City Mouse, Country Mouse: Education and Connection Across Environments

It feels like a different world even since I presented this as part of a panel at ISTE (International Society of Technology Educators) back in December. And it seems like 100 years ago when the idea for this conversation first percolated within my brain. It was originally an idea that filtered into my head more than a year ago. It was before any thoughts of a pandemic social distancing, or attempted coups. It was in an incredibly imperfect world, but the vast tragedies of the world seemed solvable to me then-if only we could move past the fear, animosity, division, and hatred. And it seems like many of those divides are fueled by the animosity between urban and rural communities. And as someone who has lived in both worlds, I understand that division, but it also cut me deeply. How could help bridge that gap?

Origins of the Idea

It was an idea that first pondered at my first NYSCATE in 2018 when I met a number of rural NY educators in an environment that was strange for me as about the only NYC teacher there in a setting where almost everyone was white. I heard one teacher speak of the one school in their district and the offices for the elementary principal, high school principal, and superintendent are all next door to each other. I could barely understand a world with almost no bureaucracy and little diversity of backgrounds. And despite that there were still teachers seeking to teach tolerance and equity and build connections.

Not long after I was at an ADE (Apple Distinguished Educator) Institute just outside of Washington D.C. in July of 2019. It was the first one I had participated in since I was first inducted into it more than a decade before. And as I reconnected with some educators I hadn’t long seen, I met educators from around the world with some experiences vastly different from mine and yet still many were struggling with some of the same issues and working towards similar solutions. And even though I’m not inherently inclined to enjoy social events or optimism, I found myself hopeful in conversations amongst this diverse group of amazing educators.

I had conversations about equity with some black teachers from small cities in the South and large coastal cities like mine. I spoke in Portuguese to some teachers from Brazil about the challenges of poverty. I spoke to a bunch of Texas educators about trying to make math fun for kids. I overheard some Canadian teachers connect over some other teachers in the Yukon and those challenges. It began with them discussing someone named Mary, and I laughed at how funny it was that they must both know her. And apparently, of course they did, because there is only about 3 teachers there. They may have 10 K-12 students all in one class. It was literally the classic one-room schoolhouse except that it would close some days because the hydraulics on which the school sits couldn’t properly adjust with melting in the permafrost. And while that world seemed so very foreign, it was some of those places where those challenges led to innovations in remote learning long before a pandemic.

At that same event I spoke with a wonderful teacher friend, Mark Coppin, about accessibility and got to dive deeply into why it’s important everywhere. Mark is from North Dakota, one of only 3 states I’ve never been to. And yet, despite that fact and our age differences, I feel common cause with Mark as much as almost anyone. But it was those with very different experiences that most drew me in. One educator, Jennifer Maracle-Westgate, is an indigenous woman of the Mohawk tribe who was then an assistant principal of a school on a reserve who was challenged dealing with a child who got hurt at school. Her world was utterly different, but that experience was on with which I was very familiar. And it struck me that time with these different perspectives and experiences could serve to make us all individually better and the system better overall. So I wanted to make that happen, and even more-so after so much life got in the way. In fact, despite the many divisions I’ve seen across communities and families continue to grow, the connections I’d seen across broad stripes of educators seemed like a place to begin improving. And so I began planning, and I ended up eventually even getting Jennifer and many other teachers, some who I hadn’t yet met, on board.

Why It’s Important

In addition to forging connections amongst educators that could fuel the broader rebuilding of communities I hoped to address some of the major issues facing education broadly. There are a number of reasons this was an important conversation to begin. But for some of those, let’s start with some data. First both urban and rural families are struggling deeply with poverty and lack of quality work opportunities, but it is worst in urban areas especially as work opportunities for factories and farming decrease. And meeting the needs of those with disabilities are a challenge across environments. You can find the data culled from several governmental bureaus on PBS that help illustrate the divide.

And while it’s clear that much of the wealth seems concentrated in suburban areas and a few urban neighborhoods, there is a perception issue as well. I first experienced this early in my teaching career when we watched the original Brown Eyes, Blue Eyes experiment together. I was already familiar with Jane Elliot’s work, growing up in a home of teachers and psychologists, but it was new to most of the teachers in the room. Of course, the point many got was how easy it is for bias to be taught. But there were some teachers who began to utter things like, “Well, of course they engage in that ignorant racism because they’re stupid. Listen to how they talk.” They weren’t referring to the vocabulary level of the 3rd graders, but their thick country accents from 1960s Iowa. They said it chastising the bias exhibited by the children ironically unaware of the bias they were exhibiting themself.

It is that perception that is the ongoing issue even beyond demographics. This idea that country folks are uneducated, gun-loving, hateful hicks and city people are arrogant, corrupt, godless heathens by their counterparts are ideas I have heard with some regularity by people who’ve never experienced the other. Of course, politically we have this idea of red states and blue states when every state is a blend of ideas and people with a vast array of local and national ideas. I mean Joe Biden got 850, 000 votes in Alabama and even if Trump isn’t that popular in his hometown of New York City, many folks who work there and live in long Island are devotees. That variety seems to be decreasing as people now seem to consider it more a matter of competing teams and identities beyond just different ideas. But part of the reason there is this rural/urban hating of each other (even beyond the U.S.) is because we think they hate us too. At least that’s what the Pew Research Center has found.

Education is the only solution.
Malala
trees and a cityscape

So we cannot move past those issues unless we can see the individual people that make up the various communities, because as groups there is only animosity. Also, it makes sense to begin with educating each other about our communities and our needs. And who better to do that than educators themselves. So that is why we began this conversation. And while many more teachers were involved in the creation of these questions we discussed, I pulled a diverse group of teachers. They are from areas urban, suburban, and rural and from higher education and primary schools. There were teachers and administrators with a variety of American and international experiences from public and private schools. And while I can’t share with you everything that the presenters shared, I can give you my perspective and an overview of where I think we can begin.

The Conversation

While it’s clear from the video that we each have our own unique challenges and environments, we (and other polled educators) also had similar collective challenges. The list of key challenges in order of most responses is below. While this list was generated before the pandemic and other challenges coming to light, it’s clear that most of the issues that came up in the midst of hardship were issues well before it.

  • Quality Professional Development (53%)
  • Equity/Indigenous Populations/Cultural Sensitivity (48%)
  • School Funding/Resources (48%)
  • Inclusion/Accessibility (42%)
  • Parent/Community Engagement (36%)
  • Bureaucracy (35%)

What is one important thing you learned from someone with a different perspective?

One of the things I learned is that sometimes the lack of bureaucracy in rural environments can help innovation happen quickly. But it also became clear that, simply due to the numbers of people, there was far more built-in expertise in urban environments to help with continued growth. It is something both areas can learn from. It is also clear how the issues above have been determinative in how successfully many schools were able to adapt to the changes necessary in the midst of the pandemic. For that, it seems good teaching remains good teaching and good educational practices are good regardless of the environment.

What is one creative solution you/your school has done to keep families connected and learning meaningful?

It’s also clear that many schools were still pushing amazing experiences out to their students. Granted, NYC (and especially my district) which has seen so much death in the past year has had to take extra precautions, but we could still have a number of wonderful events. I wrote a whole post about Events At the End of the World detailing some of them. But that happened all over with distanced graduations and proms and intimate school/family conversations and deliveries of food and other necessities to families. The school remains the center of most communities wherever you may be. And, if we’re looking at the politics of it, it’s also notably the place where people go to vote and where they learn about the nature of their civic duties and the government that is meant to serve them.

What was most effective for preparing staff?

As for training staff, it’s been a mashup of techniques across environments. Sure I literally gave 100s of trainings for 10s of thousands of NYC educators in the course of a few months after it became clear that lists of resources were meaningless at a point. Other districts did the same even if on a smaller scale. And then there have been social after-hours events and short pre-recorded videos. Actually in NYC we’re memorializing that for the long-term and creating an ongoing series of learning modules for teachers that consist of a variety of those videos. But it was also clear there were some teachers who just needed to be able to schedule individual 1 on 1 help and weren’t served by learning platforms that required some technical expertise to begin.

How have you managed staff/student emotional states/burn out?

So many other people have probably handled this better than me. Some people have had book clubs and wholly social events. Others streamed movies together online. I was happy to just make time for staff and parents, but for a long while I was definitely burning my candle at both ends. started to get connected to exercising daily and eating a little better. I stopped questioning how productively I was spending all my time and began to recognize that time taken solely for the sake of my mental health was time well spent. And then being able to have a small circle of other teachers on a text chain to vent or pour out pain too can help. Making time for student connections and having games and some moments for unfocused fun can really help whatever form it takes. It’s important to note that if students aren’t in a proper emotional state, little learning is possible. But the sort of mandated hour long meetings to discuss mental health with forced conversations and toxic positivity don’t help either.

What one thing will you keep that you started or learned about during the pandemic?

It’s clear many teachers want to keep a lot of the training and knowledge of technology. They want to keep the deep family connections and regular social/emotional learning opportunities. We want to continue to focus on making learning equitable, inclusive, and accessible. But it’s clear that a lot of structures that have long been part of public education (funding, assessment, etc.) need to be wholly reexamined in this time.

Cross-Environmental Research

There is a lot more research and information you can dive into like we did. This is a conversation I would love to see keep going. So to help you get started, here are some further resources. I also recommend connecting with a wide range of educators through whatever form your professional learning network takes. Feel free to reach out for suggestions.

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