This is the first post in a series on growing up rural.
The other day, I was in a classroom showing middle schoolers how to create their own websites. The websites will be used to give them an outlet to write about things they are interested in as well as a fun way for them to showcase class projects.
Middle school is an interesting age range. The kids are beginning to develop opinions and some of them are quite sassy. Personally, I love working with middle school because this is the age where kids minds really begin to open up and their gritty nature provides a challenge I find invigorating.
As we began the activity, I saw the normal disinterest you see in kids of this age. If you could hear their thoughts, I’m sure they would be something like, “Oh great, another adult, telling me stuff I don’t care about.” This is where the fun challenge happens for me because I get to be something other than what they’re expecting. I get to be someone who challenges their stereotypes about grown ups.
My instincts kicked in and I said, “Did you know you can actually make a living creating websites?” They perked up immediately and began asking questions about being a web designer. I was instantly transformed from a teacher, to a person. They were engaged and interested and we had successfully tied a class assignment to college and career, without them even realizing they were now learning the things I was there to teach them.
I told them I had gone to Chico State and learned how to build websites and that I had been doing so for about 15 years. We were on a roll and it was wonderful! As we were engrossed in discussion, one of the kids in the back of the class shouted out to the teacher, “HOW did you get HER to come to OUR class?” He was emphatic; blown away by the fact that they had someone in their classroom talking about a career path they didn’t think existed in their rural town. It was as if something impossible had just happened.
Teachers are some of the most interesting people I know. They have stories that bring meaning and relevance to learning, which makes things really fascinating for kids. I attended a workshop on this topic several years ago. The presenter spoke at length about the power of teachers allowing their students to see them as people. Imagine how wonderfully engaging it would be if we were able to tie a lesson to a life experience. It suddenly becomes real for kids and because of that, it means something to them.
The comment the kid shouted out from the back of the class stuck with me in a big way, and it helped me to realize that we have the opportunity to do something really groundbreaking, especially for rural kids. We can introduce them to local people, doing things they assume are not possible in their community. Things they would never think of being attainable, because of where they live. Too many of our nation’s rural youth know poverty, not opportunity. For many of them there is no world beyond what they know and the job options they are aware of are extremely limited. I believe offering access to tangible examples of a world beyond poverty is a highly effective starting point to addressing these issues in rural America.
Since that day in the classroom, I’ve been asking kids and adults about their perceived career options, given that they live in Tehama County. The responses have been enlightening, to say the least. Did you know that we have a graphic designer here who just completed an album cover project for a music superstar and legend? Heather Vine is an amazing example of what’s possible for rural youth when someone takes the time to tell them they can stay here and enjoy the career of their dreams.
In talking with Heather about how she got where she is today, she told me about the teacher who told her, “Sure, you can go out there and get a great job in the city working as a graphic designer…or, you can stay here and work for yourself and be the best designer in your area.” She did, and because of that teacher’s words and Heather’s dedication to pursuing her dream, she has enjoyed an extremely successful career as a designer in Tehama County. Heather noted that it was her teacher who made it possible for her to believe she could stay in the place that she loved and pursue the career of her dreams.
There are so many people right here in Tehama County like Heather. Sharing stories like this and others with rural kids gives them something priceless. It gives them a chance to pursue an exciting and fulfilling life, right here in their hometown. I have a deep admiration for teachers and the school leaders who empower them to make this kind of magic happen for kids and I’m grateful that I’m able to work with them regularly as I pursue my own dream of staying in Tehama County to make a difference in education. Teachers have the power to help our children see that there is hope, that they have options and that they can lead successful and fulfilling lives doing something that they love.
If you, or someone you know is doing something local that’s unexpected, something that would inspire students to dream of an amazing future, leave a comment below. Teachers can use your stories to inspire students to dream big and be excited about the wide open options their future holds.