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Young rural teachers need help. A new corps emphasizing connection might be the answer

The group developing the rural teacher's corp in Wyoming: Kate Welsh (top left), Alex Martin (top right), Leslie Cook (bottom left), and Kate Kniss (bottom right)
Alex Martin
The group developing the rural teacher's corp in Wyoming: Kate Welsh (top left), Alex Martin (top right), Leslie Cook (bottom left), and Kate Kniss (bottom right)

Alex Martin is a young education professional who moved here from Washington state. She's been in Wyoming for about two years and she's not sure whether she'll stay.

"I think it's definitely been something on my mind. And sort of figuring out what I want to do next," she said.

Although Martin isn't a teacher, her situation is similar to many young rural professionals who move to the state. Martin is actually researching rural teacher retention at the University of Wyoming.

"One of the really big themes and patterns I've been noticing is that a lot of research is coming out about recruiting teachers, but not so much about retaining teachers," Martin said.

And this is what establishing a rural teacher corps hopes to avoid. Bringing teachers into the state isn't really the problem, it's about keeping them here.

"I think the biggest thing when considering this teacher corps is making sure that we're not continuing these cycles of shortages," she said.

Martin said a way to battle that includes making sure teachers feel a part of the community they are integrating into. This is the central suggestion from the Rural Schools Collaborative, which provided a grant to explore the possibility of establishing a rural teacher corps here in Wyoming.

To help with retention they say, creating a connection between the teacher and the community is key and one way to do that is place-based education.

Leslie Cook is a partner on the project and is the head of professional learning at the Teton Science Schools in Jackson. Cook said place-based education emphasizes the community the school is in and connects the institution to the people and projects embedded within the community, and this can be beneficial for the students and teachers.

"Teton Science Schools has been approaching place-based education in those ways since 1967, when when we were founded," said Cook. "The idea is not new or unique to us. It's been around for 1000s of years and practiced by indigenous communities, and now is gaining more popular attraction in other parts of the United States and around the world as well."

The idea is for a teacher to get to know their new community and share in its projects and issues alongside students.

"When you move to a place, when you start a teaching job, part of getting to know your new job is to get to know your place and exploring that it doesn't have to be just the teacher's responsibility. Maybe they're facilitating it with their students as well," she said. "And that's allowing them to get to know their area to a greater degree."

She also said that Wyoming is especially great for place-based education because of the many communities centered in beautiful landscapes.

"Looking at any community in Wyoming from Saratoga and Encampment, Elk Mountain to Lander and Riverton. All those places have really unique natural beauty. An opportunity to explore it and for schools to be the venue that helps people see what's unique and exciting and interesting about a place is really powerful," Cook said.

While the state has a lot of stuff going for it, people who are not familiar with how to navigate a rural space need more support.

"There are lots of teachers who go into the profession and leave within the first three years and that's more intense in rural communities," said Kate Welsh, a professor in the University of Wyoming's School of Teacher Education. "And that's primarily because if you don't experience rural communities, once you move to a rural community you feel isolated."

Welsh said getting teachers to stay in these rural areas is about making them feel connected and part of the community.

"It's more than just money that keeps people in a job," she said.

The average salary of a teacher in Wyoming is around $76,000 a year according to Zip Recruiter. That's higher than Idaho and Colorado. Wyoming has a lower cost of living of either state, but that does not seem to matter.

Welsh is using the grant money to look into many things that may help. Such as a mentorship program, networking opportunities, and listening to teachers for more ideas.

Once this research is completed, they will look into establishing a teacher corps with what they learned. States that already have a corps use it to address problems of retention.

Teton Science School's Leslie Cooks said although retention, especially in rural areas, isn't a new problem, it's increased in the past couple of years.

"It is poised to have significant effects in Wyoming and so things that we can do to help encourage folks to go into teaching with financial incentives, with mentorship, with good support, with communities that want teachers to come there and strong thriving schools," she said.

That's exactly what they hope the rural teacher corps will do, build strong communities to share with locals and people from out of state.

Taylar Dawn Stagner is a central Wyoming rural and tribal reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. She has degrees in American Studies, a discipline that interrogates the history and culture of America. She was a Native American Journalist Association Fellow in 2019, and won an Edward R. Murrow Award for her Modern West podcast episode about drag queens in rural spaces in 2021. Stagner is Arapaho and Shoshone.

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