Teachers in rural Maine schools are struggling to meet the mental and emotional needs of their students because of a lack of resources and institutional support, according to a new study from the University of Maine.

In education around the world, there is a tension between achieving institutional goals such as fiscal efficiency, literacy, and numeracy while meeting the emotional needs of students. These tensions may be heightened in rural communities due to fragmented, remote social service networks and the declining economic well-being of many communities.

However, the need to address the emotional and mental needs of students in schools is greater than ever. In addition to adverse childhood experiences such as neglect, abuse, mental illness, family problems, and exposure to systemic adversities such as poverty and racism, the disruptions due to the COVID-19 pandemic have further heightened the need for trauma-informed practices for students.

Kathryn Biddle, associate professor of educational leadership in the University of Maine’s College of Education and Human Development, led a study analyzing focus group discussions with 110 rural Maine educators from 12 grade-level schools. Participants were asked questions about teacher-student relationships, the relationship between the school and the community, and the strengths and challenges of supporting student learning and healthy development.

Biddle views her research through the lens of critical rural theory, which focuses on the ways in which the purpose, activities and effects of education; the role of schools as institutions in a community; and implicit assumptions in institutional and political logics differ for non-urban areas. For example, professional norms and expectations in schools in rural areas may not be the same as those in cities; the reduced political economy of rural places may affect educational policy; and the teachers themselves may have a different attitude in the rural community than in the city.

“Critical rural theory helps highlight the ways in which our current education system is not designed with rural schools in mind. Funding that relies on the district’s grant-writing capacity, narrowly defined credentials that ignore the many hats rural teachers must wear, and inadequate teacher support systems for those in our most remote schools are examples of spatial inequalities in education,” says Biddle.

Teachers in the study described increasing pressures on student achievement, diminishing financial resources in their districts, and little institutional attention to students’ changing needs around stress and mental health. Teachers see many ways that stress directly interferes with their ability to cope with the curriculum, including increased student anxiety related to economic insecurity such as hunger or transitoriness, or personal adversity such as the death of a parent (often from substance use) , removal from home and placement with temporary carers or other family members.

Teachers also cited a lack of formal training to address these issues and often worried that in the absence of training they were actually harming children through their lack of knowledge about childhood adversity.

To cope with these problems in light of the lack of institutional support, teachers described individual actions outside of their usual job descriptions, some of which may even contradict existing school policies. Some of these actions range from small gestures, such as hugging students even in schools that had policies against such engagement, to significant forms of resistance, such as refusing to engage with mandatory reporting systems or documentation issues because it is believed do more harm than good.

“I think one of the most surprising findings was how conflicted teachers felt about mandatory reporting,” says Biddle. “Clearly, more research is needed here to understand why some rural educators may be reluctant to report and how the dynamics of mandatory reporting play out in small communities.”

It found that paying attention to students’ needs often came at a great emotional cost to teachers, contributing to more burnout in the profession, but sometimes at a financial cost to teachers as they debated maintaining supplies to meet the basic needs of students in their classrooms, including clean clothes, snacks, toiletries and other necessities.

Teachers in the survey could not agree on exactly what changes were needed to help them better address the heightened emotional needs of their students, but their responses clustered around three key themes: adequate resources to meet high expectations, placed by the state; a broad base of community support for families; and finally, a model of teaching and learning that recognizes humanity.

Biddle hopes that insights from this study can inform better-designed policy to address both teacher burnout and child adversity in rural Maine communities.

“Teachers were clear: school is much more than an achievement for young people,” says Biddle, “Children and young people need to feel that they are valued as people by the adults around them, that they need adequate mental health support and that our current staffing solutions do not meet these needs.’

The study was published in The Rural Educator magazine in Volume 43, Number 4, in 2022.

Contact: Sam Shipani, [email protected]