It’s always a pleasure to visit teachers in their place and watch them work. For this story, RSC observed one of the most unique classrooms at Hamilton County Junior/Senior High School - the football field - and interviewed band director Vinnie Rivera about his experience as a rural teacher.
Vinnie didn’t grow up in a rural place, but he is no stranger to small town life.
“My mom grew up on a dairy farm in Iowa and I went to that farm multiple times a year as a child, so I've never really been a stranger to rural, very, very small town areas. Some of the greatest memories of my life are in towns even smaller than McLeansboro. It's not foreign to me, and I do feel like I have that advantage.”
He had thought about being a teacher before, but it took some persuasion and guidance from the mentors in his life to finally pursue teaching as a career.
“When I went to college the first time, I initially went to be a teacher. By the time I graduated, I didn't have an education degree and I had convinced myself that I didn't want to be a teacher. My mentor, Hector Hernandez, encouraged me to apply for a tutoring job at the school that he worked at, so I did. Within one hour I felt so much regret. I got there and I got to working with students and I was like - ‘This is what you should do, this is what you should do.’”
“Whether it's band in a big town, or band in a small town, it's still band. And if there's one thing in this life I know how to do, I know how to do band.”
When it came time to start his teaching career, Vinnie was excited for the opportunity to teach in a rural place. It was no accident that he relocated to southern Illinois from the Chicago area; the power of relationships led him directly to McLeansboro.
“I heard about this particular position, at this school, two years before I even had an interview. The person who had this job before me is a very, very close friend of mine. She told me all the things that she got to do, and that she got to do band and theater. I was like, ‘Wait a minute, band and theater? That's the dream. I want that job. If you leave that job, I want that job.’ For some crazy reason, it opened up and I got it. I’ve felt really lucky the entire time.”
Relationships continue to be a focal point for Vinnie, especially in his classroom. The bonds forged between himself, his band members, and his community are integral to the music program’s success.
“One of the advantages about teaching in a small town is the family aspect can go way deeper. I student-taught at a high school that had a band of 180 and there were kids that had never talked to other kids in that band. That doesn't happen here. All these kids - they talk to each other, they respect each other, and we're a really solid family here in Hamilton County. I think that we have that advantage over a lot of bigger programs because we're a smaller program.”
More than passing familiarity between teacher and student, Vinnie remarks how these relationships are founded on a genuine sense of trust and determination to see students achieve their very best:
“You can't ask a student to do more than what they're able to do, and if you throw a challenge at them and they're not getting it, you can't just let them sink. I was just talking with a student today and they were struggling and I asked them, ‘Do you trust me?’ They said yes and I said, ‘I will not abandon you.’ I just try to get the kids to not put roadblocks in front of themselves. It's not ‘I can't, it’s ‘I can't yet, but I can get there.’”
“He teaches us all to be great people and even better leaders for others.”
On the other hand, a lack of funding and resources can pose a particular challenge to arts programs in rural places.
“Being in a place where I'm the only band teacher in the whole district, you just can't accomplish as many things as you can accomplish in bigger programs that have four or five directors and multiple private lesson teachers for all of the kids.”
Still, he remains optimistic:
“At the end of the day, it's still band. Whether it's band in a big town, or band in a small town, it's still band. And if there's one thing in this life I know how to do, I know how to do band.”
As well, Vinnie strongly believes that the success of the band, especially when it comes to fundraising, is due to parent and community support.
“My booster board is the saving grace of everything that I have here. They take care of so many things. We have a lot of members of the community, after basketball games, say that they love the way that we play. They love having us at the games. I love this community, and I love these kids so much. I want to say thank you to my booster board, they are amazing; thank you to my administrators, my administrators have been very supportive of the things that I'm trying to do here; and thank you to the members of the community that really enjoy the band here.”
“I’m not just in the business of making better musicians. I’m in the business of making better people.”
Vinnie is in his second year of teaching, and he shared how just one year has taught him and prepared him for the future of his education career.
“I can't even describe how much I've learned, and I feel like the kids definitely taught me more than I taught them. I’m still learning every single day on what's working and what's not working and I'm trying to make the adjustments that I can. The biggest thing that school doesn't prepare you for is all of the non-teaching stuff that you have to do as a teacher, like keeping up on the grading, and keeping up on the communication and the emails, and keeping up on student accounts for fundraisers. When you go through education school they don't teach you how to run a fundraiser.”
He also shared one of his favorite memories from his first year teaching, which happened during his first spring concert:
“We did a piece called ‘On a Hymnsong of Philip Bliss.’ It's a very slow hymn song, it's a concert band arrangement of the hymn song ‘It Is Well With My Soul,’ which is my personal favorite hymn. Wow, the reaction that we got from the audience before the song was even over. People were cheering - like loudly cheering! At the big climactic moment of the piece where everything is building and growing, right as that big climax finishes, you hear the audience just cheering and cheering and cheering. We're still trying to play, and I could not help but smile in the middle of the performance. I looked at my second chair player at the time - she's now my first chair clarinet player, her name is Brylee - she and I made eye contact in that moment and we both smiled, and it's a moment I'll never forget.”
“I've learned more about leadership from him than any other mentor.”
Vinnie is passionate first and foremost about being there for his students, paying forward the care given to him by his own teachers and mentors.
“It's always kids first; how do you offer them the best possible experience in your classroom? How do you help them become the best possible version of themselves, so that they can in turn help other people become the best possible version of themselves? It’s really making an effort to keep putting good into the world. I’m not just in the business of making better musicians. I’m in the business of making better people.”
“I am a rural teacher.”
We are grateful to Vinnie for sharing his story with us about his experience as a teacher in rural Illinois. 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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