About G.E.M.S.
Editorial Board
Current Issue
Reader Notes
Past Issues
Call for Papers
Publication Guidelines
Contact Information

Reviews Author Biographies Pedagogical Spotlights Feature Articles

Portrait of a Rural Teacher

Janet Spring

University of Toronto


As a rural music educator for the past twenty-five years, I am interested in investigating the roles, responsibilities and bonds that a rural educator develops within her community. Teachers who live in a small rural center and who teach in the same community teach their own children as well as their neighbours’ children. Does a close, unique relationship exist between her students, parents and community members?  Is there a special bond that exists between the rural school and the community that enhances rural school programs and student learning? I have seen our small rural school gradually experience changing demographics. However, I am concerned that the special rural flavour of our small village and the close ties and support that exist between the school, the teachers, the village and surrounding community will alter significantly in future.


In the following research study, I will examine my life as a rural educator through the eyes of my teaching colleague as well as my own children whom I have taught throughout their elementary school years. After completing undergraduate degrees in music and education, my teaching career began in the country in a rural setting, where I have grown as a person, a mother, a community member and educator. The transition to a rural area was challenging, for my life to this point in the city had been very private.  I did not necessarily know my neighbours, or they know me well. However, when I moved to the country, I found that I seemed to be well known by all. I became very involved in my teaching practice, in community activities, developing close relationships with my students and their parents. I find now that my roles as an educator in a small town as a parent and teacher, and as a community representative intertwine.

To understand the rural teacher’s role, I will make an inquiry into the narratives of a community member who was my student as a child and is now my teaching colleague. I will also examine the narratives of my own children who were my students in elementary school. Through the collection and analysis of these narratives, I will offer the reader a glimpse into what it is like to live and teach in a rural community, and examine the ties and bonds that I feel have developed. I will address the changing roles and expectations of the rural teacher and the struggles that have resulted. I will conclude with a summary of my thoughts about the rural teacher of the future.

Goodson (1981) remarks that, “In understanding something so intensely personal as teaching, it is critical we know about the person the teacher is” (p. 69). Through narrative inquiry, researchers explore the teacher and discover the person the teacher is. In addition, the stories of teachers enlighten others to study their own identities and beliefs. Consequently, through thoughtful inquiry, the researcher gathers a wealth of information that uncovers valuable knowledge and provides insight.

A narrative self study investigates a portion of one’s personal background or history and examines the individual in her environment. As Cole and Knowles (2001) state, “A personal history is an account of a segment of one’s life written for purposes of understanding oneself in relation to a broader context” (p. 49). The broader context is our personal background, circumstances in which we grow as teachers, the environment in which we live and the situations that we encounter in our day to day lives in the teaching profession. 

Vollmer (2005) comments that a narrative self study allows the music education researcher to “achieve a sense of unity” (p. 204), to delve into his or her personal history, reconstructing life to investigate innermost thoughts and feelings. A self study allows educators to learn more about beliefs, our modes of learning and our passions. Most importantly, we discover how we see ourselves as educators and what we deem significant to teach in the context in which we live and work. Cole and Knowles (2001) remark that, “Lives are never lived in vacuums. Lives are never lived in complete isolation from social contexts…To be human is to be molded by contexts” (p. 22). Context therefore plays an integral part in a teaching practice for it sets the stage with its determining factors; its social and societal concerns, traditions and environmental characteristics, rituals and community expectations. In my circumstances as a rural teacher, the relationship to the community where I live and teach in is so intimate and entwined that I should consider this relationship as an essential ingredient of my practice.

A rural teacher who lives and works in the same community discovers that she is not only a member of the community, but is seen as a community leader who guides children inside and outside of the classroom. She is expected to be well informed about all affairs and is required to exhibit exemplary behaviour, for her actions are on display at all times. The expectations are therefore high and can be rather overwhelming.  

Teaching in a rural community can be compared to living and teaching in a fish bowl, where everyone knows your every move. Privacy is non existent in the country, where even a stop at the local grocery store will result in an unofficial parent-teacher conference. If a dispute takes place at school that warrants a call to the teacher, these usually occur during the dinner hour at home, when parents call for a telephone interview. Some even make a quick trip to my home, for everyone knows where I live. Wanting to keep some of my business to myself, I find that going outside of the community for shopping, dining and recreation gives me some anonymity and privacy. At church I have disciplined the students I teach during the week with scowling glances if they make a fuss or noise. It works, for they know that I may tell their parents the first opportunity I have. There are some advantages to knowing everyone, parents as well as students.

In many respects, students living and attending school in my rural community may not have the same advantages as urban students. The standards in the facilities of a rural school are not comparable to those of the urban schools where I attended. Popkewitz (1998) discusses issues of inequality that exist between rural and urban schools in the United States. He remarks, “Schools work in inequitable ways and differences exist” (p. 16). He comments on spatial politics and concerns that affect educational equality in America. “One is directing attention to the difficulties of education in urban and rural schooling. Implicit in this labeling is the realization that the context of schooling is an unequal playing field” (p.16). This may be similar in Canada, where students of certain rural areas do not receive the same opportunities as urban children. However, what my rural students may lack in facilities, they seem to make up with support from the local community.

In our rural area, community support systems are often in place, providing extra funding and recreational opportunities that may not exist in an urban area. The community as a whole cares about their children.  When a teacher lives and works in the community, the children are not just her students. They are kids of her neighborhood, so she has an intimate, caring relationship with them. She knows their families, hears all of the gossip and is aware of their goings on. Inequalities of the school system are therefore compensated for by the thoughts and actions of a caring community. It is a very personal experience to live and teach in a rural area because teachers know the families and their histories – right down to the grandparents’.

Research Findings

Teaching in a rural community for a long period of time allows one to have the opportunity to teach the student of students or be related to the students in some way in the class.  Cheryl is a former student of mine, and now a teaching colleague.  She remarks:

It was a different world back in the 1970s when the new music teacher came to town. She was from the big city of Toronto but I felt special because she was going to soon be my relative! Yes, she was going to marry my cousin, John.

Many of the teachers in our school were members of the community, or lived in the neighbouring communities. Teachers were respected and their words were the law. Our village was very conservative. Change took place very slowly. Having a new teacher from the city was big news. Who was she? Where did she come from? Does she have a good work ethic?

That became very apparent as she worked her magic within our school.  The music program flourished under her energetic tutelage. We had the opportunity to participate in choirs, musicals, ukulele and recorder clubs, as well as regular music classes. The band grew, as well as the number of performances where we were asked to represent our school.

She inspired the community to become a part of the band. With the financial support of various community groups, uniforms and instruments were purchased. Our village was so proud of their children’s musical efforts. It was such a unique combination of school and community, brought about by a teacher from the big city. She became a household name- there is nowhere to hide in the rural community! Her life became an open book. Even trips to the bank became interview times. That must have been difficult for her.

I think having a teacher come from the city to our rural community opened many doors for us as students. We participated in many wonderful events that we might not have otherwise. She put new blood and vitality into a small village school.

Newcomers to a small rural area are on display and are subjected to scrutiny that may not exist in an urban center. They are considered an outsider who may never be completely accepted. Many community members are related, so new members must be careful how they act and what they say in case they offend someone. As Cheryl commented, it seems that rural communities are isolated from the changes that would occur in an urban center so students are not often exposed to problems that plague larger centers.

Our village is a fair distance from an urban center, so rural students are not exposed to the same opportunities such as socializing in malls and movie theatres that would be available to an urban child. Therefore, the schools, churches, library and arena become the centers of activity for the community and the programs become the heartbeat of the community members. In small communities, many local teachers and residents volunteer their time to ensure that local children receive many extra-curricular opportunities.  Due to the closely knit community and volunteers, it may be the case that rural children have many recreational advantages that perhaps are not offered to children in large urban centers; particularly those who do not maintain close ties with their community and neighbours. 
Teachers, who live in the community in which they teach, often have their own children attending the same school. My own five children have attended the same school where I teach.  Their narratives address their concerns.


Having my mother as a teacher in elementary school was both rewarding and very challenging. At times it became frustrating because it seemed that everything I had done or was involved in was being analyzed or graded. Being a student of my mother’s was tough, as it always seemed difficult to achieve academically to the levels of which she had hoped I would reach. There were always days where it seemed no matter where I went, or which classroom I was in, she was always watching me. She knew what was going on, which friends I was hanging around with, which sports events I was involved in, and whether or not I was on top of my studies. 

The most challenging factor of having my mother as a teacher was the inability to achieve stable, solid friendships with my classmates. It seemed that many of the students in my school would pick on me, just because my mom was a teacher at that particular school. Thus, it was often difficult to establish friendships with my peers.

Despite the bad experiences of having my mother as a teacher however, she was always there for me no matter what kind of trouble I was in. While she was there to give me extra support and help with my schoolwork, my mother never let me fall below the academic level I was at. It was also one of the most rewarding experiences I could ever have. Without her enthusiasm and ambition in the music program, I would not be the successful musician that I am today.  

My eldest son struggled with his lack of privacy, for I was always there keeping an eye on him. He was not the only teacher’s ‘kid’ at the school however, for most of the teachers enrolled their children in the school. These ‘teachers’ kids’ were sometimes picked on and accused of being favoured. It was difficult for them to handle if they were shy and somewhat introverted.

David also felt that my presence hindered his relationships with his peers.  Perhaps having a mother close by at all times, did not give him a chance to feel that he was on his own and independent. His peers may have sensed his insecurities. On a positive note, David found his academic studies easier, for I was available to help him.


Having my mother as a music teacher throughout elementary school definitely had its advantages and disadvantages. Her presence in the school added an additional authority figure for me for I felt the need to not only abide by the rules of the school administration but also the rules and values my parents taught and enforced at home. For example, the principal would enforce general rules such as good behaviour, respect for peers, etc. whereas my mother seemed to be always aware of my general classroom conduct, my marks and the crowd that I chose to associate with. Knowing that my mother was capable of having daily interviews with my teachers, I felt an additional pressure to behave, abide by the rules and strive for greater academic performance.

Even though my mother was only my teacher for a brief hour every week, I can remember being somewhat nervous walking into her classroom on a weekly basis. I was always afraid that a little social secret or an instance where I’d misbehaved would be mentioned by one of my classmates to my mother. Also, my mother was the school music teacher and being more advanced in music than most of my peers, I was always willing to answer questions and participate in class. My hand was always up ready to answer a question, but for some reason, my mother would never call on me to answer the question posed. Looking back, I realize that my mom maybe did this because she felt the need to avoid other children from thinking that she was favouring me. Or she already knew that I could answer the question correctly, so why not give the opportunity to another child?
I can remember passing notes in grade three to a girlfriend in the class. My grade three teacher, who caught me distracting the class and passing notes while she was teaching, seized the letter. When I got home that evening, my mother presented me with the letter and questioned me about its content and asked why I had passed notes in the first place. To this day, it really angers me that my teacher had done this. What right did she have not allowing me to carry out regular social practices that many of my peers were carrying out daily? Writing letters, being a part of the social scene and interacting socially with my friends was something that should have been more respected by her. Had another student in the class been caught doing the same thing, would they have suffered the same consequences? I personally doubt it since their parents or mother was not easily accessible to the teacher on a regular basis.
Another disadvantage of having my mother working at my elementary school was her general knowledge of my peers, their parents and family. Attending a small school in a small town did not allow for much privacy about the behaviours and beliefs of many families that attended the school. In terms of my after school or weekend social life, my mother was able to screen who I hung out with, what parties I was allowed to go to because she knew what kids were into drugs and what families had very different values than our own. It was rare that I was allowed to go to any parties, particularly when my mother knew that the hosting child/family was a bad influence on me.
One advantage of having my mother as my teacher was that if I ever needed money, rides home, and someone to vent to about a bad mark, a friend or a bad day, she was always in her classroom at lunch or after school. It was nice knowing that she was there and aware of my teachers, my peers and the rules of the school thus giving her the ability to relate to what I was talking about.

Privacy is an issue for Karen as well, who feels that she was treated differently than other students.  Other staff members are sometimes hard on the teacher’s kids, expecting them to have exemplary behaviour and achievement. However, Karen also felt that my presence was at times advantageous, for like David, she was glad that I was there if support was needed. 


In 1989, I had the ‘pleasure’ of having my mother as my grade seven teacher. When I was first informed of this, many thoughts ran through my mind.  Does this mean I will have an easy or hard year? Will she be nice to my friends or will they all take it out on me when my mom gets them in trouble? Will I get in trouble more often now that she will be able to watch my every move?
Many of these questions worried me. Even though I had had her as my music teacher since Kindergarten, I thought this would be different. As the months in school progressed, all of my concerns were put to rest. I did get in trouble more often, but I found it very convenient to have my mom as my teacher. Homework help was endless and I never forgot to get permission forms signed all year! My friends all enjoyed her too, which made me feel good. My classmates never accused me of being favoured, seeing how I was probably told to go to the hall more often than anyone else in my class!
Holly felt that I was harder on her than her peers.  I tended to be harder on my own children when they were my students, because I expected perfection from them.


During my time in elementary school, I had my mom as a music teacher, geography teacher and band director.

Many people ask me what it is like to have your mom as a teacher. Do you like it?  My reply would be that it is the same as an ordinary teacher. But now when I start to think about it I think of all the breaks and hardships. It had its ups and downs, many more ups. As a teacher’s daughter, I always had the inside scoop; all the teachers would give me special jobs. From this, I also knew my teachers as friends, on a personal level.

On the down side, I had to watch what I said and how I said things. Many of the teachers set high standards for me as a teacher’s daughter. From that I always felt like I was on display. Teachers would run to my mom and tell her about something as small as talking out in class or not completing a small assignment.

For Mary, having her mom as a teacher was a little easier, for she enjoyed the relationships she fostered with my colleagues. Mary also enjoyed the fact that she was privy to information that other students would not be. However, Mary also experienced the feeling that her privacy was invaded by my presence in the school.


Last year I had my mom as a teacher full time. I also had my mom as a music teacher for ten years. Kids say that having your mom as a teacher would not be fun, but I realized that it wasn’t as bad as they would think. It was difficult sometimes though, because whenever I had homework, she would nag me until I did it. Another difficult thing was she would have to be hard on me so the other kids wouldn’t say that she favoured me.

It was fun to have my mom as a full time teacher because when we did our drama and music she made it fun for all of us, and when I needed help she always knew what to do and made sure I did it right. She prepared us well for the upcoming year.
Craig experienced the same feelings as his other siblings in regard to peer relationships. He felt that I was hard on him to prove to his peers that I did not favour him. He also, like the others, was glad that I was there to help him with his homework.

Teaching your own children is challenging for it is difficult to see your children lose their privacy. Naturally, I also lost my privacy, for my actions and words were always being scrutinized, criticized and challenged by my children. I was constantly on guard so that I would not be accused of embarrassing them. Unfortunately, my children as well as I were on display to all staff and students. Our individual privacy as well as our family privacy was somewhat hindered in this school environment.

Teaching my children also gave me the opportunity to know their friends and acquaintances well, for I was able to watch my children’s friendships and associations. I tried not to interfere, but my children always were aware of my expectations and knew that they were under more pressure to pick the right friends.  On a positive note, I am able to develop good relationships with my children’s friends, who often are guests in our home. However, privacy once again is an issue, for many of the students in my class would stay overnight and observe our family interactions at the dinner table, hear our family squabbles and be able to observe me in my home environment. Once again, my privacy would be invaded, this time in my own home.

In our rural school, we are fortunate to have new teachers on the staff who are graduates of our local elementary and high school. After graduating from university they return to their home town to teach and live in the community where they were raised. Cheryl is a teacher who returned to her home community. She was an active participant in the music program as a child and high school volunteer and now is head of the music program and band director.

Cheryl: Former Student and Present Colleague

I was always in awe of my music teacher. She gave me so many musical opportunities from band, to choirs, to musicals and recorder and ukulele clubs.  As a result, music is a huge part of my life. I value it so much and I hope to instill that in my children and my students.

Teaching music is not an easy row to hoe. I have watched Janet through the years struggle as value of music dwindled and how the program has been vanishing in our school. Janet went from being a full time planning teacher in music to being a full time classroom teacher. I watched in horror as they took her music room away, but then in great pride, she and the community rallied, raising $80,000 to build an arts facility. I watched in awe as our community groups wrote cheque after cheque to support our band, in a school that no longer had a music program.

The fight to keep this band program alive is exhausting, and there seems to be huge hurdles to jump over and over again. I have learned that there are many tears shed in the music business. I now am struggling alone, since Janet is on leave of absence. This fall has exhausted me however, for I teach a new grade, grade six. Band administration work takes up all of my planning time. I also am responsible for accompanying school caroling, marching on weekends with the band, accompanying for all grades as they perform for parents and in the concert and assemblies. If that isn’t all, there are political issues to contend with that are upsetting and time consuming to deal with.
Political issues are very difficult for teachers when they must advocate for their programs. We are at the mercy of board personnel and administration.  Often our voices cannot be heard, for speaking out is considered unprofessional. This is very difficult for a music person who believes so strongly in this music program. We have great parent support and a strong voice from our MPP and I am hopeful that some of our difficulties can be resolved. It is difficult to run a unique band program like this one because, although there is community support, we struggle within the school system. We do not fit into any category.
I have cried many tears this fall. It is a huge commitment and one that I have learned about through many trials and errors. I have found this to be a very overwhelming job with a lot of burden. But, I feel so strongly that the band must play on. It is a life altering experience for students. The band program enables students who are unsuccessful in the classroom to shine. It allows school and community to work together in harmony. The experience gives any student in the school the opportunity to learn music regularly at a time when music programming does not seem to be valued highly. The band gives students the opportunity to be role models and display great behaviour. I would take this group of student anywhere on a trip. They are well mannered and responsible and are ambassadors for the school and community.

Not just anyone would be able to take on this role. The band does become a part of one’s heart. It was Janet’s passion for many years and now it is my turn for a while. I am a member of the community and a past band member, therefore I have my heartstrings attached.  
In these changing times, where programs that have operated for years are diminishing or becoming extinct, I feel that communities such as mine will hopefully rally and come to the rescue to a certain extent as they have done in the past. Gidney (1999) discusses the affects of the cutbacks in teacher preparation time that affected my music program and placed me in the classroom full time.  He comments that Tory economic reforms of 1996 that brought “teacher preparation time down to something more like the national average” (p. 242) affected programs that were supplied by planning time teachers.  Without community support, my extra-curricular band program may have suffered the same fate as my classroom music program.

Cheryl expresses great concern about her role as a rural teacher who is trying to continue a long standing program. Despite the assistance and support from the community, she brings to attention the concerns and problems that music teachers face.  Cutbacks in music programs in particular are felt all across the province. However, when cutbacks in education threaten music programs in small rural areas, the long standing community traditions are also in jeopardy. A whole community, its makeup, goals and future rests in the successes and involvement of their students.  
As a rural teacher, Cheryl faces political challenges with the music program. She is under a great amount of stress by struggling to keep the program alive yet is unable to speak out against new policies and changes in attitude. She is caught between her loyalty to the program, to her community and her employer.
I have been a member of my rural community for many years and see changes taking place at a fast rate. The urban regions are expanding outward and more families are moving to small subdivisions in the village. The flavour of the community is changing. All rural teaching staff members do not live in the area now, most live elsewhere. Administration and support staff do not live in the community and do not automatically uphold the long standing traditions and values. Small town traditions seem to be considered at threat. As outsiders, I feel that some do not get to know and understand the educational priorities of the local residents, parents and students. The flavour of the community is changing as we lose the small village feeling. The rural community teachers like Cheryl, who recognize the value of the village traditions, attempt to keep the community spirit and flavour alive but with many struggles.

For many decades, rural educators have taught in contexts that have provided them with many benefits and advantages. I have taught in a caring, intimate and supportive setting, in an atmosphere that my small community has nurtured. The population has offered moral and financial support which has allowed me to continue my extra-curricular music program. As parents, teachers and students work together in the community, they have developed a closely knit neighborhood which cooperates as a unified whole and who care about successes of the individual as well as the group.  Despite the lack of privacy, the rural teacher as well as the rural child, benefit from this tightly knit environment that offers the personal touch.


Unfortunately, the rural teacher faces many challenges in the future; to be aware of changes that are occurring in the country setting and to keep the community spirit and traditions alive. However, if we lose the rural flavour and very supportive community ties and feelings that somewhat compensate for unequal academic resources and facilities, our students will suffer. Furthermore, as urban influences creep into the smaller rural communities, long standing traditions and the small community attitude may slowly vanish to be replaced by a faster paced, more impersonal way of life. 


Cole, Ardra L, Knowles, J. Gary. (Eds.) (2001). Lives in Context. The Art of Life History Research. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

Gidney, R.D. (1999). From Hope To Harris. Reshaping Ontario’s Schools. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Goodson, Ivar, F. (1981). Life History and the Study of Schooling, Interchange, 2 (4), 69. 

Popkewitz, Thomas S. (1998).  Struggling for the Soul. The Politics of Schooling and the Construction of the Teacher. Teachers College Press: New York.

Vollmer, Fred. (2005).The Narrative Self.  Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour. 35 (2), 189 – 205. 

Top of Page


This page was last updated on 01/02/03.