McCabe plans to continue working with the program participants and coordinate with the new Rural Education Research and Implementation Center at UW-Madison.

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