As our newest music teacher colleagues are looking for their first teaching jobs this summer, some might be considering positions in rural districts. Although there are a number of variations on the definition of “rural,” approximately a quarter of K-12 students in the Midwest attend what are classified as rural schools. This significant portion of the population is often overlooked in research and in teacher training programs, despite the fact that these schools employ many new teachers in their first teaching jobs. Like schools in any type of community, those in rural areas come with their own set of unique challenges and rewards.
The demographics of students in rural areas is not static. Immigration, population movements, and growing and declining industries change these communities. Rural areas are home to a higher percentage of people who identify as white than other types of communities, yet racial diversity is growing in these areas. Other forms of diversity, such as socioeconomic status, language, and special learning needs, are as present in small towns as in large cities.
In rural teaching, all of these diverse learners are usually in the same school and same classes. There might be only one school that serves all of the children in a large geographic area. I’ve taught children of millionaire farmers, homeless children, children of migrant workers who are only in my class for a few months, children who don’t speak English, and children with a wide variety of special learning needs, all in the same class. Teachers in any school know the challenges of working with a diverse group of learners, and it’s a challenge that exists in rural schools, too.
There is also a wide diversity among schools that are classified as rural. A school in a town with an industry that attracts a large number of immigrants will have different issues than a school on a reservation in northern Minnesota. Some rural districts might have more in common with inner-city schools than with neighboring districts. Every school has its own issues and strengths, and it’s important for teachers to know what they are.
Opportunities for Rural Music Teachers
The role of a music teacher can vary dramatically from one rural district to another. Some schools have enough enrollment and funding to employ multiple music specialists. Others might not be able to employ even one music teacher, leaving teachers without musical training to teach music in the general education classrooms and volunteers to run extra-curricular music ensembles. A single music specialist sometimes teaches in several different schools, or even districts. Music teachers might also have opportunities to teach non-music subjects or extracurriculars. I have taught technology classes, subbed in other classes, and provided after-school piano lessons. Through these opportunities, teachers can develop skills that will enrich their teaching in the music classroom, and deepen relationships with their students.
Creative Use of Resources
Unfortunately, resources are not equal at all schools, and many rural schools may lack what wealthier urban or suburban schools might have. Instruments, teaching materials, technology, money, and opportunities to collaborate with other music teachers might not be available in a small school. But rural schools are full of creative and dedicated teachers who ensure that their students have what they need to learn. A great asset in many rural schools is the community. Schools may not have budgets to purchase instruments or materials, but parent groups and local businesses are often willing to raise money. There might not be other music teachers in the district, but there are plenty of ways to collaborate with classroom teachers or other specialists to create cross-curricular lessons. And whatever technology is available can be used to bring what students don’t have in their own towns to them, such as videos of performing groups or Skype chats with composers. Using creativity in teaching keeps our jobs interesting, and there are plenty of opportunities for resourceful teachers in small towns.
Parent and community support benefits the arts in any school, but in rural areas, the school music program can be an especially large part of the community’s arts. In areas where multiple generations of families attend the same school, there is often a large amount of support for music programs, but there are also expectations. School concerts are big events attended by anyone in the community, not just students’ families. Students’ concerts are authentic community arts events, benefiting the audience and students. Traditions can be strongly held when performances are events for the whole town or area rather than just the school, but teachers can find ways to make creative performances that meet the educational needs of the students while giving the supportive audience what it expects.
Opportunities for Students
Rural areas might not have the youth orchestras, local professional ensembles, or music venues of a city, but there are musical opportunities for students. Often, the majority of those experiences are provided by school music programs. Teachers introduce students to the larger world of music through community performances, guest artists, and field trips. Outside of school, many small towns have community orchestras and bands that are welcoming to students, providing them with the experience of playing alongside adult mentors. Multi-generational music making can supplement school music education and enhance students’ understanding of continuity of musical traditions.
For new teachers who are looking for their first job, or any teacher considering a move, rural schools can be welcoming and nurturing workplaces that provide ample opportunities to work with a diverse student population, engage with a community, and teach creatively. And maybe, like me, you’ll discover deeply fulfilling reasons to stay longer than you intended.