Smile Politely

Rural schools must be included in discussions on diversity and social justice

When it comes to the conversation about race, equity, and diversity in public education, most of the focus, if not all of it, tends to be on urban and larger districts; the student populations at these schools tend to be diverse, and we want our teachers to reflect that diversity. Recruiting and retaining teachers of color can be a challenge — as I wrote in my previous piece, an ongoing issue in many schools is the lack of a proper support system for these teachers, which causes them to either leave the school or the profession entirely. The continued dearth of diverse teachers in larger and more urban districts is an area of concern, yet during my research, another equally pressing question cropped up: What about smaller and more rural districts, such as Fisher, St. Joseph, or Monticello? Why aren’t we including these districts and schools in our discussions on teacher diversity, social justice, and representation?

It’s easy to be cynical and jump to conclusions — “These places are mostly white, if not entirely, so they probably don’t bother, or just do the bare minimum.” And it’s equally understandable why a teacher of color probably isn’t swayed by the thought of teaching in such places. Rural areas and smaller cities tend to be conservative, and, yes, whiter and lacking in racial and ethnic diversity. There is also the matter of smaller salaries: compare the starting pay in Tolono, at $35,000, to that of a first year teacher in Urbana, at $45,000. Such a gap is enough to dissuade anyone, but considering people of color graduate with more student loan debt and are more likely to struggle in paying that debt, there is even less to convince them to join a smaller or rural district.

This led to another question: In the absence of teachers of color, what are these districts doing to address social justice issues and teach diverse perspectives?

Ellen Ericson, a Spanish teacher at Mahomet-Seymour High School, says her role as an educator is to guide her students, open their minds, and promote global competency and interconnectedness. “Social justice is an integral part of what we do as world language teachers, making connections to communities throughout the world,” says Ericson. “It goes beyond just knowing cultural factoids — students need to know how to interact with different people and cultures and understand the types of issues they face in their communities and countries.

Ericson describes a lesson she and her students worked on recently concerning environmental racism, examining the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan and how Black communities are much more likely to be affected by lead poisoning and contaminated water than white communities. The lesson helped them gain insight on how people and communities are affected by something the students may have taken for granted, says Ericson.

Dr. Vic Zimmerman, the superintendent of Monticello CUSD 25, explains that his schools are making similar efforts. “Our students aren’t going to stay in Monticello their whole lives. They’re going to go to college, and they might come back and work here, but most probably won’t,” he says. “Our responsibility, as a school district, is to teach them about multiple cultures, accepting all kinds of people, and seeing things from different perspectives.” And even if they never leave Monticello, says Zimmerman, “the world’s a huge place, and there’s a lot of things [they] need to be aware of.” 

Ericson and Zimmerman also spoke about the importance of reshaping and designing their schools’ physical environments to better promote diversity. “We asked ourselves, ‘What does inclusivity look like?’ and had the students walk around the building,” says Ericson. “They made note of what changes they want to make — what do they want to see on the walls? What can we do to make our school more welcoming to people of all kinds?”

Zimmerman mentions a similar approach in Monticello. “Even though our district is mostly white, white kids still need to see diverse materials within the schools. What’s in our hallways and classrooms, our textbooks, our curriculum, [we need to make] sure there’s diversity and it’s not just white kids being represented.”

What of increasing the diversity of staff? Zimmerman explains that though the district has not made any special efforts towards hiring teachers of color, the positions are “for all comers,” and that a combination of the continued teacher shortage, as well as competing larger districts, has made hiring diverse teachers more challenging.

“I’ve been here 14 years. During that time, we’ve only had less than a handful of applicants of color that I’m aware of. We’ve interviewed a couple of teachers of color and offered them positions, but we’re competing with Champaign, Decatur, [and] the suburbs for those same teachers.” That makes hiring even more difficult, notes Zimmerman, as the districts are all vying for the same small number of teachers of color, and said teachers are more likely to go to the bigger districts, as they pay more and are more diverse.

Zimmerman adds that addressing, race equity, and diversity will be an ongoing effort in Monticello schools. “This isn’t just to go through the motions… [we plan on doing] additional professional development for our teaching staff. Our teachers need the perspective of what’s going on beyond our community and for them to be able to discuss issues on race and diversity with their students.”

It is encouraging to see these districts taking initiatives to address diversity and social justice, and some may argue that the schools are getting by just fine without having a diverse staff since they’re making efforts to address these topics anyways. If we’re being honest, regardless of how many texts are taught and voices are heard, these are still going to be white educators teaching through white lenses about perspectives that they themselves have no experience with. And we do need to wonder how white educators determine what is “worth” teaching and what is gently set aside because they don’t feel comfortable teaching it.

Mind you, this isn’t strictly a rural or small town problem — one Unit 4 teacher recently told me about the amount of effort it took to convince her principal to let her do a book study of White Fragility with the staff. But at least a student in Urbana or Champaign has a greater chance of having a diverse or progressive teacher. Who’s going to teach about white privilege in Paxton? Who’s going to teach about Japanese internment camps? About the continued oppression of Uyghur Muslims in China?

This is not to dismiss educators such as Dr. Zimmerman or Ms. Ericson and the work they are doing in their respective communities, and it’s definitely not to question their professionalism and dedication to their work. But making genuine progress involves asking and finding solutions to difficult questions. Monticello and Mahomet may be probing those questions, but not every rural and small town district is going to share the same approach; I’m not ignorant to the fact that there are very real and worrying attitudes within some of these areas that need to be addressed. I’m also aware that someone like Dr. Zimmerman can’t simply conjure diverse teachers out of nowhere. The pool of diverse teachers is severely limited as it is, and smaller districts will find it difficult to compete for a myriad of reasons.

Part of our broader problem — in education as well as many other aspects of work and life — is our tendency to plan for the future as if it will reflect the values of today. We rightly continue to push for greater representation and better curricula and resources within districts that contain a great deal of student diversity, but we also carry assumptions and misconceptions about smaller, whiter areas, what their needs may be and whether multiculturalism and diversity are “relevant” to them. We are only failing these children in this regard; this is a conversation that needs to be had, and a gap that needs to be solved soon. Rural America is struggling enough as it is — the least we could do is prepare these students for life in an ever-diversifying world.

Wassim Elhouar is a recent graduate of the University of Illinois and a writer and educator in the Champaign-Urbana area. He will be starting his doctoral studies this fall in industrial/organizational psychology at Montclair State University.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article previously included a photo incorrectly identified as a Monticello (IL) Schools District building. We apologize for this error.
Top image from the Paxton Buckley Loda CUSD 10 Facebook page.

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