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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 16, Number 6, May/June 2004

Rural realities: Meanderings from the West Chilcotin

by Leslie Lamb

Ialways figure by the clock where I’ll meet the Kleena Kleene bus on my morning 30–50 minute commute along Highway 20. It is reassuring to know that Anne Porter’s bus will be behind, me—the guarantee of at least one other vehicle! But no such luck at

-40sC, when the buses don’t run.

When this term began January 5, the only movement I saw along the sealed highway was a rather frosty moose, browsing. I’m often tempted to call in a traffic report to CBC radio (ha, cell phones don’t work out here)—"Careful along Jim Brown hill; the two pigs are on the lam again." "Watch for deer near Bubby’s Puddle," or "Log truck jackknifed on the Dane Overpass,"

I began teaching at Kleena Kleene, a one room, Kindergarten to Grade 7, school, in 1983. Two of the children rode horses to school, and other students were driven to school—no bus in those days The school had a crank phone at the time (two longs—one short), Quintin Robertson was president of the CCTA, and that year, there was province-wide job action. I phoned to ask if I could keep teaching. I was uninformed of the issues at the time—unlike today. As staff rep and active member of our local, I easily access daily information from BCTF and CCTA. Teachers are much more connected nowadays—phone, fax, Internet, and, with improved roads, even face-to-face visitations from union and district personnel.

I choose to live and work in this rural, agrarian, family-oriented community. I value simple country living. I can still be a satisfactory teacher even through I’m in the bush.

The information highway was paved out west by the Tatlayoko Think Tank. John and Dale Kerr did not wait, could not wait, for outsiders to provide the service. This connectedness has enabled many ruralites to do business at home, just like city folk. The Internet has allowed me to take distance, online, courses from SFU. Over the years, I’ve completed a post-baccalaureate diploma and have acquired upper level education credits. In the olden days, university classes and other professional development involvements too often meant spending summers away from home.

I like teaching multigrades in a rural area. The only time I’ve taught a single grade was in Papua, New Guinea (as a CUSO volunteer), where class sizes were 50 plus. I’ve been told I’m an eclectic, versatile teacher, having taught Kindergarten to adults in both formal and non-formal settings. Now, I think I have a most desirable assignment: Grades 4/5/6. But with declining enrollment, urban migration, and questioning of rural-education costs, I wonder where and when I’ll end my career.

Often rural teachers have been dismissed as transient and of low status. The belief held by some managers and politicians that teachers are attracted to the rural areas only to acquire some seniority then apply for a transfer, does little to encourage stability, continuity, and quality education, which is touted as a fundamental right. Rural schools are too often viewed as a hiding place for less-than-satisfactory administrators.

But I think teaching in the hinterlands is just fine. Plan a field trip to the bog, hike the loop around Paterson Lake, bike to Martin Lake, have a sleepover in the gym for a nighttime look at the stars and planets, and so on. These backyard activities are easily accessible and supported in a small community. Long-distance trips are more difficult, but they, too, are included to provide a sound educational experience for our students. Parent volunteers are invaluable, and, as often as not, more support is offered than is needed—another bonus of a small community.

Over the years, I, like others who teach multigrades, have developed organizational and management systems to meet the needs of the students and to fulfill curriculum requirements. I use tubs to store print materials—labelled by grade. Guides, keys, and resource materials are organized by grade level along the front shelves. Each grade has its assignments written on the chalkboard, and the daily agenda is discussed during our morning routine of goal setting, citing expectations, and noting special and current events. Daily planners are used as a communication tool between parents and me and for students to record homework and their significant personal learning of the day. I plan a two- to four-year rotation of overall classroom themes with a variety of age- and grade-appropriate readings, investigations, and projects. I suspect a single-grade classroom of 24 kids would have a comparable number of reading levels as a 14-student, three-grade split. Whole-class instruction, discussions, and eavesdropping often result in younger students’ learning exponents, figures of speech, or how to construct an ellipse along with their older classmates. Older students benefit from listening to previously taught lessons—opportunities to relearn and/or review. Modelling, mimicking, peer tutoring, and interchangeable social and academic groupings all enhance learning and a sense of belonging and confidence.

As in other work sites, staff and administrators come and go. Social isolation, accommodation, and cost of living are common concerns of new staff. But like all teachers, we rural teachers share, collaborate, and focus on our work. So, before I venture out to plug in my truck, (it’s -25°C at 8:30 p.m.), set out my longjohns, and pack my lunch, I’ll write up a to-do list—a weekly overview of instructional plans, a parent conference, and a staff meeting—not to forget making a pot of soup for Thursday class lunch. Am I ready? You bet. It could be a three-moose day! Hopefully tomorrow morning I’ll meet the sand truck, then the bus. Whomever I shall meet, I’ll be hugging the right side and offering a friendly wave, reassured of an open road ahead.

Leslie Lamb teaches at Tatla Lake Elementary/Junior Secondary School.

Source: The Raven, Cariboo-Chilcotin Teachers’ Association newsletter, March 2004.

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