A Retreat to Advance Rural Education

The Community Foundation’s first Rural Teacher Retreat drew educators from across the Dubuque region and beyond for a day of learning, self-care and networking.

When Brianna Werges saw a Facebook post advertising a professional development opportunity for educators in rural communities, she not only jumped at the opportunity, she also invited her teacher friends to sign up with her.

“I’m looking forward to learning something new and applying it to my work with students,” said Werges, who starts her first year as a middle school counselor in the MFL MarMac Community School Districts this fall.

That opportunity she and her peers signed up for was the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque’s first Rural Teacher Retreat, which drew 75 educators to Camp Courageous in Monticello on July 26 for a day of sessions on topics like brain health, navigating political and public relations issues, and teaching emotional intelligence.

“When we talk with people in small towns about what they care about, one thing consistently rises to the top of the list: Education,” said Jason Neises, the Community Foundation’s community development officer. 

“We want to empower teachers to take care of themselves so that they can be fully present in supporting students and families, and in making their schools the pride of their communities,” added Kelly Krause, Ed.D., the Foundation’s education officer.

The retreat was made possible through the Foundation's role as Iowa hub of the Rural Schools Collaborative, a nonprofit that helps strengthen rural communities across the country through a focus on education. As a benefit to teachers, the retreat was free to attend.

In many sessions, guest speakers focused on topics designed to supplement instruction by helping them and their students focus, cope with stress, and regulate emotions.

In one breakout group, Liza Johnson, Ed.D., director of personal empowerment and assistant director to the president at the University of Dubuque, explained the concept of emotional intelligence and how educators can foster it in students to help them succeed. She told attendees that employers are looking for candidates who are academically successful and also have qualities related to emotional intelligence, such as the ability to express empathy or navigate personal differences in the workplace.

“How often do you learn about emotions in schooling, just like you learn reading, writing or math? Probably never,” Johnson said. “Emotions matter because they are responsible for so many things. It’s more than just a person’s IQ that makes them successful — it’s also emotional intelligence.”

Keynote speaker Clint Darr, Ed.D., helped kick off the retreat with a presentation that had attendees laughing in their seats. The former classroom teacher and certified laughter yoga instructor talked about how educators can use laughter and humor to make connections and form relationships with students, and also support their own physical and brain health.

“Preschool children laugh about 400 times a day,” he said. “Adults, though, laugh only about 17 times per day. And laughter is so important to self-care.” He offered suggestions for how teachers can incorporate humor into their classrooms, such as by featuring a joke of the day.

The retreat was more than just an opportunity to learn. It also was an opportunity for small-town educators to network with one another and build connections based on their shared experiences as teachers in rural areas.

“Being from a small town, I love seeing my students grow up and what they become,” said Katie Andrews, a fifth-grade teacher at Cascade Middle School in the Western Dubuque Community School District. “For instance, I had a student who now babysits my kids. You don’t get that in a big city.”

Moving forward, attendees will have access to additional resources to help strengthen their schools, including $3,000 classroom grants through the Rural Schools Collaborative and $1,000 grants through the Community Foundation. 

The Community Foundation’s Rural Teachers Corps initiative is supported by grant funding from the McDonough Foundation.

Thank you to the Rural Schools Collaborative, University of Northern Iowa and Camp Courageous for your partnership in making this event possible!

Learn more about our rural education work.