I looked at my wife as we walked across the parking lot of Denver International Airport. It had started to snow and there was a chill in the air. Unlike me, Lara remembered to pack a jacket and the snowflakes were sticking to her hood in a way that made it look fuzzy. 

After a quick ride to our hotel, we unpacked our suitcases and looked out the window. The mountains were ominously veiled in storm clouds and the snow had picked up, but there was excitement in the air. 

I was attending the National Forum to Advance Rural Education because I had been selected as the National Rural Educator of the Year, an honor for which I am humbly grateful. 

Part of the responsibilities of the National Rural Educator include delivering a keynote to kick off the Friday afternoon sessions, something I took very seriously. I planned my speech and delivered it to anyone who was willing to listen over the course of the last few months. In fact, I had delivered my speech to a nice, young couple on the way back from their honeymoon on the plane as well as an elderly woman who found herself waiting for her luggage in my general vicinity.

Along with my principal and superintendent, Lara and I were able to go to a kick off dinner for the conference Wednesday night. Allen Pratt introduced us to a few people, and we quickly settled into the group. Everyone was warm and kind and exactly the kind of people you would expect from communities with rural ideals. 

On Thursday, after the opening remarks, our little group dissected the program to make sure we all attended as many sessions as possible, to get the most out of the conference. 

Over the next few days, I listened and scribbled notes feverishly. When it came time for me to address the audience, I felt so comfortable and appreciated that talking to everyone was easy. “They are family,” I told myself before taking the stage.

When the conference finished, I was able to spend some time reflecting on what I had learned. Here are some things that struck me as worthy of your attention. 

You are hopeful

It didn’t matter if I was listening to Temple Grandin or participating in a choral poem with Michelle Sadrena Pledger or painting rocks with DeNille LePlatt and Christina Larson, I saw a creative and hopeful way of thinking reflected in every aspect of the conference. It is refreshing to see so many people filled with the kind of hope that inspires others. 

At one point in the conference, I turned to Lara and said, “These are our people,” which was to say that you all approach life with a kind of determination and kindness that encourages others and brings hope. 

I think it’s important to acknowledge that, in our connectedness, we celebrate the joys of our community. With all of our hearts, we celebrate the good we can find. When my wife was a Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year Finalist, people in our little town sought her out to tell her they were proud of her and that it did their hearts good to see something beautiful come out of our community. They told Lara’s story on the radio and in the local newspaper and when she attended the end of the year conference, it didn’t matter if she won or not because our community found a hero to bring them hope regardless of the result.

Jamie Meade, in her closing keynote, spoke about building hope and how our rural communities can borrow hope from us, as long as we have enough hope to spare. 

In order to build hope, we can gather our resources, believe the future will be better, understand that we are the author of our own story, and acknowledge that there are many pathways to get to where we need to go. According to Jamie, “When things come to us easily, it kills our hope because we don’t think we’ll have to take action. We don’t get practice in problem-solving.”

Rural America knows how to respond when things don’t come easily. It is my experience that you all are the most hopeful kind of people. But we are also fragile and need to understand the importance of leaning into our common story, gleaning strength from our hopeful heroes. 

You are diverse

Throughout the conference, I was struck by the diversity of the attendees. We are connected and hopeful, but we are also vastly unique and from all walks of life. Diversity, in rural America, is about resiliency. We know we need each other to make it another season, and we are welcoming of anyone who is willing to meet us where we are, listen to our stories, and join our efforts to build our community. Diversity means opening your arms to anyone willing to help.

I met Dawn Dawson during one of those ice-breakers activities where you have to tell a little bit about yourself and your school and what you think is your most likely spirit animal (My spirit animal is – obviously – an owl, by the way). 

The first thing I learned about Dawn was that she taught in a one-room schoolhouse in Montana. We ended up attending a lot of the same sessions and I learned that Dawn is also the Montana rural teacher of the year and she is not only the teacher of her one-room school house, she is also the janitor, secretary, and curriculum coordinator, counselor, and every other role you can think up. 

I loved talking with Dawn because her job sounded so much different than my job and because she had such an optimistic spirit about her. We came from different worlds, but we were connected through both our profession and outlook on life. 

Another highlight of the conference was when Brad Mitchell interviewed rural students Savannah Burris, Kendrick Fetzer, and Kyerie Lechman. Learning from our rural students is an important part of the growth process. Kendrick, specifically, spoke about his goal of returning to his rural town and contributing to his community. Savannah and Kyerie both talked about opportunities outside their rural community. This was an important example, illustrating the diverse needs of our students and what we are doing to address them.

One of my favorite sessions was led by Jon Andes who spoke about leadership in rural school systems. Even though our rural social norms, values, and beliefs are unique, we can use these things to develop learning opportunities for our students.

You know what you need

One of the first official things I was able to do as the National Rural Educator of the Year at this conference was to attend a “listening session” with Deputy Secretary of Education Mitchell Zais, in which three other teachers and myself were able to have a round-table discussion with the Deputy Secretary regarding some of the issues we, as rural teachers, face. 

It became apparent, within moments of entering the room, that the rural commonality between us, as educators, was enough to cement our solidarity and I was reminded of the power of listening to teachers. 

Don’t forget to take time to listen to teachers. They are the ones, as John White, former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Rural Outreach, would say, “Doing the important work of teaching and inspiring students.” They also have a clear understanding into what we can do better and what we need. 

Ken Kay, who quickly became a friend, opened the forum with a talk about what a 21st Century graduate needs from our individual systems. Creating a portrait of a graduate takes more than transforming a system. Students need skills in order to succeed. According to Ken, content mastery, critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity should take center stage when we are thinking about the educational experiences our students need. 

In one workshop I attended, led by Denille LePlatt and Christina Larson, we were challenged to remember that everything you need is right in front of you, we just need to develop the courage, connectivity, and creativity to reach out and grab it. 

But I think knowing what we need is just the beginning of the conversation. Seeking and fighting for the resources we need is just as important. As Brad Mitchell from Battelle for Kids said, “The solution to America’s resource needs will be found in rural areas.” Keep fighting the fight to secure the resources you need. 

* * *

Back in my school on the Monday morning after the conference, I was walking to my classroom when a fourth grade student stopped me in the hall and said, “Hey, Mr. Owlett! How was your trip to Colorado?”

It was Gavin, and – I know, I know – we aren’t supposed to have favorites, but I lent half of my Hardy Boys collection to him over the summer, and that’s saying something. 

“It was really great, Gavin! Thank you for asking. I was a little nervous about speaking in front of so many people, but everyone was so warm and nice.”

“I’m sure you were great. I think it’s really cool that you got to go. Blake and I were talking about it and we are just really proud of you.” 

(Blake had the other half of my Hardy Boys collection.)

Last year was my first year teaching Blake and Gavin’s class and I made a point of telling all of the students in the room, every day, that I was proud of them. I used their names as much as I could when I was saying it and, honestly, I continue to be proud of them. But to hear it back, those words I had said at least 180 times last year, hit me in a way that I wasn’t expecting. They were proud of me. Silly, goofy, anxious, broken-yet-hopeful me. 

Sometimes I feel like I don’t have a lot of hope to spare. Sometimes the disparity and helplessness and poverty of our rural community weighs down on me. But on this day, when one of my favorite nine-year-olds told me that he was proud of me…well, that day, I think this teacher of the year had enough hope for the rest of the world to borrow.

As we go back to our own small towns, let’s not forget the lessons we learned from the forum. Let’s try to build hope for each other.