Four years ago, I quit my teaching job at an inner-city school and moved to a small town. Now I teach at Trinidad Junior High in southern Colorado. When I tell this to folks back in Denver, they often ask me quizzically, the way you'd ask a former POW or deep-sea diver: "What's it like?"
On the inside, I say, it's pretty much like any junior high. We have many of the big-city problems - drugs, teen pregnancy, parenting by proxy - only on a smaller scale. We, too, have been "Nintendoed" and "Niked" ad nauseum. The main difference I've noticed is that in a small town, students, parents, and teachers share a community. We live together, in a sense, and this impacts the way we educate one another.
Trinidad is an immigrant mining town, established along the Mountain Route of the Santa Fe Trail in the late 1800s. Our student roster reads like the door list at Ellis Island: Monteleone, Santestevan, Pachorek. Many Hispanic students descend from Spanish families who settled this region. The people of Trinidad talk family affiliations all the time ("Didn't she marry a Sciacca?" or "Wasn't his dad a Montoya?") My roll book is a registry of local history. Anonymity is not part of the lifestyle.
Take grocery shopping, for example. I was at Safeway the other day, and I must have run into five students with their families. If I'd had my grade book with me, I could have knocked off a few conferences right there in the frozen-foods section. They watched me choose my meat. I watched them exercise discipline on the candy aisle. Such daily encounters of small-town living have a personalizing effect on my classroom environment: These are kids I shop with.
We also drive together. I can't squeeze through a yellow light without considering who is in the car behind me. It might be a student I recently berated for running in the hall. It might be a parent. Or a principal. Or the superintendent, for that matter.
When disciplining my students, I emphasize community awareness. In a small town, you might end up living next door to that same bully who is ruining your sixth-grade experience. So I urge kids to speak up for the common good. Sometimes students get teased for being smart. I remind the class: These are the same people who will likely be handling the money 10 years from now, so think twice when addressing your future loan officer.
My life with students does not end during holidays. On Halloween, they show up at my door in Little Mermaid outfits. At Christmas, we meet at the local tree-lighting ceremony. I feel like a celebrity: "Look, there's Miss Green!" A trip to the town swimming pool during summer break keeps me up to date on size, weight, and overall fitness of my kids. The girls are acquiring shape, the boys are acquiring a sense of that shape. I watch them grow, and remember this is what kids do.
Rural schools do have their disadvantages. The smaller budgets, for instance, the nepotistic staffing issues, and a gossip network that churns out data faster than the Internet. Still, rural schools have something no amount of money pumped through a pedagogic think tank can recreate: a sense of community that you simply can't escape. My sixth-graders today will surround me as adults tomorrow. Our world looks like us, and we treat it accordingly.
*Jennifer Green teaches sixth grade at Trinidad Junior High in southern Colorado.
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