Updated: Jun 1
We are starting our Teacher Spotlight series with Laura Schmitt, a 7-8th ELA teacher at Columbia Elementary. The goal of the series is to shed light on the unique assets possessed by and challenges experienced by rural teachers. In the coming academic year Laura will be teaching debate as an elective in her class. Laura is excited to work with the Rural Debate Initiative because she believes debate will significantly improve her students’ communication skills, and teach the students how to support their arguments with robust evidence.
As long as she can remember, whether it was babysitting or teaching her little sister how to read, Laura has loved working with kids. She also loved school, and coupled with a love for helping others, it was no surprise when she began her teaching career in 1991. After working in an inner-city school in Chicago for twenty-three years, she moved to California. She taught at a private school for a few years, and then became intrigued by the local history of a small town, leading her to find a teaching position there last year.
Her new school, Columbia Elementary, is K-8 and serves about 500 students. They are considered low in reading and math scores and struggle with some chronic absenteeism. Parents support their students’ education, and the community is very close-knit; everyone knows everyone, including students, even if they attend different schools. She also appreciates how involved the community has been as the school works to bounce back from the COVID-19 pandemic, helping enrich the students’ education through field trips. Through visits from the Nonviolent Center for Community, seeing plays at the local high school, and providing local grants, the community works hard to support its students.
Laura appreciates how involved the community has been as the school works to bounce back from the COVID-19 pandemic, helping enrich the students’ education through field trips.
When asked about the differences between her experiences in Chicago versus California, Laura believes that they are remarkably similar. In both communities, due to either income or distance, students rarely left their neighborhood, limiting the perspectives and experiences they have been able to interact with. However, at her rural position, she has had to be much more proactive in finding resources. With less available funding, she has had to work harder to get resources for students. For example, this last year she and another teacher have relied on crowdfunding to raise the funds to buy books.
At her rural position, she has also been teaching electives, which is new to her. Laura has pulled from her own knowledge and learning to bring subjects such as fiction writing, poetry, nature journaling, coding, art, and a book club, to her students. While it has been a stretch to learn so many new subjects, she believes that bringing these to her students has a positive impact on their education.
Laura has pulled from her own knowledge and learning to bring subjects such as fiction writing, poetry, nature journaling, coding, art, and a book club, to her students.
One large challenge has been turnover, particularly with school administration. Retention of teachers and administrators is a growing concern at rural schools across the country, and Laura’s school is no exception. With different administrators comes different rules and expectations, which makes getting approval and follow-through difficult for teachers.
Laura’s favorite memory from this previous year was collaborating with another teacher to combine her ELA class with History. After raising enough money for enough copies of the book (Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson) for everyone, the two teachers brought their classes together to examine the text alongside the history it recounted. Laura describes the experience as being extremely rewarding, citing the “real reaction” to what they were learning and the collaborative discussions as the most exciting moments for her.