‘We Need Help’ : Teachers From Rural Virginia Share Their Challenges

By Amie Knowles

March 9, 2021

Virginia Del. Sam Rasoul recently held a panel discussion about education in rural Virginia. 

ROANOKE – In Dickenson County, 40% of homes don’t have adequate internet. Buchanan County has one Chemistry teacher and one Physics teacher. Across rural Virginia, school districts operated on bare bones budgets even before the pandemic. Now the problem’s gotten worse, as teachers told Del. Sam Rasoul this past week.

The Virginia legislator actually works as a substitute teacher in the Roanoke area, getting in on the ground level of an important subject to him: rural education. Last week, Rasoul held a virtual roundtable with teachers and professionals throughout Southwestern Virginia. 

He welcomed Travis Maxwell, a Buchanan County Public Schools high school and elementary school teacher and librarian. Maxwell is in his 18th year of teaching. 

Dickenson County Public Schools teacher Phyllis Mullins, who started her profession over 30 years ago, also joined in the conversation. She currently teaches seventh grade Civics.

Dustin Keith works for a community services board that works closely with the local school systems in Russell County. He also joined the panel.

Together, the four individuals discussed some of the most prevalent issues facing education in rural Virginia. 

Rural Virginia Lacks Funding

Maxwell expressed that due to a small tax base, Buchanan schools didn’t have money to spend frivolously. 

Although the CARES Act funding helped the area get computers and iPads for student at-home use, internet accessibility and system updates still presented an issue. It also did little to help the everyday issues the county faced.

There are two Spanish teachers in the entire county and no other foreign language options. The county also has one Chemistry teacher and one Physics teacher. 

Then, there are funding issues on the student level.

“Instead of getting every child new textbooks, we get a classroom set of textbooks,” Maxwell said.

Funding also limits hands-on learning opportunities. That includes limited resources for science experiments or practical life skills.

“You have to have food to teach the children how to cook,” Maxwell said. 

However, funding in Buchanan County didn’t end with the close of the school day or even the school year for area educators. While conversing with other educators, Maxwell came to a startling conclusion. 

“You have to want to live here forever to teach here because with our pay – and I never thought about this – with our pay, when you retire, you cannot retire to somewhere else. I cannot take my retirement and move to Virginia Beach or Fairfax or anywhere like that,” Maxwell said. “Like, you have to want to be here forever if you take the job and stay there for your entire career.”

Most Areas Can’t Compete For Pay

In Dickenson County, it’s hard getting teachers to apply. In part, that’s because if they went over a county or two, they could make an extra $10,000 a year. The district just can’t afford to compete with other areas.

Another issue arises when educators need certain degrees to teach a class.

“A lot of programs can’t be offered because we don’t have personnel to fill it,” Mullins said. “It has to be done virtually through the Governor’s School or something like that.”

Keith likened the issues surrounding teacher pay in his areas to a vicious cycle. Even the best, brightest, most passionate teachers sometimes look at the money they could make if they made a simple move across county lines.

“When that happens, when they leave, the really rural counties like Russell and Dickenson and Buchanan, that’s a huge gap not only in the curriculum, as far as instruction, but in the school community,” Keith said. “Because those clubs all have to find new sponsors. They have to find someone who’s qualified to teach those dual enrollment courses, the advanced chemistry, the physics, the engineering. It’s very difficult to replace them and sometimes it’s just not able to happen.”

Keith hoped for more equity in pay and rewards for exemplary teachers.

Opportunity Inequity

Mullins noted that one of the struggling areas in Dickenson County were the arts.

“We don’t have the money to have, you know, the arts and music classes and everything that could be offered in other schools that have more money,” Mullins said. “…We just don’t have money to play with. It’s the very basic, very down to the bones, that’s what we have to deal with.”

Mullins also revealed that upwards of 40% of households in her area did not have adequate internet accessibility.

“If [it] wasn’t for COVID money, the funding, that is what has really helped with all of this virtual learning,” Mullins said. “We didn’t have Chromebooks for every child. We couldn’t have afforded those things.”

Rasoul noted that some things that other school districts took for granted were a luxury for others. 

Hands Tied

Rasoul shifted the conversation to a recent question raised concerning rural schools’ fundraising and rural communities’ tax-based efforts. 

“We don’t have anything to raise money with,” Mullins said. “I invite that person to come to Dickenson County… He needs to drive down these streets of Clintwood. Let’s look and see what he will find. And I love my little hometown, but you’re not going to find a major department store. You’re not going to find a Walmart. You’re going to find a couple of dollar stores, one major grocery store. You are going to find two red lights. You’re not going to find one inch of four-lane in Dickenson County. We don’t have major industries like Amazon or some of the bigger companies. They don’t come here. We need roads. We need infrastructure.”

The teacher also commented on the proposal to increase taxes to help raise funds for the area schools. 

“We are a coal-producing county, [but] we are getting taxed for coal that is not being produced,” Mullins said. “We have a very supportive community and we are very close-knit, but we don’t have money. If you raise taxes, what are they going to get paid with? We do not have a large tax base.”

Maxwell noted there are only so many taxable things. He also expressed that for a major business to come to Buchanan County, they needed to easily ship their products out. Given the landscape, those chances were slim.

“All we really have is property taxes,” Maxwell said. “People are generally paying all they can in their pottery taxes already.”

Keith noted that his area had many residents on fixed incomes. 

“They money can’t just come from nowhere,” Keith said. “It has to come out of people’s pockets and they’re doing the best they can.”

Misconceptions About Rural Virginia

The delegate also noted misconceptions that those outside of rural Virginia might have on the school systems or students there. He gave each panelist an opportunity to dispel those. 

“I think a lot of times we get a bad rap in Appalachia and in the coal fields in particular for being kind of dull or disadvantaged or kind of hillbilly, for lack of better terms, but I can tell you, we have some of the best and brightest students that come out of the Commonwealth,” Keith said. “And not only that, but we have some of the most dedicated, hardworking teachers and school personnel out of the state.”

Keith commended the area for being able to do a lot with a little.

“We’re able to stretch a dollar and take it and do things that would not be even  possible in some other areas with a whole bunch of resources,” Keith said. “And that comes down to we have teachers who sacrifice their time and their energy. They put their whole heart and soul into their job and these students. And it’s a shame sometimes that we don’t get to reward them for all that they do.”

Mullins spoke about the intellect of students in her area.

“We have many of the brightest stars out there, as far as our students are concerned,’ Mullins said.

Harvard University accepted a student from Dickenson County last week. Recently, the high school’s robotics team placed within the top 10 in the world. 

“Our kids are amazing and our teachers and our support staff,” Mullins said. “Everyone is doing an amazing job.”

There is Some Hustle in Rural Virginia

Maxwell expressed the importance of self-worth.

“I think the most important thing is that your accent and your zip code don’t have anything to do with your intelligence or your work ethic,” Maxwell said.

The teacher noted that several of his students became doctors and lawyers, despite perceived obstacles.

“A lot of our kids are told from a very early age that they can’t be certain things because people around here don’t do that,” Maxwell said. “They can. They’re totally capable of it.”

Rasoul wrapped up the segment with a compliment. 

“What I find from people in Southwest Virginia is there is some hustle, for sure,” Rasoul said.

Amie Knowles reports for Dogwood. You can reach her at [email protected] 

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  • Amie Knowles

    Amie is Dogwood's community editor. She has been in journalism for several years, winning multiple awards from the Virginia Press Association for news and features content. A lifelong Virginia resident, her work has appeared in the Martinsville Bulletin, Danville Register & Bee and NWNC Magazine.

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