What It Takes To Teach In Appalachia

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The alarm goes off at 5:30 a.m. A whole day ahead, with minds to mold, papers to grade and the insurmountable pressure of motivating a student to graduate and find success. This is the everyday routine of Colleen Finnegan, a senior education major at Ohio University.

She is reaching the end of her student internship at Athens High School in Athens, Ohio. With six classes of juniors and seniors, the student-teacher has a lot to deal with when it comes to taking control of the classroom. And especially in Finnegan’s case, the pressure to make sure she is preparing her students for success is always in the back of her mind.

Finnegan spent the first three years of her education training within the Patton School of Education at Ohio University. In the school, nearly 1,800 undergraduate students are pursuing a career in education. Kevin Rice is often one of the first few professors students encounter upon declaring an education major. Rice teaches "Introduction to Teacher Education." He explains on day one what is expected of the students in their four years at Ohio University and when they reach “professional standing” and are able to student-teach.

“They’re actually being monitored by the classroom teacher and their college professor," Rice said. "And so, there is a lot of feedback. We teach our kids to do reflections, good teaching is all about reflection. Then you assess and you replan and you teach and it’s a cycle.”

Rice goes on to say that the active engagement of education students early on helps prepare them for the intense workload and evaluations they will receive. The students who reach professional standing after many classes and finally begin to student-teach will undergo many national assessments and critiques from seasoned educators. Finnegan points out that is probably more nerve-wracking to go through than the first time teaching in a classroom.

“Getting criticism from the teacher I work with was disheartening at first, but then I realized that I am taking it personally. Teaching isn’t about me, it’s about the students and the assessments I go through are only making me realize my weaknesses and work on them,” said Finnegan.

While the curriculum and professional experience is vital, Rice says the most important part of becoming a teacher is the passion.

“Kids look to the their teachers to be a positive role model and sometimes the teacher is the only adult influence in a child’s life…I always tell [the students I teach] if you’re 99 percent sure, do something else.”

Susan Payne has been 100 percent dedicated to teaching in Appalachia for 35 years and works within the Vinton County School system in southeast Ohio. She understands how a good teacher, especially in low-resource Appalachian schools, can really make a difference in a child’s life and the career of the teacher.

“If you can teach in this area, you can teach anywhere because there is always something new to learn and you get so many tools and the people that I have worked with over the years," Payne said. "If we put ourselves into an environment with lots of resources and families who want their children to learn we would just really zoom because we have so many tricks in our toolbox.”

Teachers with the necessary tools for success in the classroom are of greater need now than ever before according to Payne. Only a third of students in the Appalachian area ever enroll in college, which is less than the national average. Many of the families living in Appalachia are poor. Personal income is nearly 20 percent lower than the national average and because of these disadvantages experts believe education in this region is imperative.

Rice is a self-proclaimed Appalachian product.

"I'm from here and I spent my whole career here so I am deeply entrenched in the Appalachian culture…a lot of the students here are in the low socio-economic area. You know if you're in the suburban area and each student lives with their biological mother and father [who are] college educated, and education is the most important thing in the household, there may not be as many obstacles as our teachers have with the limited we have in southeast Ohio," Rice said.

The lack of resources in schools and the overall funding of southeast Ohio schools makes it difficult to recruit teachers to the area, especially when starting salaries are so low.

Malinda Mowry is a 12th-grade English teacher at Alexander High School in Alexander County. She explains that the starting salary in in the area is around $31,000, while the state average is over $56,000.

Mowry went on to say, however, "My job satisfaction is very high. Even though I get frustrated sometimes, you know, you have to spend a lot of time on weekends, you have to spend a lot of time in the evenings, you have grading and planning. But everyday, I can see the impact of what I'm doing and I get to interact with students…it's very fulfilling, I feel like I have a purpose with what I am doing."

While Mowry trained as a teacher in the traditional way of college, many professionals willing to teach, especially in southeast Ohio opt to work for Teach for America.

Teach for America is a national non-profit organization currently training professionals to work in 40 suburban and urban regions in the country. Brianna Savoca is an Ohio University representative for Teach for America and said that the organization's mission is to give every child an opportunity to recieve a well-round education. They look for teachers of all majors and backgrounds. Savoca says the two-year program is tailored to students of particular needs and has benefits that a conventional education degree might not offer.

Savoca realizes the problem of placing teachers in southeast Ohio schools.

"The sad truth is, some people buy into the negative stereotypes or the myth about the kids who grow up in poverty not being able to achieve the same things as their affluent peers," he said. "We definitely need teachers who have the belief that every child, regardless of what their background is, is capable of achieving [success]."

With her student-teaching days winding down, education major Colleen Finnegan agrees with the words of Savoca. While Finnegan said she doesn't see herself staying in the area, she knows she has gotten more out of her experience in Appalachia than she could have hoped in a more suburban setting.