Rural teachers share perspectives with UW–Madison education researchers

WEAC members serving on a panel of rural school teachers included, from left, Marc Peterson, Philips; Paul White, Markesan; Yvonne Butterfield, Marston; and Barb Meyers, Philips. WEAC President Ron Martin, an eighth grade teacher, is pictured in the foreground during the Teacher Speakout! sponsored by the UW-Madison Center for Education Research and School of Education.

WEAC members were front-and-center on a panel of public school teachers representing Wisconsin rural districts at the first-ever Teacher Speakout! at UW-Madison.

The teachers provided researchers with a first-hand look at what it’s like to live and work in rural schools.

“WEAC’s rural school educators are dedicated to bringing opportunities to their students and communities,” said WEAC President Ron Martin, an eighth grade teacher who attended the panel and talked with panelists. “Educators in rural communities know what works and what doesn’t for their students, so it’s refreshing to see attention being brought to the unique needs of these professionals.”

Seventy-seven percent of Wisconsin school districts are considered rural, yet Martin – who graduated from a rural Northern Wisconsin school – said oftentimes it’s difficult for rural educators to get their voices heard in state decisions about education. Their local and state associations help amplify their voices so they can better advocate for their students and profession.

The teacher-panelists described the ups and downs of working in a rural school – where they wear multiple hats and teach a wide span of students. They described a close connection with the community, where the school is the center of activities.

“I work with the same families for years and years,” said Duane Draper, a social studies teacher and member of the Barneveld Education Association. “I feel like I’m part of a big family.”

But the teachers also addressed the lack of funding from the state in making it difficult for districts to afford professional pay that attracts and keeps highly qualified teachers, and also barriers to professional development and mentorship when a school may only be one science or business teacher.

“We put high pride in doing well. If [another teacher] needs help, somebody’s going to be there to help them out,” said social studies teacher Paul White of the Markesan Education Association. Rural school teachers are often left to develop their own professional networks across rural districts for support and problem solving.

“Our rural teachers go above-and-beyond to get what they need to stay on top of their profession,” Martin said. “It’s one of the reasons WEAC has beefed up the WEA Academy, a place where members can go to get high-quality PD taught by Wisconsin teachers at their convenience.”

Over-testing was also a common theme, something rural teachers have in common with educators from any size school. “You have to help us. I feel like I’ve become a test prep academy,” said Sue Benzel, an English teacher and member of the Mercer Education Association. “April and May are basically gone, that’s all we do is test. I used to use test results to improve my instruction, to identify kids who need special ed. Now I feel like it’s a hidden monster out there. What are they going to do with my scores? This strange test fear has permeated our building. It’s awful.”

Teachers agreed that, as students often have to leave school as early as noon or 1 o’clock to travel to extracurricular activities, time lost to testing has a huge impact on learning and teaching. “Tell us how to use our time with the amount we’re required to eat up with testing,” Benzel said. “It’s ridiculous.”

All teacher-panelists were alumni of UW-Madison representing the districts of Barneveld, La Farge, Markesan, Mauston, Mercer, Phillips and River Valley. Other WEAC members on the panel included Marc Peterson and Barb Meyers of Philips and Yvonne Butterfield of Mauston.

The event was a first step in work around rural education by the UW–Madison Wisconsin Center for Education Research and School of Education.