Rural and remote communities struggle to attract and keep teachers. A new program at the Werklund School of Education aims to fill that gap by allowing students from these communities to earn their teaching credentials without leaving home.
The geographical area of Canada is vast and expansive, with much of the population residing along the Canada/U.S. border. And yet, rural Canadians comprise approximately 25 percent of all Canadians, and many live in the far-reaching northern and remote areas of Canada. This is unsurprising and longstanding, yet it presents particular challenges for serving these areas well, particularly related to teaching.
Various financial incentives are commonly provided to attract more certified teachers to rural and remote areas. These may include financial student bursaries so long as they commit to a designated period of time teaching in the rural school district, subsidized accommodation, or travel to and from urban and rural areas. In other cases, urban teacher education programs create satellite campuses to have a more far-reaching applicant pool of individuals interested in pursuing an education degree. Both strategies have been met with limited and mediocre success. In the first instance, financial incentives to draw individuals into the community commonly result in a high turnover of teachers once the contract and financial commitment has been met. Satellite campuses struggle to maintain these programs as a financially viable and sustainable model. Given the financial costs associated with keeping programs open in satellite campuses and further ensuring that there is sufficient faculty expertise to teach in them, individuals in satellite campuses are normally required to attend two years at the urban campus (creating a 2 +2 model).
There are increasing calls for post-secondary teacher education programs to consider how to attract individuals who already live in rural areas and who are committed to the long-term vitality of the community. For instance, the Northern Alberta Development Report (2010) spoke to the need for “home grown teachers”: teachers who come from and will stay in the rural community to which they belong.
Yet, this task is not as easy as first perceived. Generally, it is difficult to attract individuals from the rural community to attend an on-campus program or even satellite campus, given the financial and logistical strain that this may place on students. Students may find the costs of moving to a city, or driving to a satellite campus on a regular basis, too much strain to bear. If students do decide to move to an urban-based teacher education program, the trend is that the vast majority of them never return to their rural community. In this way, the very intent to attract these individuals to university may further undermine the vitality of the rural community.
Given this dilemma, alternative models are being explored and implemented to attract individuals to become rural teachers who will become long-standing professionals in their own communities. This article considers a new program offered in Alberta since 2015 that has seen some optimistic initial results.
Community-Based Bachelor of Education
In July 2015, the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary welcomed the first cohort of students into a newly designed Community-Based Bachelor of Education program. This program allows students to complete their entire Bachelor of Education degree in a model that blends face-to-face, on-campus instruction in the summer with online courses in the fall and winter. This is combined with field experience placements in their rural communities, working alongside mentor partner teachers and principals in these areas. This allows students to remain in their local rural communities for the vast majority of the duration of their studies.
The Community-Based Bachelor of Education at Werklund allows students the best of both worlds. Each summer, students come to the University of Calgary for two weeks in July to meet their instructors and the other students in their cohort in person. During these two weeks, students not only begin their courses but they have access to academic, career and student supports provided by a dedicated team of faculty and support staff. Most importantly, however, students in these two weeks are offered the opportunity to develop collaborative relationships with those in their cohort and with their instructors, ensuring they feel connected to one another and to the Werklund School of Education.
The intensive two weeks of on-campus instruction creates a bond among students, who work together throughout the day in their courses and experience the residency component as a cohort. The timing of the courses (July) is purposeful, as many students have children. The summer holidays allow for more flexibility to find childcare for those two weeks, and yet the time away from their children is not overwhelming.
When students return home at the end of their two-week summer residency, they begin the online component of their program. The Education courses students take online are designed to be interactive and collaborative, allowing students the same kind of experience they would receive in an on-campus course. The courses are not self-directed and do not follow an online correspondence model; instead, the courses have a balance between asynchronous learning and synchronous online instruction, along with purposeful pedagogical and curricular relevance to teaching in rural areas.
Field experiences in their local communities provide the contextual experiential learning and students are mentored by educators in those communities. The students have real and meaningful rural teaching experiences that are attentive to the local and cultural norms and values of the community. This provides more student teachers with an opportunity to gain experience in rural schools, opportunities that have traditionally been scarce within urban-based teacher education programs. It provides mentorship opportunities for exemplary rural teachers and principals who have a nuanced understanding of the needs and opportunities for rural students, and empowers those rural communities to support their own continued professional learning in their communities.
Who are the students?
Over the last three years, the program has been tracking the nature of the students who are enrolling in the program to see whether the program is attracting students from rural and remote areas of the province. Thus far, the indicators prove promising. The overwhelming majority of students who have enrolled in the program to date are women between the ages of 35 and 50. The places where these students reside have truly hit the most northern and remote regions of the province: near the border between Alberta and Northwest Territories, the boreal forests in northern Alberta, the mountainous regions to the west of the province, the rural valleys in the eastern and southern regions, and Indigenous Treaty 7 and 8 territories. Over 90 percent of these students have worked in schools in some capacity, with the majority working as educational assistants or occupational therapists. This is noteworthy. One Indigenous Elder commented that educational assistants are often the life blood of the school. Teachers and principals come and go, but it is the educational assistants who tend to remain in the same rural schools, providing the institutional memory of the school, and the continuity and stability for the children.
The life stories of students who enrol in this program are telling. It is clear that they have a strong desire to become a certified teacher, but given their personal circumstances, would not have been able to drive to a satellite or urban campus. Almost all have children and most work to support the family. A full-time residency-based teacher education program was simply not an option.
Given the mature demographic of the students, who lead complex lives supporting their children and their families in these rural communities, attentiveness to when the courses were offered was of paramount importance. Unlike most programs that offer on-campus instruction during the day, fall and winter courses are offered in early evening time slots of 4:30 or 6:30 p.m. This allows individuals to work during the day, pick up their children from school, drop them off to their after-school activities should they require, or make supper. The timing of the courses also allows students to ensure that they have adequate Internet connectivity by staying at a school, library, or other institution, should their own house not have consistent Internet service – as is commonly the case in the mountains, valleys, and remote areas of the province.
Students create strong bonds during the summer, and feel a strong sense of communal belonging and commitment to each other.
Feedback from students indicates that initial concerns about potential isolation when doing the program “remotely” has thus far been a non-issue. Students create strong bonds during the summer, and given their overlapping stories, they feel a strong sense of communal belonging and commitment to each other. As many students note, when they take the leap of faith to enrol in the program, they feel the weight of their success on their shoulders. It is not just a personal journey to become a certified teacher; they tell us that they feel their children, families and communities are rooting for them to accomplish this goal. This creates a double-edged sword. In one way, they feel supported by their community to undertake this degree, but they also feel pressure to not let the community down should they struggle in their studies.
Given that this is a common theme among students who are desperate to succeed in becoming certified teachers, it is not uncommon for students to call up their fellow classmates to find out how their sick child is doing, how the harvest went, or how they have been juggling their family and work life with the program. In this way, students who had previously attempted to attend university in the city feel an incredible attachment to other students that they had not felt attending large lectures on campus. In many respects, there is a true sense of family, of getting through the program with the support of their classmates and their local community.
The nature of the blended program does present challenges. Despite advances to ensure secure Internet provision, the valleys, mountains and remote areas of the province make it difficult for some students to have a consistent online connection. This impedes the kinds of online activities that might otherwise be incorporated, restricting us to more limited activities that are less taxing. For instance, having all the students with their thumbprint pictures to be “seen” while holding an online class would bounce many students off-line. In this case, instructors are limited to audio, which lessens the ability to watch for body language among the students.
The traditional university structure also creates unintended barriers for students who learn from a distance and online. Students’ tuition often covers access to gyms, dental plans, or other student supports. Yet, commonly, those services are limited to those who are within proximity to the campus. Students may not opt out of the costs associated with these university fees, and yet derive little benefit.
Similarly, bursaries and awards are generally structured for students who have full-time status on one campus. Those students who may take courses from more than one institution, as in the case of this program, may be excluded from these financial supports as they do not meet the criteria that has been set for taking courses from one institution.
These difficulties point to a lag in the institutional structures of the universities in terms of student supports that can be provided online, or by phone, rather than having to walk into a particular office or centre. This not only hinders the students in this blended program, but it calls attention to the need for more flexible supports to increase access for students who lead complex lives beyond the campus.
Despite these challenges, there is a cautious optimism that this model may create more access to students in remote areas to foster qualified certified teachers who are committed to teaching in their local rural schools. Rural school superintendents and Indigenous communities are hopeful that they can encourage individuals who have already demonstrated a passion for supporting their schools and communities, to take the step in becoming certified teachers. At the time of this article, the first graduating class from this Community-Based Bachelor of Education will enter the teaching profession, and most have received teaching contracts in these rural areas.
It is not known whether these teachers will become the long-standing educational professionals in the community. Time will show whether the program makes a significant change to the perennial turnover and shortage of teachers in rural areas. However, we are cautiously optimistic that this may provide a tipping point in redressing this challenge.
First published in Education Canada, September 2018