EOU Teach Rural Oregon program tackles rural teacher shortage

·6 min read

Sep. 16—LA GRANDE — The brunt of Oregon's educator shortage is falling on the shoulders of rural school districts. For Eastern Oregon University's nascent Teach Rural Oregon program, supporting rural teachers is a top priority.

"A community can usually survive a high school either being consolidated or closing, but a community cannot survive if an elementary school closes," program director Dave Dallas said.

Superintendents across the state say they are struggling to recruit and retain teachers for certain grades and specialties — specifically special education and bilingual teachers, an Oregon Capitol Chronicle article asserted.

The Legislature passed House Bill 4030 earlier this year, allocating nearly $100 million to the Oregon Department of Education for state-wide recruitment and retention efforts. In Union County, schools across the board indicated this funding will be used to help retain current staff members, not recruit new ones.

Dallas — an EOU faculty member and former teacher — was concerned by the lack of professional development opportunities and support systems for rural teachers. He knew the heightened threat that the shortage posed for rural communities.

"Even if a family is looking to raise their kids in a rural environment or a smaller town environment, if there isn't a school there, they're not going to invest that time and purpose there," he said.

For Dallas, a functioning school is a signal that a community is invested in itself and its future.

In late 2019, he and former dean of education Matt Seimears began building a program to address teacher shortages in rural areas across the state. They secured funding from the Oregon Department of Education based on a grant initiative and funding recommendation from the Educator Advancement Council, and Teach Rural Oregon was born.

In just over two years, the project has led to a slew of programs geared toward supporting current and future rural educators from around Oregon and the Pacific Northwest region.

Rural teachers face unique challenges

Dallas noted that there are several reasons rural school districts in particular are struggling to attract and retain educators. For one, it can be hard for single, independent teachers to work in a small town without necessary social and emotional support systems.

"I think sometimes the isolation can be difficult," he said.

He often finds that those willing to educate in small towns have already experienced other living environments and are ready to transition into smaller community life.

Teaching in rural communities also takes a certain skill set, Dallas asserted. For those who are invested in rural teaching, the past few years have added to the challenges.

"Teachers are burned-out from the pandemic," he said. "They were having to go above and beyond."

From the stress of teaching during the coronavirus pandemic to supporting students who haven't been in classrooms for two years — Dallas emphasized that teachers have not had the time to catch up or receive the tools they need to be successful.

Programs supporting current and future teachers

Dallas described Teach Rural Oregon's efforts as "a multifaceted approach" to attracting, retaining, educating and supporting teachers in rural areas.

TRO runs several programs for EOU students and outside participants alike, from professional development to field studies programs. Although it's been a challenge building these programs during the pandemic, luck and continued grant support have helped expand support efforts, Dallas said.

"It's like building a plane in the air with Ikea instructions in Swedish," he joked.

The Eastern Oregon Teacher Academy, TRO's first project, started two years ago. This four-day intensive program is geared toward high school students and current paraprofessionals who wish to earn a teaching degree.

Next, TRO developed a plan for the Junior Field Study program, a two-week opportunity for students from Eastern's Gresham cohort at Mt. Hood Community College to experience rural teaching. With grant funding from ODE, the all-expenses-paid program allows students to shadow teachers in rural counties across the region.

"We started looking at how we can bridge the gap between urban and rural and get students that are maybe in the traditional programs in our urban area looking at a rural-type program," Dallas said.

The program partners with a slew of school districts around the region. This past year, one student spent a week in Harney County's Frenchglen — learning what it's like to teach in a one-room school.

Dallas also wanted to allow teachers to learn more about place-based education, and about best practices for teaching students in their community about their physical environment, local culture, history and people. With help from Julie Keniry, program manager of the Rural Engagement & Vitality Center — a joint venture of Eastern Oregon University and Wallowa Resources — TRO started the Cottonwood Canyon Teacher Institute.

This intensive four-day residential program, held in Cottonwood Canyon State Park, near Wasco, offers teachers course options where they learn about locally significant cultural or natural resources. The program is led by EOU faculty and other regional professionals.

"It's getting teachers to understand that their own environment can create a rich possibility for being able to teach the students about their area and how they can integrate that into their own classroom work," Dallas noted.

This school year, Teach Rural Oregon will also provide continued support for its first Oregon Rural Teacher Corps — a cohort of 12 students from Eastern's teaching master's program. Many of the students in this year's teaching corps grew up in rural areas and are hoping to return home to teach, where they already have family close by.

This serves as another incentive for TRO's "grow your own" efforts when it comes to providing services for instructional assistants.

"The majority of those people already live in those communities and so they've made that commitment," Dallas said.

Moving forward

As it enters its third year, Dallas is hopeful the Teach Rural Oregon program can continue to establish itself as a clearinghouse for rural education. He wants to support current teachers and encourage students to look into the field of education.

Dallas also wants to foster connections with the region's Indigenous communities, tap into Eastern's rural teacher alumni networks and expand services to rural communities around the state.

For him, the foundation of TRO's work rests on a simple motivation — doing what's best for rural schools and their students.

"We all want what's best for our kids," Dallas said. "We want to have teachers that are invested there (and) are prepared to be able to teach in those areas."

Shannon Golden is a reporter for The Observer. Contact her at 541-624-6015 sgolden@lagrandeobserver.com.