“Across the nation, we have increasingly ambitious goals for student learning, which equates to increasingly ambitious goals for instruction.” – Dr. Annie Wilhelm
Among the most pressing issues in rural education are ensuring that instructional quality is high and that it remains consistent with state standards. At the first annual SMU Rural Superintendent Leadership Symposium, four superintendents from rural East Texas school districts joined SMU Assistant Professor of Mathematics Education Dr. Annie Wilhelm to discuss strategies for meeting these goals.
Dr. Brian Nichols (New Summerfield ISD) drew attention to the persistent shortage of teacher candidates in rural areas and the strategies rural districts could employ to develop high-quality instruction. “It’s hard for us to find qualified teachers at times, specifically in the STEM areas,” he noted. “So, my feeling is that we need to develop the capacity within our own staff.” Dr. Nichols went on to outline his district’s practices that promote high-quality instruction with a special emphasis on reflection and growth as part of the district’s institutional culture. The plan asks teachers to self-evaluate by recording their lessons and reviewing the footage of themselves, in concert with peer-to-peer collaboration and observation among teachers to help identify and share the best instructional practices. The goal of these initiatives is to foster a team dialogue around instruction and stimulate self-initiated instructional development. According to Dr. Nichols, “It’s really kind of a rogue mindset of getting better every day.”
Stan Surratt (Lindale ISD) addressed the teacher shortage through his district initiative, choosing to approach the issue from the angle of recruitment, training, and retention of new instructors. He and his leadership team have focused on creating a more robust training system for administrators, which would, in turn, allow the construction of better training and support systems for teachers in his district. Through the implementation of this plan over several years, Surratt hopes to boost the quality and quantity of candidates for LISD teaching positions.
Pivoting from Surratt’s plan, Don Dunn (Van ISD) jokingly remarked, “It’s so ironic that I’m sitting here talking about a professional development model and he’s talking about a recruitment model. So, basically what’s happened is we develop these teachers and he comes over and steals them!” Dunn’s Bold School Badging Program is designed to provide professional development for teachers implementing technology in the classroom, and it has also provided leadership opportunities for students. The model features professional development developed with input from the student-led iTeam and advertised with student-created theming and graphics. The program engages students and faculty in a district-wide team exercise that allows for mutual growth and dynamic learning. “Instead of this being a top-down initiative,” Dunn reasoned, “let’s make it a down-to-up initiative.”
Wade Stanford (Westwood ISD) also presented a collaborative plan, with the goal of aligning instruction in his district with Texas state standards. Stanford observed that his teachers have an “unbelievable desire to be excellent and improve their craft on a daily basis,” which led him to realize that collaboration was the best way to help them grow. The approach he developed for his district focuses on coaching, leadership walks, and peer-to-peer learning walks, all strategies that had been successful in Stanford’s district before. In the short term, Stanford hopes to increase awareness of state instructional standards among instructors and build an increased culture of collaboration in his district.