Kaci Smith, Waterville, KS

The priceless commodity of a rural family

April 30, 2020 |
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Valley Heights Junior/Senior High School, located between the towns of Blue Rapids and Waterville, is literally “out in the country.” As you drive up our lane there is a corn field to the left and cows grazing to the right. Behind our school is a beautiful little pond, surrounded by trees and a bit more north is the Little Blue River. The view from our football stadium is picturesque with rolling hills and trees as far as the eye can see. Our district serves two communities: we have a primary school located in Waterville serving 146 students, an upper primary in Blue Rapids serving 128 students, and the junior/senior high school right in the middle of the two communities serving 186 students.

As for me, I was born in California and my family moved to Kansas when I was seven years old. I attended Valley Heights from 3rd grade to 12th, then went on to get my degree in studio art and graphic design at Bethany College. I worked as a graphic designer for a couple of years and then decided to pursue art education and landed the job of the 7-12 art teacher at Valley Heights, where I have been since 2010.

Our district does a fantastic job providing a quality education for our students. The staff in our district is made up of amazing teachers, dedicated administration, and fantastic support staff. We do our very best to give our students learning opportunities that will prepare them for college, trade school, or going straight into the workforce. The Valley Heights district has a growth mindset, we are always asking ourselves what we can do better and are not afraid to try new techniques and programs. At our very core, we want to do what is best for students.

But I do not want to talk about the education we provide or the programs we have implemented. I want to talk about community. I want to talk about the Valley Heights family. For me, this is the most important aspect of teaching in a rural district. I know the cliche saying that in a small town, everyone knows everybody and everything, and it’s so true. However, when it comes to education that is a priceless commodity. We know our kids, we know their families, we know where they live, and we know most of the time when something traumatic has happened. In turn, they know us, they know where we live, and they know when something traumatic has happened to us.

Two years ago, this March, my husband and I lost our three year old son in a tragic accident. We were devastated. I was numb and my mind could not have been farther from teaching and finishing the school year. This is where my family, my Valley Heights family, stepped up and took care of everything. When I say everything, I mean everything. I never had to think about sub lesson plans, the huge league art contest I was supposed to host, my paycheck, or even the meals my family had to eat the next three months. My students were there as well, with hugs, kind words, gifts, and so much more. The entire community pitched in and made the worst experience of my life bearable. I remember sitting in awe while everyone around me fulfilled my responsibilities, realizing this is the most amazing part of belonging to a small community, belonging to the Valley Heights family.

As teachers, we see ourselves taking care of our students and providing a safe learning environment. However, I got to see it in reverse. My classroom became my safe place and my students were instrumental in my healing process. My co-workers were, and still are, there to support me and step up when I cannot. Everyone in my community knows what is going on with me and my family and it's a good thing! I do not need to explain when I am having a hard day or cannot participate in community and school events. They are just there to hold me up, pat me on the shoulder, or give me a compassionate look and smile, no explanations needed.

Most teachers never get to see or experience the benefits of their investments in each student that passes through their classroom. I was blessed, and continue to be blessed, to witness and experience my love resounding back through my students and co-workers in the way they take care of me and my family. I believe this experience is unique to a rural district and is a beautiful product of, “everyone knowing everybody and everything.”

Our students may not have a wide variety of teachers, classmates, extra-curricular activities, or places to eat or shop. But they do have teachers and community members who value each one of them and do their very best to provide a valuable education. No matter what their family looks like at home, they become a part of the Valley Heights family.

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