A PROJECT OF RURAL SCHOOLS COLLABORATIVE & NREA

Sophia Elswick - Toulon, IL

A music teacher at Stark County High School in rural Illinois, shares her story about finding community and herself while teaching in rural communities.

March 28, 2024 |
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Pictured: Angie Roark (left), Sophia's mentor, and Sophia Elswick (right).

Sophia is the music teacher at Stark County High School in Toulon, Ill, and a recent graduate of Knox College’s Rural Teacher Corps, a 2023 recipient of RSC’s Catalyst Grant Initiative. After growing up in southern California, Sophia found her calling as a rural teacher through her classroom experiences in rural Illinois.

In most rural schools, the teaching and administration team are largely composed of people born and raised in and around the area, drawn together by their love for the communities in which they were raised. These educators often attended regional universities, left the area for work, but returned and now have sunk roots into home ground. Transplant teachers, for myriad reasons, are often transient, working in unfamiliar rural schools for a year or two before moving on. Sophia Elswick, however, is setting out to buck that trend.

Sophia Elswick, Music Teacher at Stark County High School.

A product of an urban high school in San Diego, CA, Sophia’s first introduction to rurality came when she continued a family legacy of attending Knox College, located in the west-central Illinois town of Galesburg. Once there, she participated in the nascent Rural Teacher Corps program at Knox College. Established in 2023 as part of Rural Schools Collaborative’s Catalyst Initiative Grant, a rural teacher corps is a dedicated and intentional effort to prepare aspiring educators to thrive in rural classrooms. Sophia’s experience in this program has inspired her to put down her own roots in a rural community: now a first-year music teacher at Stark County High School in rural Illinois, Sophia has found community in the students, staff, and families of Toulon, Illinois.

At Knox College, Sophia was drawn to the concept of teaching the whole child, emphasizing the importance of instilling values and life skills alongside academic knowledge. She reflects, "I believe very strongly that in education, I am teaching them music and yes, I am teaching them band, but first and foremost, I'm teaching them how to be good people who can participate in society and be successful later on." While student teaching and now in her first full-time position, Sophia discovered that this foundation to her approach was a natural fit for teaching in rural communities, where the connection between education and community is particularly profound.

Her experience at Knox College exposed her to diverse educational backgrounds, broadening her understanding of the complexities of rural education. Sophia recalls, "One of the big themes in all of my educational studies classes was how do we teach the whole child? How do we create a learning environment that is productive and leads to better successes?" This holistic perspective equipped her to navigate the challenges and nuances of rural schools with empathy and insight.

Transitioning from her urban upbringing to rural Illinois, Sophia encountered stark differences in educational settings. She vividly recalls her initial observations in a rural high school, where she was confronted with levels of trauma and adversity previously unfamiliar to her. These ranged from a lack of resources, such as musical instruments, time to play them, or availability of out-of-school tutors, to more serious adverse childhood experiences. Sophia encountered "unimaginable levels of trauma from these students who...had such wonderful work ethics and had so much potential.” Despite these challenges, she was deeply moved by the resilience and potential of her students, and is motivated to be a consistent figure in the lives of these students.

“They really, really want to do well. They soar when they are given the correct amount of support and the correct resources. It just fills my heart with joy that I'm able to help provide that and be the teacher who cares that much about them and can help guide them in that way.”

Sophia Elswick and a large number of her high school band and choir students.

Similarly, Sophia found invaluable support and guidance from veteran educators within the district. Support has been both practical, such as how to set up field trips, and more personal, offering guidance on how to set expectations and manage behavior in a musical classroom environment. This has extended to the unfamiliar of teaching elementary students, which Sophia currently is doing as the district works to hire an elementary music teacher. Mentorship from experienced teachers is essential both to the development of emergent educators, as well as establishing professional relationships and communities that increase retention of rural educators.

“Oh my gosh, I hit the jackpot with my first position because the person who had been there for 30 years is one of my mentors. She's showing me the ropes of how to do all the myriad different things that you have to do as a music teacher because I direct both the bands and the choirs.”

Sophia's commitment to her students and the Toulon community is new but unwavering. Rejecting the notion of rural schools as mere stepping stones in a teaching career, she recognizes the outsized impact of teacher longevity on rural students. "The plan was not to start teaching in January, but I got reached out to by Stark County High School...I was going to be able to teach with two retired music teachers who are awesome and have been really awesome mentors," she shares. Sophia began teaching a few days a week under a sub license, until graduating and going full-time in March 2024. Her decision to embrace being a rural educator stems from her love for her students and their community.

Sophia posing with cows during her visit to one of her student's family farm.

In her role as a music teacher, Sophia now gets to put into practice her desire to develop musical skills while also fostering a sense of belonging and pride in her students. She celebrates the unique assets of rural communities, from their rich history to their tight-knit social fabric. "I love the parades and I love the history and I love the food out here...I think this is where I need to be," she affirms. Her dedication to her students extends beyond the classroom, as she embraces the warmth and hospitality of rural life; she was recently invited to a student’s family farm, where she got to meet cattle and harvest corn.

“The schools that I went to [as a kid] do not need me, and that it's these schools out here, and these students whose teachers [can be] like revolving doors, because people use the schools as a stepping stone. . . I made such wonderful bonds with the students and such wonderful bonds with the parents.”

Sophia conducting a band class while student teaching.

As Sophia reflects on her journey, she is filled with gratitude and affection for her students and their community. "They've made me cry twice now because I was so proud of them and proud of their performances . . . It fills my heart with joy that I'm able to help provide and be the teacher who cares that much about them and can help guide them in that way," she shares. For Sophia, teaching in rural Illinois is not just a profession but a deeply fulfilling vocation rooted in a profound sense of community and purpose. Sophia is right at home, where she should be.

We are grateful to Sophia for sharing her experiences as a rural teacher in Illinois. Thank you to Knox College, one of our 2023 Catalyst Grants Initiative Recipients, and Mary Lyons for connecting us with Sophia.

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