We continue our Rural Teacher Spotlight with Karen Ashmore, teacher and superintendent at Mattole Unified. Mattole Unified will be working with Rural Debate Initiative this fall. Karen is interested in partnering with the Rural Debate Initiative because she would like her students to have competitive opportunities outside of sports and in an academic setting. She also hopes for her students to learn more about public speaking, communication skills, and using their own voice through debate.
Karen Ashmore did not start her career as an educator. Instead, she worked as a biochemist in the Bay Area, managing an environmental testing lab. However, her career path changed when she decided to start a homestead in Humboldt County, complete with renewable energy and organic gardens. There, she became an active volunteer in her children’s classrooms. As some of her children’s teachers began to retire, they encouraged Karen to get her teaching credentials, which she did. She has been an educator ever since.
For Karen, one of the best parts about teaching is that it has been "really fulfilling on a lot of levels." She loves helping students. Finding ways to help them problem-solve and grow has been a highlight of teaching for Karen. She also loves witnessing students who arrive as kindergartners eventually graduate as young adults. "It's wonderful to be involved with the whole span of growth," she says.
"It's wonderful to be involved with the whole span of growth."
Karen's school serves an incredibly large geographic area. However, due to large landholdings, rugged terrain, and lots of government-owned land, the population her school serves is very small. The high school and elementary school share the same campus and have no more than fifty students per year. Karen appreciates that the small student population allows for more personalized instruction and small group work, which helps every student flourish.
The remoteness of their location enriches the community in many ways. It's impossible to deny how beautiful the surroundings are. The drive to her town takes about ninety minutes and includes an old grove forest, sprawling, forested mountains, the scenic Mattole River, and a brilliant view of the Pacific Ocean. Another aspect of the community Karen highlights is their orientation towards the arts. She has found that her fellow community members bring unique histories and background to the table, and this is something she has loved incorporating in the classroom as well. Community members will give guest lectures or participate in project-based learning. Right now, community members are working with students to produce an original play, which will eventually travel for performances in other theaters. For high school students, community members can also serve as mentors in a unique program that allows students, in the last few weeks of class, to explore areas of personal interest. With such varied backgrounds, the community has been able to support many students in expanding their perspectives.
She has found that her fellow community members bring unique histories and background to the table, and this is something she has loved incorporating in the classroom as well.
One of Karen's most memorable moments as an educator has been keeping in contact with a student who began as a kindergartner her first year of teaching. When the student returns to the area in the summers, she and Karen are able to catch up, and Karen loves being able to bear witness to her growth. It's "special to be able to have that kind of contact still," she says, "that feeling that this is always going to be her place -- as her home or second home, no matter where she happens to go."