A facet of rural education that RSC values is the use of your place to engage with students. Place-based education builds awareness of the space students inhabit, and instills a sense of community-driven responsibility for that space--helping rural towns thrive. This story comes from Andy Felt, a teacher/administrator from Trinity County, California, who uses the natural landscape and his love for the outdoors to connect with his small student body.
Andy is now in his 23rd year of teaching, but he did not always plan to join the profession. Instead, he found his way to becoming a teacher after discovering his passion for history in college.
“It's kind of funny, my father was a teacher, but that ended up having zero influence on me...I'll be honest with you, I was a late bloomer...I was just going to college to go to college and figure things out, [but] I just over and over enjoyed the history classes more. I think it just went more with my learning style and abilities.”
He also had time to reflect on his own education, and realized that it was a teacher he had in high school that prepared him for the next step - and he wanted to do the same.
“In high school I had a history teacher...he was enjoyable, but he was brutal...I put in a ton of effort and...after it was done I was like, ‘Woo hoo, I passed the class!’ But then when I went on to college I realized I was using those same techniques and study habits and applying them to all my classes, and it helped me...I was like, ‘You know, that guy did me a huge favor.’ I could follow [my] history passion, and then work with kids and help them out in the same way.”
Once he decided that he wanted to teach, Andy says there was never any doubt that he would go to a rural place. He attributes the draw of a rural school to his love of nature and his own rural roots:
“I didn't really ever think about [it]; it just seemed natural to be in a rural area, and it's what I gravitated to. I'm from Humboldt County, California, and the descendant of a gold rush family. On the west coast we don't tend to have the deep roots, but still that's kind of a big part of our lives. I've just always personally had a connection with the outdoors and have enjoyed being outside hiking and different things. When I was going through things to do with my life...I was trying to think, ‘Well, how could I ever blend [work and the outdoors] together?’ And so to me...working in a rural school...provided that opportunity that I wanted to pursue, but also was able to...merge that with my passion, too, of being in the outdoors.”
“I realized...I could follow [my] history passion, and then work with kids and help them out in the same way.”
The school district in Trinity County covers a wide area, with some students traveling a long way to come to school. Still, it only has a total student population of about 90 from kindergarten through high school. Andy explains that the small number of students can be a challenge:
“We had, not so long ago, 10 years ago, twice the number of students...and that just afforded more opportunities for the sports teams, different clubs, and just the overall energy at the school. When you get down into the low 20s, and then you have kids sick, which means maybe you're in the teens on campus in a particular day...the energy's not there necessarily,” he says.
We’ve had many teachers advocate for smaller class sizes due to the ability to build meaningful relationships with students, and Andy agrees wholeheartedly with that sentiment:
“They know each other, oftentimes, from a young age, and then we as teachers in a small district...have a pretty good idea of who the kids are. I get to see these youth, and, you know, you develop relationships...just lifelong stuff.”
Big or small, Andy appreciates the school is unmistakably a guiding force for the area:
“Nevertheless, the school is definitely a hub where people come together. Those are some of the bigger events. Especially if you're having a dinner or an athletic event, you know, you'll have a pile of people show up.”
“The school is definitely a hub where people come together.”
When it comes to classroom content, he believes one advantage to the district’s small size is that he can quickly organize forays into the natural resources surrounding their place, which borders the Six Rivers National Forest.
“You can walk out your back door and go on a hike [in the] national forest, and three of the rivers are in our district. The Van Dusen is right next to our school...the Mad River, it's the end of my driveway, and I can pop over the ridge and then I'm in the Eel River drainage. The longest ridge in North America runs directly in view of our school, so we can look up at the snow on those days. It's beautiful, it's just a great place...a lot of opportunity.”
Not only do students learn about science and how nature impacts their daily lives:
“Northern California has been plagued with wildfires recently, and our school in particular - California had its largest fire last year, the August Complex, and...several students lost homes, and we weren't able to start school for two months because of it...but the benefit that comes out of that [is that] our earth science classes have gone out and done erosion studies and then regrowth studies in the forest, and different things of that nature.”
…but also how their own family history ties into the land:
“A lot of the students here come from a pioneer family, and their own properties for the family may still have part of that homestead site. If that area has been absorbed by the national forest...there's still remnants there. Oftentimes that means...myself, five kids, I'll even bring my dog, and we go off on, you know, hikes in the woods to get to these places...that's just the best.”
In addition to understanding their own place, Andy stresses the importance of respecting the diversity of people and places outside of Trinity County, which can be a challenge in a rural area with such a small population:
“Because we're so rural, and sometimes our students have had limited exposure outside of the area, we've kind of made it a habit, whether it's yearly or biannual...we call it, ”School on the Road,” and we go to different locations [like] San Francisco [or] Sacramento...We'll go to one of those locations for roughly a week with the students and do a variety of activities, whether it's going to museums...different types of outdoor activities, as well, just so they have the exposure, see different things.”
Andy has a positive outlook not just on rural living, but on life in general. He leaves anyone thinking about teaching in a rural place with this advice:
“Being in a rural environment, especially in a small school, is just such a positive experience...the positives outweigh the negative by far, but it is challenging. You are definitely gonna have a lot of opportunity...you can teach your passion to people…[but] you're probably gonna be wearing a ton of hats, so you need to strengthen your neck a little bit.”
“You're probably gonna be wearing a ton of hats, so you need to strengthen your neck a little bit.”
We are grateful to Andy for sharing his story with us about his connection to his place and to his students. If you would like to share 30 minutes of your time for an interview, please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. The I Am A Rural Teacher campaign is a collaborative effort with the National Rural Education Association and made possible through a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
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