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Rural Teacher Spotlight: Ginny Geoghegan

We continue our Teacher Spotlight series with Ginny Geoghegan, an art teacher at Tomales High. In the coming academic year, Tomales High will be working with the Rural Debate Initiative in their weekly tutorial period to provide debate education to interested students. Ginny was interested in joining the Rural Debate Initiative despite not having prior debate experience, because she believes that debate can be an important tool for her students to defend themselves against misconceptions and biases in a world outside of school.


From the beginning, Ginny Geoghegan knew she would be a teacher. As the child of a math teacher, Ginny was instilled with a strong sense of love and respect for educational environments. To her, the classroom was both a place of joy and a second home. After studying interdisciplinary visual art in college, she decided that the best way to share her love of art was to follow in her family’s footsteps and become an educator.


 

To her, the classroom was both a place of joy and a second home.

 

Now, she has been in the field for thirteen years. Ginny attributes her perseverance to her love of a challenge. Between balancing her home life and work life, searching for methods to improve her own practice, and taking on additional projects, she has shown a high level of dedication to her students. In her mind, a challenge is not inherently a “bad thing;” shifting mindsets to view manageable problems as opportunities has helped her approach difficulties more effectively.


However, she was not always in a rural classroom. After working in the Bay Area for several years, Ginny decided she wanted to return to a more rural area. A rural position would facilitate a better work-life balance, as well as allow for more one-on-one attention for students. Due to larger class sizes at her previous school, she felt she could not create strong relationships with all her students. She recalls one particularly impactful moment with a student at her previous school. When asked for feedback on the class at the end of the year, she remembers that one student wrote that he felt “unknown” and as though “he didn’t matter.” With such a large class, it was difficult to find enough time to devote to learning about each student’s needs and addressing them accordingly, and this student’s feedback has stuck with her to this day.


In her current classroom, Ginny works to create a supportive environment. Her goal is for students to be able to relax, socialize, make art, and most importantly, learn about themselves and the world around them. Her classroom centers on art as an interaction of space and material, and the creation of meaning. She also prioritizes social-emotional learning, or SEL. “Without that, you can’t do anything else,” she says. SEL focuses on “helping students be students” and work towards the attitudes, aptitudes, outlook, and habits that make for successful learners. In her opinion, the pandemic heightened the need for SEL, and she has dedicated much of her classroom time to meeting kids where they are at on both an individual and collective level.




 

Her goal is for students to be able to relax, socialize, make art, and most importantly, learn about themselves and the world around them.

 

Ginny further reflects on how the pandemic was particularly impactful for her rural students. The school she teaches at serves students within a fifty-mile radius, with some students traveling ninety minutes or more each way. Isolated by geography, for many students, school was the only place they interacted with people outside their family – and when they were moved online, that isolation was exacerbated. It also brought on issues of dysmorphia for teenagers, she says, who now had to view themselves on-screen for hours at a time each day. However, she also says that going virtual is not all bad. Thanks to the pandemic, there is now a virtual infrastructure in place that she believes can and should be used for the benefit of students. “Virtual is better than not at all,” she concludes.


She notes that her experiences teaching in an urban school versus a rural school have been different. Her first school was more socioeconomically and culturally diverse, which she believes is healthy for students. She believes that school did a good job at teaching students about the importance of different perspectives and experiences. By contrast, her rural students have a larger sense of a shared experience. She also notes that due to the smaller class size, when collecting data about the student body, individual students can sway data so intensely that it creates hesitation in acting on that data. Urban student data was, in its own way, more actionable; rural student data is more qualitative, she says. However, in spite of location, Ginny notes that the achievement gap persists. “That’s where we work,” she says, “to close it as best we can.”



She also shares an anecdote from the pandemic. After lockdown in March 2020, she and her colleagues prioritized their relationships with their students. Advisory groups were retasked to focus on check-ins with students and SEL. For some students, talking to their teachers on the phone was the only outside interaction they had, she says. Ginny also says that it was an adjustment for her to meet her students online, primarily through a phone call or a quick text exchange, but it was important. "Even if all I was doing was sending a smiley-face emoji to some kids and listening to them talk about their day for a few minutes and reassuring them... providing that injection of normalcy felt really important,” she says. Even though it’s been over three years since the initial lockdown, she still has strong connections with the kids from that cohort.

 

"Even if all I was doing was sending a smiley-face emoji to some kids and listening to them talk about their day for a few minutes and reassuring them... providing that injection of normalcy felt really important,” she says.

 

Finally, Ginny shares some of the challenges she’s currently working through. She discusses the importance of having a librarian to help students navigate the digital landscape. She also speaks about the importance of time – both teachers and students have a limited amount of time, and the bus schedule, with long commutes each way, further restricts the schedules available to the school. Declining enrollment has also been a hurdle. Inflation and declining population have decreased the amount of students each year.


However, even with its challenges, Ginny says that her rural school is the “best-kept secret.” Despite its small size, her school has an impressive offering of AP classes and extracurriculars. It also has strong community support, including in the form of scholarships. And, most importantly, she loves sharing the joys of art with her students, no matter where the school is located.

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