To walk through the aisles of the only grocery store in Pawhuska, Okla., with sixth-grade teacher Lynn Fuller is to be reminded of the degree to which public-school teachers are often small-town celebrities.
Ms. Fuller can't push her carriage more than a few feet without someone approaching to engage her in conversation that includes news of her past students. One has had a baby, another is doing well in college, a third has become a great volleyball player. All remember Fuller, of course, and send their greetings.
"You can see it's real small-town life here," says Fuller with a smile.
But as a teacher in the town's Indian Camp Elementary School, Fuller's also very conscious of the particular challenges her rural location offers. "How do I bring the outside world to [the students]," she wonders, "and yet also help them to be respectful of their immediate environment?"
Pawhuska (population 4,000) lies amidst a scrubby stretch of prairie in a remote corner of rural Oklahoma. It is the seat of the Osage Indian Nation and about a third of the students at Fuller's school identify themselves as native Americans. But Fuller says many in the younger generation know little of the past and often feel no tie to the land.
That disconnect is an issue many rural teachers grapple with, but one Fuller's exuberant young charges spend little time thinking about. Her sixth-graders have all the energy of their age group, and Fuller spends a large part of her day telling them not to litter, not to hit, not to talk out of turn, not to be unkind.
Yet Fuller insists this is the age group she loves best. "They're beginning to become independent," she points out. "The discussions you can have with them are fantastic. Sure, I get angry with them, but I like their spunk. I wouldn't trade them for anything."
Over two decades of teaching Fuller has honed her ability to blend humor and a gentle style with a willingness to consistently enforce the rules. When kids step out of line, she doesn't look the other way.
"She's funny and friendly but if you do something wrong she lets you hear about it," says Chris Rabb, one of Fuller's current crop of sixth-graders.
Fuller's genuine enthusiasm for her students is one of the marks of her excellence as a teacher, says Bob Howard, a professor of chemistry at the University of Tulsa.. "Lynn Fuller personifies what a really good rural teacher can be. She's not just a teacher, she's a leader in her community."
Professor Howard first met Fuller when she took a class of his for her master's degree in science and math education. Her willingness to commute 120 miles round trip several times a week to the University of Tulsa to complete her degree left a lasting impression on him. "She's very concerned with her professional qualifications and willing to go the extra mile to make sure she's prepared," he says. Howard also remarks on Fuller's dedication to teaching, and her determination to bring her classes the best the outside world has to offer.
Fuller specializes in math and the subject has become a strength at the school. While students at Indian Camp generally score a bit above national norms in all subjects, math scores are particularly strong.
But Fuller's classes at UT did more than simply make her a better math teacher, she says. They also opened her mind to new methods and fresh inspiration. "It's important to keep up on new ideas, to share with other teachers," she says.
Connections she made in Tulsa sparked ideas for creating a bridge for her kids to a larger world. Fuller now regularly arranges field trips to Tulsa. Her students participate in the city's science fairs, and explore its museums and the UT campus.
"Getting them to see the outside world is as important as the academic part of the experience," she says of the field trips. She remembers one young student who ran into a group of international students while attending a science fair at UT. "The science part was good," he told Fuller on the way home, "but the best was hearing those foreign people talk."
One of the UT classes also sparked an idea closer to home. While collaborating on a summer-course project, Fuller and her teaching partner Jan Kirchner came up with a series of lesson plans to be carried out at the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve 10 miles from their school.
Tallgrass is one of the largest areas of undeveloped prairie left in the US. Both teachers' classes now visit it at least four times a year to combine science and math lessons. The students track plots of land, note seasonal changes, study wildlife and vegetation, and measure and calculate the area and volume of various rocks and other natural forms. They also observe herds of bison and ponder what life was like before European settlers arrived.
"Even though they grow up here and this is their land, most kids in Pawhuska know no more about it than kids in Tulsa or Oklahoma City," she says. Through the Tallgrass project, she says, "they're amazed to find out how interesting a piece of ground can be." Enthusiasm for the area has spread, catching the interest of parents and prompting a number of families to visit the land and hike on its trails.
But the field trips provide more than just environmental education. When Cleteis Ford playfully kicked a classmate during a recent Tallgrass trip, Fuller swiftly pulled him out of line and informed him she'd be his only partner on the walk.
Cleteis's spirits flagged momentarily as he watched his friends charge ahead without him. But then, as he and Fuller continued down the trail together -after a brief discussion of why he'd been wrong and a shame-faced apology -the punishment turned into a positive. Teacher and student began sharing observations on the natural world around them and perfunctory comments deepened into real interest.
When finally told he could rejoin his friends, Cleteis declined. "Maybe I'll just stay here," he said. His reward, a few moments later: the discovery of a large, well-preserved animal skeleton, one of the most interesting finds of the afternoon.
For Howard, of UT, the incident sums up the caring attention that puts Fuller at the top of her profession. "She can take even a situation that has an edge," he says, "and turn it into something that's fun and enjoyable."
Lynn Fuller on good teaching
Fairness is a big thing with me. The same rules and expectations apply to everyone. I take 10 points off for late work, good kid or not. The rules can't be changing. Kids watch for that. If they know you're being fair with them, they'll do anything for you.
You have to set goals and tell the kids about them. It's important for them to see the whole picture.
I know there are different styles of teaching but you have to do what's natural to you. You have to be yourself, be willing to show yourself to them. Sometimes that's hard; it requires trust.
I like structure. I want them to know what to expect when they walk into the room and to feel safe. For all that I love hands-on learning, in many ways I'm an old-fashioned teacher.
My style is to try to question them through their own questions. That gets them to think and most kids rise to the challenge. I want them to see that it's okay to ask questions, and then to be willing to take risks in trying to answer them.