By: Katie Gragnaniello, Manager, Partner Communications

Growing up in a rural town and attending a rural school meant our teachers had to be much more than teachers. Teachers who teach in rural school districts, like many teachers across the nation, are the school. Their passion for education and betterment of community collide to create heart. My educational journey started in Hamshire, Texas. We had a little over 350 residents in 1985; small but mighty we were. There is not sufficient data, but I estimate today Hamshire has a little over 1,500 residents.

Teachers were our coaches, class sponsors, fundraisers when we needed new uniforms, and concession stand workers. They were our prom organizers, bus drivers, weekend painters when the school needed a new coat, and members of the volunteer fire department, among other roles. They were also our confidants and mentors when many parents were busy working two jobs. If we did not have a ride to school, they picked us up. If we forgot our lunch money, they covered us. Teachers are the glue that holds communities, especially small ones, together and are the heroes for small schools on an even smaller budget.

As I reflect back on those years, there’s not a school subject or certain book I can recall that changed my life, but it was my teachers and experiences I remember most. My teachers taught me determination, grit, and resourcefulness. Many of them dedicated their entire lives to ensuring students had access to education and were exposed to the world all while instilling curiosity and adventure into our young minds. I recall one year our textbooks had errors in them, and my teacher went through each and every page of our books correcting the printing errors. Today, when online textbooks have replaced hard copies in many schools, there are still areas of Texas that do not have access to broadband internet. The local schools and teachers are the only connection students have to the internet to research and explore career and college pathways. Teachers remain the heart of rural communities and give small towns across America the spirit to succeed no matter the circumstance.

One teacher and coach comes to mind as I think about Teacher Appreciation Week – Charlene Decuir, also known as Coach Shorty. I can still smell the fresh air and feel the dirt and dust rush my face as Coach Shorty’s voice shouted behind me, “Let’s go, Lott.” She was my teacher, cross country coach, and everything in between. Our team practiced almost every morning, and Coach Shorty was up before dawn and stayed at school until after dark making sure everyone had transportation. She clapped and encouraged me almost every Saturday morning at cross country track meets and created confidence in me and other students through her sheer dedication and determination for us to succeed. Coach Shorty devoted all of her time and energy to our community; by all accounts, she was – and still is – our school. We might not have had the newest uniforms or textbooks, but we had heart. She taught us teamwork and the importance of giving back. Coach Shorty also DJ’ed our school dances and events, and she never missed an opportunity to cheer us on at sporting events. Through her teaching and coaching, she ingrained self-sufficiency and kindness into her students. I thank all the Coach Shorty’s who are inspiring students to dream big, possess integrity, achieve academic success, have the resilience to bounce back, and always tackle life with zest.

Coach Shorty is still working in my hometown as the life skills teacher and the softball and volleyball coach. She continues to dedicate her life to students and our community. Every chance I get, I go home and take a run along the same path I took in high school and hope to give back to my local economy and school one day. Until then, I’m beyond thankful and grateful for Coach Shorty and all the teachers and coaches who continue to motivate and ignite passion and heart into their students.