The South Pacific island of Nauru, with its population of about 10,000, doesn’t seem to have much in common with Montana.
But the island has a unique teacher preparation program to help combat a shortage of qualified teachers — a problem that Montana’s smallest schools also struggle with.
Comparisons between Montana and the likes of Scotland, Australia and South Africa aren’t exactly apples to apples. Nauru’s schools are as different from Montana’s as the climate.
But an international rural education conference hosted at Montana State University helped share lessons between education experts about challenges and strengths that stretch from the Scottish highlands to the Glasgow Scotties.
A frequent theme was how to create a reliable pipeline of teachers in small, isolated schools — something Montana has struggled with.
“It doesn’t really matter what country I’ve been to,” said Simone White, a professor from Australia. “They’re all talking about this.”
White tapped into ideas that parallel some programs at MSU that try to prepare future teachers not just for rural classrooms but for rural communities.
“It needs to start in first year, second year, third year, fourth year, and then into beginning (career),” she said.
Other presenters highlighted an MSU program that lets teaching students observe in rural schools before they begin student teaching. Small groups travel across the state, helping teaching students bridge the gap from their idea of rural to the realities of individual towns.
Instructors asked students about their perceptions before the program began, and how their own background could influence that.
“Are they coming from a lens of a rural or urban upbringing?” said MSU professor Kristofer Olsen.
One student, who had a graduating class of 13, chafed at the notion that a school that graduated 90 students could be rural. But after the observation, she expanded her idea of rurality.
The next step for professors was understanding how that lens affects students' reactions to rural life. Some evidence shows students who grew up in rural areas are more likely to teach in rural schools and stay longer. But it’s not a bulletproof trend.
Scotland has a teaching program that focuses on educating future teachers who live in small towns without forcing them to move to a city, and it gives them experience teaching in rural schools before graduating.
One study found that graduates were prepared for teaching, but didn’t feel like they were necessarily well-suited to teach in a rural school.
A follow-up study of the same area found that those who stayed in rural schools cited strong support from colleagues at schools they were placed at.
“It’s really important to have that community around them,” said Anne Patterson, who oversees schools in a rural area of Scotland.
Constance Khupe speaks at least four languages. But English is the one she sees most in schools she works with in South Africa.
That doesn’t jibe with what she sees outside of school, where students often use a traditional language.
The key, she said, is how to incorporate that “as a language of thought and learning.”
Her experience carried strong echoes of American Indian language programs, from Crow Agency to Browning.
She also couched cultural isolation as its own form of rurality, and noted that it can be hard for policymakers to understand, drawing from her students in South Africa.
Most educational experts “have not lived this kind of life,” she said.
To that end, presenters also talked about how to open up debates about education.
“Where is the student voice? Where is the parent voice?” White said.
In Scotland, at a small one-room-type school slated for closure, those voices helped keep the school open.
The school had run a cafe program, designed to bring the community into the school and build investment.
“They could meet the children, they could see their work,” said Morag Redford, a professor from Scotland.
The community launched an affordable housing program aimed at attracting young families.
Last year, two new families with six kids moved in. A Scotland newspaper declared that the school’s future “has been secured.”