Every time I drive home from the University of Georgia to the South Carolina coast, I survey the small, rural towns. Antebellum houses sit next to main streets long abandoned, quickly giving way to farms and empty warehouses. The lack of opportunity is palpable. I used to be able to just appreciate the beauty, but now all I hear in my head is, could I teach here? Could I live here?
When I finally decided to go into teaching, I wanted to end up in the neglected southern schools I had been lucky not to attend as a student in South Carolina. I wanted to take teaching for justice into rural classrooms, the rural classrooms that house students who are only a few generations removed from sharecroppers and white supremacists alike. And in the latter case, sometimes not removed at all. I am in awe of the teachers doing amazing work in Seattle, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco . . . the list goes on. The time and energy spent on urban education is absolutely essential, but the situation is just as dire across the southeast, particularly in rural districts. There is no money, for education or anything else, and it shows.
In South Carolina, school buildings in “the corridor of shame” are literally falling apart. They look a lot like the photos of Detroit public schools that have been floating around the internet. Conditions have been so bad that in 1993, 36 of South Carolina’s poorest districts sued the state for failing to provide a “minimally adequate education.” The case dragged on for 21 years before the courts finally ruled in favor of the plaintiff districts. Little has changed. Before the case was decided, one of the attorneys said that, regardless of the outcome, “We can’t abandon these children.”
Those children had been abandoned long before then, though. They still are today. Pushes to improve conditions and learning in rural schools are few and far between. For every ten graduate programs that address urban education, there may be one that addresses rural education. The research is far less substantial, and there are only a handful of recent books that tackle the issue. The attention simply isn’t there. But these children deserve better, too. They deserve the same efforts and opportunities afforded to students elsewhere. They deserve structurally safe learning environments. They deserve well-trained, innovative teachers who will do everything they can to expand their worlds.
And this is where I struggle. I was having a conversation with a friend in my program about where we want to teach after we graduate. As a south Georgia native, there is a pull for him to teach in those schools, but the first few years of teaching are hard enough as it is. It’s safe to say we are all terrified of starting out, no matter where we end up. Choosing to work in a severely underfunded district where untrained teachers are used as stopgaps on top of that is not easy — especially in right-to-work states where unions and collective bargaining are practically nonexistent. There is no big city draw, no community of like-minded teachers who will catch you when you stumble.
So what if the schools that need us, that are desperate to recruit and retain teachers, are not the schools we need … not the schools that will allow us to thrive as new teachers? Before you say it, I know, those schools are few and far between. But what do you do if you if teaching where you want means working in a school where the textbooks teach that the civil war was really about states’ rights? Or where the walls are literally crumbling all around you? Or where black students are treated like rag dolls and suspended at higher rates than anywhere else in the country?
Like I said, I was lucky. When I moved to South Carolina at age 11, I had a solid educational foundation. That foundation allowed me to thrive in school. So much so that I had the opportunity to attend the South Carolina Governor’s School for Science and Math, a prestigious public boarding school for juniors and seniors across the state. In my junior English class, we had to write an argumentative essay. One of my classmates argued that our school, which was heavily funded, should be dissolved; that the money spent on one hundred and twenty-eight of South Carolina’s “most academically motivated students” should be spread across the state to improve conditions in all schools.
I didn’t understand him then, but I do now. The majority of students in the state, or across the region, are not that lucky. Most of them don’t get state-of-the-art equipment, research internships, or teachers who hold PhDs and provide support beyond the classroom.
So I sit here in Georgia, in a graduate program that I chose specifically because I wanted to be prepared to teach in a variety of contexts, thinking about all the things that make teaching in the South, particularly teaching for justice, incredibly challenging. And I want to run away, far away. I want to find a teaching job elsewhere, somewhere I have a support system . . . where I don’t have to pick and choose the parts of myself I can keep visible. That is not to say teaching elsewhere is easy, but that at least I wouldn’t be having arguments about whether or not the confederate flag is acceptable in a classroom. I wouldn’t have to accommodate quite as much false history in my English classroom, picking books based solely on what we needed to relearn. I wouldn’t have to walk quite as lightly because I can be fired without reason.
I do not want to abandon these children. My stomach twists at the thought. But I do not want to abandon myself, either.
Why Rural Schools Matter by Mara Casey Tieken
Rural Education for the Twenty-First Century by Kai Schafft
“Why Rural Matters” report from the Rural Trust
“Racialising Rural Education”
Center on Rural Education and Communities at Penn State University
National Resource Center on Rural Education Support at the University of North Carolina