Connect With Your Community!

New Montana State program helps student teachers form connections with rural communities

When Montana State University education student Mariah Leum considered moving to a new Montana community to complete her student teaching, she felt nervous and anxious. But thanks to a new offering at MSU, Leum said, those feelings were eased right away.

Leum, who is from Three Forks, is completing her student teaching this semester at the elementary school in Shelby, a community of about 3,000 people in north-central Montana. She is one of seven students from the MSU teacher education program based in Shelby or nearby Cut Bank as members of the university’s first rural student teaching pod.

The pod aims to help students form meaningful connections while student teaching in rural areas, according to Marcie Reuer, assistant teaching professor in the Department of Education in MSU’s College of Education, Health and Human Development. Reuer routinely leads students on weeklong practicums in rural areas, and she said students who had previously participated in rural field experiences identified a lack of peer support as one factor holding them back from signing up for a significantly longer rural student teaching placement.

To help encourage students to consider completing their student teaching in rural areas, Reuer and others developed the rural student teaching pod, where MSU pre-service teachers go as a group to an area in rural Montana for a 15-week student teaching experience. Participating students receive a stipend, support from peers and rural school partners, and additional mentorship from a retired teacher. The pod is part of the Rural Pathways program, which is run by Reuer and Joe Hicks, assistant dean of the College of Education, Health and Human Development. The Rural Pathways program is part of the MSU Center for Research on Rural Education, and it is supported by the ASPIRE grant from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies.

“The Rural Pathways initiative is an innovative approach to rural teacher preparation made possible by our visionary partners -- Montana’s K-12 administrators and teachers and our funder,” said Jayne Downey, director of the Center for Research on Rural Education. “We are honored to work alongside them every day.”

Leum noted that since there are seven students in the pod, including four in Shelby and three in Cut Bank, they frequently get together for activities.

“We have gone out to dinner together, attended basketball games and have weekly trivia every Wednesday evening,” Leum said. “This pod has encouraged me to get out of my shell and to go out and do things. This pod has also allowed me to walk alongside people who are going through the exact same struggles, joys and frustrations that I am going through.”

Annsley Pugh, from Village, Virginia, is completing her student teaching this semester at Cut Bank Middle School. She previously participated in rural practicum experiences in Glendive and Lewistown. Pugh said the rural student teaching pod is an excellent opportunity to explore teaching in a rural community while also receiving additional support and guidance.

“Having the opportunity to live and teach in a rural community, while also having the support of the teaching pod, has boosted my confidence in the classroom and helped me become an active community member,” she said.

Pugh noted that Reuer’s guidance has been particularly valuable, as has been the support of the cooperating teacher with whom she was placed in Cut Bank, Dulce Whitford.

Whitford “has welcomed me into her class with open arms and has given me valuable insight into the world of rural education and day-to-day management of a rural classroom,” Pugh said.

Leum said the most valuable part of the rural student teaching pod is being able to observe the impact she has on students in her classroom.

“I see my students coming to school with excitement and eagerness, ready to learn,” Leum said. “I love pouring my energy into my students and watching their reactions to learning.”

Elliott Crump, superintendent of Shelby Public Schools, said he was excited when he first learned of MSU’s plans to create a rural student teaching pod and was glad that Shelby was one of the locations selected for the pilot.

“I do believe that we provided (the student-teachers) with a rural experience that will allow them to determine if rural teaching is something they want to pursue,” Crump said. “My goal for this program is to expose student teachers to the opportunities that exist in rural schools and highlight the reasons why rural education is a great place for educators.”

Pugh and Leum both said they would recommend that other MSU students consider completing their student teaching through the rural student teaching pod.

“This experience is one of the most rewarding aspects of my college career,” Pugh said. “The opportunity to observe and receive guidance from amazing veteran rural teachers has been priceless. This experience has reaffirmed my decision to teach in a rural school after graduation.”

“It is one of those experiences that will stretch you out of your comfort zone,” Leum said. “Although there have been challenging parts and challenging days, it is so worth it.”

Reuer said the rural student teaching pod will continue to be offered to MSU students, and next fall, participating students will be placed in Glendive and surrounding towns.

Reuer said the project not only provides MSU pre-service teachers with firsthand experience of teaching in a rural community but also helps rural schools meet their staffing needs.

“Our goal is to get them as integrated into each community as possible,” Reuer added. “We want pre-service teachers to see themselves living and working in rural areas.”