More than corn: Preparing teachers for Iowa’s rural schools
February 7, 2023
By Erika L. Bass
This blog article was originally published by the Center for Rural Education at Virginia Tech.
February 7, 2023
Photo credit: Aliza Fones in Storm Lake, Iowa
When I first moved to Iowa, I will admit, I held some pretty common views of rurality in this state. Iowa is just corn and soybeans, right? That’s what everyone seems to say. Even as an emerging rural scholar who knows that rural communities are nuanced and are not monoliths, I still answered the question (usually asked incredulously), “What’s in Iowa?” with the answer: “Corn.” Rurality in Iowa is so much more than corn.
Sure, Iowa is the largest producer of corn in the United States. Sure, there are eight times as many hogs in the state as there are people. Rurality in Iowa is often equated with farming, but family farms have been in decline for decades (Edmonson, 2003). With the increase in corporate, large-scale farming, rural communities in Iowa are continuing to evolve. Because farming is no longer the main employer of rural Iowa, these areas are becoming more diverse. Because of job opportunities in meat packing plants in rural communities like Storm Lake, more immigrants and refugees have moved to the area, and some communities now have more people of color than White people. Rural communities are working on ways to entice young people to stay or return to their hometowns by revitalizing Main Streets; some rural communities like Bancroft boast having no empty storefronts on Main Street. Rural communities are investing in leadership pathways for community members and seeking ways to get high-speed broadband to their communities. Rural places in Iowa are dedicated to empowering their citizens to engage with the community and build a sustainable future.
Working in a teacher preparation program provides me with a unique opportunity to interact with Iowa’s rural communities and schools. I have had the great pleasure of meeting rural teachers from across the state who have helped me to better understand how to prepare future rural teachers. That is, while many of our preservice teachers may not imagine themselves living or teaching in a rural community, the reality is, if they plan to teach in Iowa or surrounding states, there is a good chance they will get a job in a rural community. Neighboring states to Iowa have school districts classified as rural in percentages ranging from 60%-80%, so the probability of getting hired in a rural school is high.
To know what rural teachers in Iowa need, it’s important to know what rural districts in Iowa look like. Are students attending a small school within their community, or are they traveling great distances to attend consolidated schools with members of communities that are not rural or have vastly different rural experiences than theirs?
Consolidation, dissolution, and restructuring of Iowa’s school districts has been happening for at least the last fifty years (Grubbs, 2016; Maeder, 2016), likely beginning long before we started keeping records. According to the Iowa Department of Education (2022), in 1965 there were 458 school districts in the state. As of 2019, there are 327, with rumors suggesting another consolidation in the near future. In an article in The Des Moines Register, Grubbs (2016) mentioned having been a member of the state legislature in the early 90s, when Iowa restructured or dissolved school districts four times during his four-year tenure—that’s once each year!
Consolidation inevitably affects rural teachers. Sometimes, this might mean having to find a teaching job in another community because the consolidated district does not need as many teachers as several districts would. Those who remain or teach in consolidated districts have to reconcile the different social, cultural, and learning needs of students who live in very different places. For example, Manson-Northwest Webster School District serves students from communities ranging from approximately 170 people to communities of 1,700 people. These students may have some commonalities; however, the social, cultural, and learning needs of those students can be quite different. Teachers will have students who consider themselves to be “town kids” versus “country” or “farm kids” (even if their family doesn’t farm; you may be classified as a “farm kid” simply because you live on old farmland). Knowing these differences is important to engaging students in the classroom, but also important to bridging cultural divides—providing students with opportunities to learn with peers from different backgrounds.
While school consolidation is a reality, there are still smaller school districts in existence in Iowa. With these smaller school districts, who have avoided consolidation up to this point, this might mean a teacher is the only person in their department. For example, a community just an hour north of my university has one English teacher for the entire high school; however, a more nearby rural district has two English teachers in their high school. To work in rural districts, teachers need to be willing and prepared to be self-regulated and self-motivated. They also have to be confident in their abilities, as they may not have content area colleagues to bounce ideas off of. However, that doesn’t mean they can’t build a community of practice. Communities of practice can extend beyond locale boundaries. Preparing preservice teachers to teach in rural communities means preparing them to have a community of practice outside of their building as well as inside of it. Rural teachers can connect through their local Area Education Associations (AEAs) through professional development opportunities; they can connect at state-level conferences like Iowa Council of Teachers of English or the Rural School Advocates of Iowa (the state affiliate of the National Rural Education Association); and they can connect through more informal ways like staying connected with colleagues with whom they attended their teacher preparation program.
Knowing what appeals to people about rural communities can equip teacher educators who want to encourage preservice teachers to consider building a career in a rural community. Recently, Iowa State University sociologists have done research on what brings people back to their rural communities (Sowl et al., 2021). They found that the smaller the school and community, the more likely people are to return home after pursuing post-secondary education. They also found that when young people are engaged in their community, they are likely to return, suggesting that university teacher preparation programs may want to invest time and effort into programs that increase community engagement for rural youth. Rural communities in Iowa are continually seeking ways to keep and attract young people to their communities.
I am still learning about the rural communities that make up my state. However, just like every community I’ve lived in, I feel like I am a part of this community. This is my home and I care deeply about it. Place matters, so as I continue to live and work here, I want to learn even more about Iowa’s rural communities so I can better prepare future teachers to thrive in these special places—places that certainly have much more to offer than “just corn.”
- Edmonson, J. (2003). Prairie town: Redefining rural life in the age of globalization. Rowan & Littlefield.
- Grubbs, S. (2016, December 19). Davenport superintendent is right: Fix the school funding formula. Des Moines Register. https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/opinion/columnists/iowa-view/2016/12/19/davenport-superintendent-right-fix-school-funding-formula/95615642/
- Iowa Department of Education. (2022). Reorganization, dissolution, and sharing. Iowa Department of Education. https://educateiowa.gov/pk-12/school-business-and-finance/financial-management/reorganization-dissolution-and-sharing
- Maeder, D. (2016, February 24). Iowa children need equitable funding. LinkedIn. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/iowa-children-need-equitable-funding-dan-maeder/?trk=hb_ntf_MEGAPHONE_ARTICLE_POST
- Sowl, S., Smith, R. A., & Brown, M. G. (2022). Rural college graduates: Who comes home? Rural Sociology, 87(1), 303–329. https://doi.org/10.1111/ruso.12416
Erika L. Bass is an Assistant Professor of English Education at the University of Northern Iowa. Her research focuses on rural education, teacher preparation, and writing instruction.
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