Building up educator resilience is as critical to easing the ongoing rural teacher shortage as inspiring and recruiting new generations of passionate teachers. Education is a difficult profession, and the last three years have been particularly challenging for teachers. Nevertheless, across the country dedicated rural teachers are making intentional choices to remain committed to the people and places they serve, such as Nneka Love, a Kindergarten teacher entering her fifth year at the Anna Strong Learning Academy in Marianna, AR.
Nneka grew up in Forrest City, just 20 miles away from Marianna where she now teaches. Being from a rural place, she was familiar with the territory. When she needed to be closer to family, she made the decision to move home and work locally. Nneka recognizes that schools in her area struggle with adequate resources and a decreased enrollment, but that “there are advantages to being in a rural community.” She continues: “It's really community-based. People show up for each other and they support each other; and once you're in, you're in. Sometimes some communities aren't welcoming to outsiders, and I definitely get that, but so far during my time here I've been able to really get to know the people. That's the benefit of being in a rural school–getting to know the students, their parents, grandparents, guardians and just different people in the community.”
Nneka is firmly rooted in her school community, but did not always intend to be a teacher. Originally, she set out to be a social worker: “I've always been a helper. I've always been like an encourager and supporter. And so for me, it made sense to do social work and help people. So, I interned at the probation and parole office. I interned at the juvenile drug court. I interned at a residential treatment facility.” While the nature of her work differed somewhat, she did admit that she “saw the overlaps in teaching as well.”
It was later a chance encounter that set Nneka on the path to becoming a rural teacher: “I went to school for social work but I said, ‘Let me try something different.’ I was just tired of just working the same basic job, so I went to a career fair. So, I went to the career fair, talked to John Hall [the Partnerships Director of the Arkansas Teacher Corps] and I filled out the application to be a teacher. It was a rush to get it in and submitted, but once I did my seven weeks of Arkansas Teacher Corps started and then I began teaching in Mariana.”
“The goal of the Arkansas Teacher Corps is creating equitable educators to send out into different communities in Arkansas.”
Although making a jump in a career as she did can be tricky, Nneka explains that helping people as a teacher justified the change, and the Arkansas Teacher Corps (ATC) gave her the skills and tools to succeed. The ATC is an intensive three-year program that puts applicants into a cohort to gain all the requirements needed to become a classroom teacher in Arkansas. Nneka shares that this training is rooted in the Corps’ values of continuous learning, brave vulnerability, collective responsibility, and leadership for equity. The vision for it all, she explains, “is creating equitable educators to send out into different communities in Arkansas. We go into these schools and they support us. It's an alternative route to getting licensed.”
Nneka continues, detailing the basic structure of the ATC: “It's a free program where you do seven weeks of intense summer institute training, and then you spend three years applying the strategies and teaching skills ATC embeds into its fellows. During that time, you have somebody coming in and supporting you, being a voice for you.” During the training, she adds, “you do engagement strategies, sessions on how to be equitable, engagement strategy and teaching skills, and some emotional resilient sessions getting teachers to understand their emotions and things that triggered them.” Nneka admits that “it feels like a lot, and it’s information overload at times, but it’s essential information for teachers who may not fully get the support they need going back.”
Mentorship is nothing new in teacher preparation, but Nneka underscores that the ATC’s coaching and mentorship is also about building up your own leadership: “They help you advocate for yourself and it's a way for you to actually get involved in your community. It's a way for you to develop leadership skills and be equitable and fair to all of your students.”
Now going into her fifth year, Nneka’s time at ATC fully enabled her to thrive in her role as a rural teacher. Out of her drive to help others, and strengthen the education profession in the process, she shares that “I have also served as a mentor for the Arkansas Teacher Corps the past two years. I supported teachers with lesson planning and any type of emotional support. They needed resources, so I facilitated some sessions and helped be that voice for them. Some of the reasons why teachers leave the field is because of a lack of support. That's a big thing for me because if you don't feel supported it's kind of like, ‘Why am I here?’ So, I knew that I wanted to give back by being a mentor.”
“Anytime my students are learning and I see that light bulb, it makes me feel like I'm doing something.”
Nneka is in a uniquely valuable position. As a fifth-year teacher, she is entering a critical time that sees many educators, especially rural teachers, leave the profession. Hoping to inspire and encourage her peers across the nation, Nneka shares a series of insights, beginning with surviving the very first day: “When I first came into the classroom, I was very much overwhelmed, but one thing that I will say about myself is that I can adapt to change. I can adapt to the environment that I'm in and I pretty much get along with people.” Along with being flexible, she adds that “getting through the first day was about asking for help. At times I did struggle to ask for help, and I had to get in the habit of asking more questions. But once I really got in and I saw how my kids loved me and I loved them, I've just been here ever since.”
Another struggle common to teaching is staying energized through a hard day at school. Nneka shares laughingly: “I have to pray, or I just go take a breather. Then when I come back I'm ready to dive back into the day.” She adds that she also tries “not to hold on to what happened the day before. Some kids get upset at me and I have to say, ‘We'll come back and try it again tomorrow. I still love you today, whether you're upset with me or not, but we'll come back and try again tomorrow.’ Like I’ve told my kids, I'm going to show up for you every day and I hope you do the same for me.”
There is also a lot of pressure put on educators by the community to be or act a certain way as community leaders. Nneka shares that she tries not to be out in front of everyone all the time, but there’s still ways for a teacher to be engaged: “If people ask me to be involved, I always try to be. If I'm available to do something, then I'll do it. I participate in parades with my students, so that’s usually my way of being out in the community and giving back.”
Perhaps even more challenging than being an active leader in the community is building relationships and a sense of belonging in a new place. On that, Nneka recommends “being open-minded and not trying to force yourself to be a part of the community. Some people come in and try to force themselves on others in the community, but just let things happen naturally and organically. For me, I was honest and truthful about my intentions and who I am as a person. Had I not been, I wouldn't be here five years later.”
Just as with building relationships in the community, one piece of advice that Nneka recommends for others interested in being a teacher is to “come into it with an open mind because it's not easy. Sometimes in some cases you may not feel fully supported, but be an advocate for yourself–especially if there are any types of injustices or things that you feel aren't fair. I would also say, two, be patient with the people that you're working with and your students, and, three, give yourself grace. I had to learn to give myself grace because I was always hard on myself and I wanted to be a perfectionist. Give yourself grace and have fun. You have to give your full self and just be willing to immerse in whatever it is and wherever it is that you're going.”
With so much priceless advice for fellow educators, Nneka concludes by sharing what she wishes she had known before becoming a teacher: “Not every day will be a perfect day, but on the days that are not perfect there are still moments of reassurance. What I mean by that is even though every day is not perfect and things are always changing, I always try to find a bright spot. I wish I would've known to enjoy being where I'm at in the moment. We want to rush things and rush into stuff that we don't know anything about. It took me a while, but I learned to live in the moment with my kids. And practice self care because it can be a lot! Take care of yourself mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually, and financially.”
By taking this advice to heart, Nneka’s love and commitment shines through in her students’ growth and success: “We have good days and we do have not so good days, but anytime my students are learning and I see that light bulb, it makes me feel like I'm doing something.”
“I am a Rural Teacher.”
We are grateful to Nneka for sharing her experiences as a rural teacher in Arkansas. Thank you to our partners at the Arkansas Teacher Corps for connecting us with Nneka. The Arkansas Teacher Corps collaborates with the Rural Community Alliance to lead Rural Schools Collaborative's Arkansas Delta Regional Hub.
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