"Are you looking for a teaching job?" asked the waitress as I closed a book and finished my cheeseburger in the cafe. "No," I said. "I'm here to visit the Brown's Park one-room school."
"That's too bad," she said. "You could have had a job six months ago. They were desperate this fall to hire another teacher. Maybe when the town gets a new sewer system and some decent housing, teachers will stay."
As I was leaving the cafe, she urged me to drop my name off at the Maybell School -- just in case.
Throughout the West in the energy boomtowns of Colorado, Wyoming, Nevada, Utah, and Montana the story is much the same. There are definitely openings for teachers, but housing is at a premium and normal suburban conveniences just do not exist where rural teaching jobs are to be found.
In the United States today, only 1,100 one-room schools are in operation, but there are thousands of other small schools that also have difficulties with teacher recruitment and retention.
That's why I was going to the one-room school in Brown's Park, Colo. I wanted to meet the young, bearded teacher from Minnesota who had moved his family into the far northwest corner of Colorado that borders Wyoming and Utah.
Maybell is close to Dinosaur, Colo., famous for Dinosaur National Monument. Thousands of tourists go there annually, but few drive north into Brown's Park -- one of the last outlaw strongholds and a place where the Old West stayed young.
A note for amateur historians: Butch Cassidy often came through Brown's Park as he followed the Outlaw Trail down from Hole-in-the-Wall, Wyo.
The Green River flows through Brown's Park and Butch's school-marm girlfriend , Etta Place, may have taught in one of the log schools. Many the desperado spent the night at the Jarvie Ranch along the banks of the Green River, which is only a mile or two up from the Lodore Schoolhouse, built in 1911 and now a National Historic Site.
The gas station in Maybell doesn't sell gas any more, so I had to fill up from the gravity-feed gas pump at the Red Rose Motel. The next town north is Sunbeam, and the road signs become explicit. As the vastness of the Green River basin opened up in front of me, I read "next Services 100 Miles," "Open Range," and "livestock on Highway." Then the signs ended and there was nothing but a straight stretch of asphalt and a blue Colorado sky.
Dan Vogeler likes teaching in the Brown's Park one-room school. He likes the sense of community among the 15 families that live "in the park." He doesn't mind being 80 miles from a grocery store when he's only a few miles from his neighbors.
Dan says, "Out here the school is the center of things. Most times parents stop by the school to visit and then go over to the trailer to talk with my wife. One mother, Ramona Johnson, brings her first-grader 60 miles one way in a jeep. Naturally she's not in a hurry to turn around and go back to the ranch."
Teachers contemplating jobs in remote rural areas should realize that although they are physically isolated, the school acts as a focal point for the community. Teacher privacy is sometimes sacrificed.
It is also difficult to maintain a professional parent-teacher relationship when communities are so close knit. Social functions often revolve around the school, and parents are always present.
If in a rural school there is an implied obligation to conform to community values, there are also opportunities for independence and innovation. This year Mr. Vogeler, as his students call him, has seven pupils in six grades, and at least 50 chickens, ducks, and turkeys in a pen near the one-room school.
"The school board doesn't mind," Dan says about his small poultry flock, "and roosters help keep the kids awake!"
Like other country schools, the older students help the littler ones, especially with math and spelling. The teacher can take the time to individualize lessons, and younger students learn what is expected of them because they hear older children working on more advanced lessons.
The quality of education is good, and students from country schools develop a firm sense of themselves and what they can accomplish. Dr. Ivan Muse, professor of education at Brigham young University and director of a rural education teacher training program claims that, "Rural school graduates are highly self-confident. They may receive poorer grades, but once they begin college they are easily motivated and usually succeed. They quickly compensate for any curriculum deficiencies."
Self-reliance is a way of life in the rural areas of the West, and teachers have to be self-reliant, too. More and more teaching jobs will open up in the Western "energy" states, but living accommodations will be scarce and conditions vary widely.
"Low pay and teacher isolation are perennial rural school problems," says Eugene J. Cambell, Colorado Department of Education certification consultant. Although pay scales have risen in recent years, rural teacher housing shortages have been common for half a century. There is also sex-role stereotyping.
A young, single, female schoolteacher in Nevada states that her rural school superintendent had told her, "You are hired unless I can find a man." He felt that in a conservative community a man is better situated to teach and assist the upper boys.
Dr. Alan Zetler, dean of education and director of the Rural Education Center at Western Montana College in Dillon, Mont., says, "There are school districts that search very hard to get one or two serious applicants for vacancies. To the local folks, social isolation and lack of urban services are facts of life and present no real problems." Yet to a new teacher, the rosy, rural glow may quickly fade.
Not so at the Brown's Park School. Like most successful rural schoolteachers , Dan Vogeler comes form a rural background. He enjoys the opportunity to take his class on raft trips down the Green River or boating up at Flaming Gorge Reservoir.
Dan says, "I'm not sure I could go back to a regular teaching schedule in a town school. I like to be independent."