Rural experience and ways of knowing impact the identities and practice(s) of teachers, teacher candidates, and teacher educators in profound and complex ways. Through self-study, the examination of artifacts from my past (including a Master’s thesis, a Doctoral thesis, and a self-created video and script on the topic of my own rural identity), and recorded conversations with five teacher/teacher educator colleagues with whom I shared a rural kinship, I explored the impacts of rural experience on identity formation and practice. Findings from the study suggested: (1) that rural experience has a profound impact on professional identity, (2) that teachers/teacher educators who have had such rural experience(s) have a kinship rooted in similar or common knowledge, values, skills, and beliefs, and (3) that rural experience and identity foster a profound commitment to, and advocacy for rural places; relationship and connection to place and others; place-conscious, experiential approaches to teaching and learning; and a commitment to leadership and service in practice. These findings extend existing literature about teacher/teacher educator identity formation, and suggest that self-study is a meaningful methodology for examining complex, contextually specific, socially constructed phenomena such as 'rural capital'.
While the impact of rurality on the identity of teachers and teacher candidates has been studied previously, it has largely been done so by teacher educators about teacher candidates/novice teachers who are: engaged in rural practicum experiences (e.g. Goodnough & Mulcahy, 2011), in or just exiting teacher education programs (e.g. Moffa & McHenry-Sorber, 2018), or fairly new to the classroom (e.g. Walker-Gibbs et al., 2018). Very little, in fact, has been written about the impact of rural experience on veteran teachers or teacher educators, including the ways in which their rural identities impact their pedagogy and work with students. In addition, little has been done to incorporate rural ways of knowing in teacher education programs in Canada and elsewhere, despite the fact that there is significant consensus around the importance of place-based knowledge (Avery & Hains, 2017; Avery & Kassam, 2011; Gallay et al., 2016; Shamah & MacTavish, 2009; Woodhouse & Knapp, 2000), the need to challenge conceptions of rurality (Moffa & McHenry-Sorber, 2018; Walker-Gibbs et al., 2018), and the importance of looking for local solutions to issues faced by rural schools, people, and communities (Gallay et al., 2016; Gruenewald, 2003; Kudo, 2020; McLaren & Giroux, 1990; Skyhar, 2022; Smith et al., 2017).
As a teacher educator who taught in three different rural communities prior to coming to a Faculty of Education in Manitoba, Canada, I am interested in the complex ways in which rural experiences impact the identities of teacher candidates, in-service teachers, and teacher educators, and how such identities are evidenced in and acted out in practice. Importantly, I have noticed since coming to academe that there is something unique about my experiences and those of my rural colleagues. I have noticed a kinship, a unique way of thinking about education evident in pedagogical practices, attitudes towards service and community, understandings of knowledge and ways of relating to others. These noticings and interests have led to a self-study about the topic of rural educators' identity, one that incorporated not only my own understandings of the impact of growing up rural, but the experiences of others with whom I share this kinship.
Aims of the Research
The goal of the self-study research described in this paper/chapter was to explore how my experiences growing up, living, and working in rural places have impacted my identity and practice(s) as an educator, and how these impacts compare with other educators who have lived and worked in similar contexts.
Self-study provided a valuable framework for investigating the impact of rural experience on both identity and practice (LaBoskey, 2004; Pithouse et al., 2009). It allowed for the investigation of “experiences and conceptions of ‘self’,” both personally and “in relation to other(s)” (Pithouse et al, 2009, p. 47) through qualitative inquiry, utilizing several data sources, dialogue, and collaboration (Hamilton & Pinnegar, 2013). The first data source used for the study, was an approximately 1-hour video (and video script) I created over a decade ago for a rural education course in my Ph.D. program about how growing up, living, and working in rural places impacted my identity as an educator. The second and third data sources included my Master’s thesis (Skyhar, 2009) and my Doctoral thesis (Skyhar, 2018). In my Master’s thesis, I focused on practitioner research done in my own Grade 10 mathematics classroom, while my Doctoral thesis consisted of a case study of a professional learning community known as the Numeracy Cohort, which I led as a numeracy coach in the rural division I worked in at the time. The fourth data source that was used, which was much more dialogic and collaborative in nature, was a series of 5 recorded (Zoom) conversations conducted with a variety of colleagues who had experiences growing up and/or teaching in rural communities. The recorded conversations (which were transcribed for analysis) allowed for a broad range of rural perspectives to interact with my own, increasing the trustworthiness of the findings and what Kitchen (2020) refers to as “credibility through interaction” (p. 12).
Analysis of the data began with an initial review of the video/script and theses. During this initial review, I used analytic memos to record my thoughts in relation to the research questions. Following the initial review, the recorded interviews were conducted using some of the initial review findings to frame questions for discussion. The interviews were then analyzed for themes through a combination of thematic coding and analytic memos in the second phase. Following the interview analysis, codes, and memos across data sources were organized into the broad themes that formed the study’s outcomes.
The findings of the study followed, essentially, the research aims outlined. Examining my own experiences, and their impacts on my identity and practice(s), allowed me to understand the elaborate connections that exist between these elements. Comparing such experiences and connections to those of my colleagues further allowed me to consider areas of alignment and tension that shed light on the complex phenomena and intersections between identity formation and teacher/teacher educator practice.
My Rural Experiences and Their Impacts on Identity
My own experiences in rural places began just a few weeks after my birth when my parents moved into my recently deceased paternal grandparents’ home in Warren, Manitoba, about 30 kilometres northwest of the capital city of Winnipeg. This was home for my entire life up until the point that I graduated from high school in 1991 and left for university. Warren was very small with somewhere around 400 inhabitants in the town and surrounding area at the time. Several people, including my parents, commuted to Winnipeg for work if they were not employed in the community or farming their own land. The community had standard amenities for a community of its size, and although increasing numbers of families at the time were becoming two-income households causing community involvement to dwindle, my experiences in Warren included both a sense of belonging amongst my neighbours, family, and community members, and a distinct pride and involvement in local organizations such as the community hall, church, arena, sports associations, and school groups.
After making the transition from rural to urban to get a Bachelor of Education at the University of Manitoba, I returned to another rural (and northern) context when I accepted my first teaching position (of 5 years) in Snow Lake, Manitoba. Snow Lake was a mining town, nestled in the rocks, lakes, and pine trees of the northern Canadian Shield. It was here that I had to adapt for the first time to a new rural context, one that felt small and similar to Warren, but that had different geography and economic touchstones than the prairie farming community in which I grew up. I didn’t find it hard to fit in in Snow Lake, just the same as I didn’t find it hard to fit into the similar-sized schools and (agriculture-based) communities of Carberry and MacGregor where I spent 3 years and 12 years teaching respectively. In each of these communities, I drew on what I knew about connecting with people, learning about local economic structures, learning about local geography, participating in and supporting local initiatives, and volunteering my time and energy to make the community a better place (e.g. coaching, sitting on boards, running theatre projects, etc.).
The video I created in 2010, in addition to exploring the nature of growing up as a “townie” (rather than on a farm), and as an achiever (Carr & Kefalas, 2009) who was expected to leave the community to pursue post-secondary education, also looked at the histories of my grandparents, mother, and son, and the complex ways in which they had adapted (and continued to adapt) to new rural contexts over the course of their lives. After looking at the work of scholars such as Corbett (2007), Kelly (2009), and Greenwood (2009), in relation to rurality, place, and mobility, I noted the following in the video:
What I have come to understand from this project, however, is that I have another kind of capital that isn’t labelled in the literature. While it takes mobility capital to dis-embed oneself from the places and spaces they have known, it takes what I might call 'rural capital' to embed oneself in a new rural place. (Rural Video)
Rural capital, or common knowledge, skills, values, and beliefs that exist amongst those living and working in rural communities, for me, included an appreciation of community, volunteerism, relationality, local places and strengths, honesty, down-to-earth people/thinking, and generational lines. Deeply rooted in my identity, these values were a constant for me no matter where I went.
The Rural Experiences of My Colleagues and Their Impacts on Identity
The five colleagues I had conversations/semi-structured interviews with had a variety of unique background experiences tied to rural contexts. Leyton, an Associate Professor in the department of Curriculum and Pedagogy at the University of British Columbia, was the son of two visually impaired parents from Steinbeck, Manitoba, and Galahad, Alberta who went to a national school for the blind in Ontario. His early upbringing consisted of living in an inner-city context in Regina, Saskatchewan, and traveling via Greyhound bus to his dad’s cousins’ farm(s) an hour and a half away on weekends where he experienced strong ties to both rural family members and the rural church community.
Mike, a retired Associate Professor from the Department of Curriculum and Pedagogy at Brandon University, grew up going to Catholic and public schools in Windsor, Ontario before moving to Brandon to attend university. For Mike, Brandon was rural with a population of around 30,000 at the time. He described experiencing a culture shock but enjoyed close relationships with students and professors in the small university before moving to an even smaller context in Boissevain, Manitoba, where he spent most of his teaching career (which included administration) in a K-12 school prior to taking a faculty position at his alma mater.
Dawn, who had just become Associate Vice-President Research at the University of Saskatchewan around the time of the interview, grew up in a very small K-12 rural Saskatchewan school with primarily six students in her class – five girls and one boy. In our conversation, she described many aspects of her upbringing that affected her identity, including the family farm, inter-generational families in the community, community-focused activities and involvement, highly-gendered roles in the community, connection to land/place, independence, and expectations to leave the community to attend university. These aspects of her identity accompanied her to her first teaching roles in Marengo and Kindersley, Saskatchewan, and into her future studies and educational positions at multiple levels of academe.
Gail, a teacher in Gillam, Manitoba, grew up as the daughter of a nurse and civil servant in a community close to mine where her family had a small farm. She attended the same high school as I did, although she did not attend the same elementary (K-8) school. Bonded by a nearly lifelong friendship, we have stayed close, linked by our shared profession of teaching, our past experiences, and our deep understanding of each other. Her perspectives for this study provided an interesting parallel (and sometimes divergent) view of our sometimes-shared rural experiences.
Jackie, an Associate Professor at Brandon University, grew up on a farm four and a half miles out of Climax, Saskatchewan with strong links to family, farming, and the community. After attending university, she had a couple of short teaching placements in small Saskatchewan communities, but neither of these were a good fit. It was only when she worked in Vancouver, British Columbia in a school for students with learning disabilities and then in a Jewish day school that she truly fell in love with the profession. Jackie eventually completed an educational administration degree and returned to Lemberg, Saskatchewan to be closer to family and to work as an administrator before completing her PhD and pursuing a university career.
In terms of impacts on their identities, the colleagues I spoke with identified many ways in which experience had influenced their core selves, including how their rural experiences impacted their understandings of knowledge and where it is held; their values in terms of family, community, service and relationality; and their beliefs about themselves as adaptable, independent, risk-taking, capable, participatory individuals and about rural places as connected to their identities, valuable, comfortable, and worth advocating for. Dawn, for example, noted that “knowledge is held within people in different spots,” explaining that the men sitting on “coffee row” held the history of the place, that her dad and brother-in-law possessed significant knowledge about the land and machinery that today “are like NASA cockpits,” and that “there’s knowledge of the land or the people or of the things that [individuals] would never get in school” (Dawn Interview). In terms of values, the interviewees echoed many of the rural values I had identified, including “a community service attitude” (Dawn Interview), seeing yourself as part of a community “network” (Jackie Interview), valuing “people and relationships” (Mike interview), and the importance of family and family history. The colleagues I spoke with also openly discussed how their beliefs about themselves and rural places had been impacted as a result of their rural experiences. Most of the participants felt that their rural upbringing had fostered the ability to be adaptable, independent, willing to participate, and comfortable with taking risks. For example, Jackie noted the following:
I always think, O . . . I had better volunteer for that . . . I can do that . . . I can help with that. And I think I also see myself as somebody who has the capacity to do things. You know, if there’s something wrong in my house, or there’s something wrong with my car, I usually think I should have a look at it, I could probably fix it. . . . I think that also comes from not necessarily rural, in general, but from being on a farm . . . My dad fixed everything. We rarely had somebody come [in to fix things] and usually we had to help him. (Jackie Interview)
Jackie’s description of her experiences and their impact on her sense of self as capable and adaptable were echoed in the conversations I had with Gail and Dawn as well, and Leyton, who straddled rural and urban contexts, described his own adaptability in terms of his ability to “code switch” between worlds. For example, in his interview, he said the following:
I very much see myself from the country and the city. And I think I have a more well-rounded understanding of just life in the world because I have both of those experiences . . . I’m just as comfortable driving into a town that has a gas station and foraging everything I need and ending up at somebody’s house for dinner because of that kind of very small town friendly slow down kind of vibe. And then I can also pick up the city pace and just zip around with the zippiest of them. (Leyton Interview)
Finally, a deep connection to place was evident across the stories of my colleagues. Several of the participants talked about making choices to live and work in rural places, even when it required change and/or sacrifice, and all of them spoke about advocating for rural schools, communities, and spaces in some form. Moreover, deep connections to the land were evident in the words of the participants as they described not only geographical features of home but also the feelings and memories that such places/images evoked. It was Dawn that illustrated the power of this most clearly, describing how rural “touchstones,” such as having quiet spaces with grass, water, trees, berries to pick, etc., had actually allowed her to ground herself and handle the stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Impacts on Teaching Practice(s)
The impacts of past experiences and accreted rural identities on teaching practice(s) identified in the study fell into four main categories: 'advocacy and commitment', 'relationality and connection', 'curriculum and pedagogy', and 'leadership and service'. Evident across both data sources related to my own experiences and teaching, and the conversations I had with colleagues, was a profound commitment to, and advocacy for, rural education and communities. For example, the abstract of my Doctoral Thesis (Skyhar, 2018) began as follows:
Rural school divisions in Canada, if they can be spoken of as a collection, consist of extremely diverse groups of people, living in varied geographical settings, with unique community strengths and challenges. The provision of professional development (PD) for rural teachers is one area in which rural school divisions face particular challenges due to the contexts in which they operate. Issues relating to funding, geography, staffing, and local contextual differences impact the ability of rural divisions to provide effective PD for their teachers. (Skyhar, 2018, ii)
Dawn also described several ways in which she had advocated for rural schools and places over many years, including her community’s longstanding fight against school closures (which they eventually lost), her reinstitution of a rural practicum placement for teacher candidates at the University of Saskatchewan, her work to raise awareness about rural spaces and Indigenous ways of knowing, her deliberate hiring of rural people, and the teaching and research projects she had been involved in in rural contexts around the world. Leyton, like Dawn, described a need to work against deficit thinking about rural contexts, particularly in relation to teaching practica and experiences. He noted that he was always promoting rural as “good” with teacher candidates, encouraging them to “fall in love with their place,” to “find their people,” and to be both conscious of, and involved in, the rural communities in which they found themselves. Finally, all of the participants in the study, like me, chose to commit themselves to rural research, hoping to improve the lives of rural people and foster sustainability within their communities.
The second theme that emerged in relation to the impacts of rural experience and identity on practice was 'relationality and connection'. Throughout my career as a teacher, I continuously sought out connections to teachers in other schools/communities, something most likely related to working on very small rural staffs where there were limited numbers of teachers in my subject area. My doctoral work also followed this trajectory as I sought to foster school division connections between teachers with the common goal of improving math teaching and learning. When I moved to a post-secondary context, I sought out others with whom I felt a connection, other people interested in rural education, math education, or teacher professional development. This is how I first met Jackie, Dawn, and Leyton, in fact. Leyton, like me, also noted that he sought out other people with rural backgrounds wherever he was, and worked to promote networks of teachers and leaders in rural contexts. In his interview, Leyton said, “I come from a very relational stance, relationship to the land, relationship with people, equity, like making space for all kids in our rural settings.” Similarly, Mike talked about education as a “human endeavor” and noted that he sought out connections with other STEM/technology educators in the province. Jackie also talked about her tendency to seek out family-like connections in her work, inspired by her experiences growing up in very small school communities in which her fellow students felt like siblings and her teachers felt like parents. This was, in fact, a common description across several of the interviews, particularly for Gail, Dawn, and Jackie who grew up on family farms and who attended very small rural schools. Finally, in addition to relationships with other colleagues, most of the participants also described a strong connection to the place in which they grew up and to nature/the outdoors more generally. For some this related to farms and farming communities, and for others, it had more to do with feeling at ease outdoors and connecting to the land.
In terms of curriculum and pedagogy, many commonalities also emerged in the data. All of the interviewees described using and/or educating teacher candidates about place-based, place-conscious, inter-disciplinary or multi-disciplinary, student-centered, decolonizing, land-based, experiential, whole-body, multi-age/grade, inquiry-based, and/or design-based approaches. Moreover, they described instances in which they created curricula or courses at the institutional level such as a “farm school” collaboratively created in a division Jackie worked in and a land-based leadership course co-created by Dawn at the University of Saskatchewan. These descriptions echoed my own foci on culturally relevant, project-based, experiential mathematics curricula for rural students in my Masters and Ph.D.; work connecting and engaging rural educators in collaborative teacher inquiry in my Ph.D.; and work with primarily rural undergraduate and graduate students in a university context. Finally, my own experiences and the experiences of my colleagues all seemed to undertake an outward stretching trajectory, beginning first with individual teaching, courses, and school-based initiatives, and moving towards provincial, university, national, and even international projects focusing on the development of new curricula, assessments, pedagogies, and programs.
The final theme that emerged in relation to the impacts of experience and identity on practice in the study, was that of 'leadership and service'. My own experience, and the experiences of the colleagues I spoke with, included a variety of leadership roles stepped into, and service work volunteered for. From coaching teams to organizing local events, there were many instances of working for a better collective future. Mike, for example, described leading various divisional, provincial, and regional committees early on in (and throughout) his career, just as both Gail and I had participated in a variety of provincial initiatives and informal leadership opportunities. Dawn, Jackie, and Mike also all became rural administrators in a relatively quick fashion, something clearly related to the small numbers of people available in rural communities to engage in leadership work. Regardless of the informal or formal nature of the leadership and service work engaged in, all participants in the study, like me, found themselves taking on significant responsibilities locally, something likely impacted by the small number of people in the contexts in which they lived and worked. They also communicated significant values around leadership and service tied to their past experiences, always expecting this of themselves and others in their communities.
Through the examination of my own rural experiences, their impacts on my identity and practice(s), and the ways that these impacts compared with those experienced by five of my colleagues, I essentially undertook what Pinnegar and Hamilton (2015) describe as “moving forward by looking backward” (p. 323). What I learned in this process was: (1) that rural experience has a profound impact on professional identity, (2) that teachers/teacher educators who have had such rural experience(s) have a kinship rooted in similar or common knowledge, values, skills, and beliefs, and (3) that rural experience and identity foster a profound commitment to, and advocacy for rural places; relationship and connection to place and others; place-conscious, experiential approaches to teaching and learning; and a commitment to leadership and service in practice. These findings both align with and expand existing literature in the field. While others have previously described the impact of experience on the identities and practices of teachers and teacher educators (e.g. Danielewicz, 2001; Davey, 2013), findings in this study focus on several commonalities shared amongst a group of rural educators/academics, offering insight into the complex ways rurality and rural identity affect their research, pedagogy, leadership, service, and collaboration. This has much to offer the field of teacher education, including implications for hiring practices in faculties of education and for teacher education programs.
In terms of implications for self-study as a research methodology, the study also has much to offer. While it has previously been said that self-study has the potential to foster understandings of the self in relation to others (Pithouse et al., 2009) and that it is necessarily a collaborative process (Hamilton & Pinnegar, 2013) focused on the improvement of the profession and teaching practice (LaBoskey, 2004), the study described in this paper/chapter offers an example of using self-study to examine phenomena like 'rural capital', something I described over a decade ago in relation to the knowledge, values, skills, and beliefs I intuitively knew existed amongst people with rural backgrounds. Drawing elements out of past experience, and looking at them in relation to the experiences of others, was important in understanding the complexity and interrelatedness of rural experience, identity, and practice. As such, self-study as a methodology can foster more than understandings of the self in relation to others (Pithouse et al., 2009); it can also foster understandings of complex, contextually specific, socially constructed phenomena that are difficult to identify, describe, and conceptualize.
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