A national organization that works on developing the workforce of rural educators around the country has moved its New England hub to the University of Maine.
In locating the regional hub at the University of Maine’s College of Education and Human Development, the Rural Schools Collaborative will lean on the institution’s deep knowledge in cultivating the next generation of rural educators as the nation confronts a shortage of rural teachers — or at least a challenge in recruiting rural education professionals.
The idea behind the Rural Schools Collaborative and its New England hub is to help educators partner and share information and stories about how they’ve confronted common challenges, said Taylor McCabe-Juhnke, the collaborative’s executive director.
“A big part of what we do is trying to help folks to keep from reinventing the wheel,” she said. “A big piece of why we do what we do is that we believe that for rural communities to be sustainable, that education is really at the heart of that. Schools are often one of the last public institutions or meeting places that exist in rural communities and serve as a community anchor.”
The collaborative has had a presence in New England since 2018 when it formed the New England hub and based it at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire. The move to UMaine is meant to continue the momentum in the region, said Catharine Biddle, an associate professor of educational leadership at UMaine and the New England hub’s new point person.
“We’ve got incredible rural principals all over northern New England doing really interesting work, but they’re very lonely, and they’re very busy, and they’re wearing a lot of hats and taking on a lot of responsibility,” she said.
Conversations about teacher shortages have reached a fever pitch across the state and the nation as schools have navigated the COVID-19 pandemic. But while the pandemic has focused more attention on it, there has been a shortage of qualified educators in rural areas since before the pandemic that has intensified since, Biddle said.
“The rural teacher shortage has come under the microscope recently because of COVID, and some of the emotional experiences that teachers have expressed in the wake of the pandemic,” Biddle said. “But I think that for a lot of rural places, staffing was a huge challenge before the pandemic. And this is just in the same way that, suddenly, rural broadband was on the tip of everyone’s tongues in 2020, rural teacher shortage is now on the tip of everyone’s tongues in 2022.”
The University of Maine was selected to be the next home base for the regional hub due to its track record and expertise when it comes to teaching educators who then work in rural school districts, McCabe-Juhnke said.
Biddle said she thinks professors at the UMaine College of Education and Human Development have a unique set of expertise when it comes to educating future rural educators.
“We have a faculty who are really passionate about rural education issues and that are really knowledgeable about both the opportunities, the strengths that are there and the challenges,” she said.
The college also has valuable partnerships with Maine school districts, she said. Those partnerships mean that there is a constant flow of new information from the field that the university can then apply to its teaching programs to help prepare the next round of educators, Biddle said.
Over the next year, Biddle said, she’ll work to develop relationships beyond Maine and across New England to breathe some new life into the Rural Schools Collaborative’s work in the region and to get a better understanding of what schools in other states are doing well.
“One of the things that I’m excited about is, as we define some of these challenges in partnership with districts across the region, we can start to think about how to address them,” Biddle said. “And one of the nice things about being at a university is thinking about the sorts of creative ways that we can fund opportunities to address those challenges.”
One of those opportunities is a grant the collaborative offers to teachers within its regional hubs to fund a rural classroom project, McCabe-Juhnke said.