In order to get students outside of their comfort zones, they must have role models and teachers who are willing to do the same. Rural America is often starving for teachers from diverse locations and backgrounds. Students suffer as many school lack teachers who are willing to come from far away with new ideas. That means teachers would have to dedicate their careers to students in a new location where they know few people, and often have to combat totally different viewpoints and other cultural differences.

I moved from the hustle and bustle of New York City to teach world history in rural Pennsylvania. Williamsport is only 250 miles away from where I grew up, but at the same time, it can feel like a world away. The district that employs me is labeled suburban, but in all directions, there are farms, rural communities, and wonderful people who have completely different life experiences from myself. Their viewpoints are often dissimilar from mine, yet they are wonderful, welcoming and incredibly interesting. Upon moving here, I realized I needed to learn new cultural expectations that involved totally new foods, dialogue, and pleasantries. At first, I felt out of place, but then I realized, this IS my place.

Over the years, I adapted to the differences and learned to embrace them. I realized that perhaps I defied the odds. I was the big city woman hired at a small school in a small town. Most of my co-workers are from the same county, or at least the region, and I was the outsider. Quickly, I realized I was only of very few teachers of color, and come from a different religious background. I teach where I teach so I can be a little light of diversity for my students.

As a humanities teacher and someone who has been to 49 nations, I can openly discuss my various experiences, adventures, and knowledge of the world with my students. My goal is to open up their minds to curiosity and eventually explore the world on their own. I hope to grow my students in to critical thinkers and evaluators of their own ideas. I hope to challenge them to meet and learn about people who speak different languages, believe in different religions or come from different circumstances. I hope to grow acceptance and prevent the breeding of xenophobic ideas. Truly, I hope my presence and my openness to discussion can help my students gain courage to understand others and to explore far away from their communities — and bring back what they learned.

It is not easy to pick up all of your belongings and move to a new place, far from your own comfort, but teaching is a calling and an art form. Neither of those experiences are always comfortable or pleasant. Teaching in the city where I knew everyone and understood the culture from the beginning would have stifled my own growth. Sure, I should be discussing the growth of my students, but the truth is that I have learned how to grow from them just as much as they have learned from me. It is a process that involves all parties. So, why do I teach where I teach? To help grow minds, discuss different opinions, inspire acceptance, and to grow myself by getting out of my own comfort zone.

Jennifer R. Wahl is the 2018-19 Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year. She has taught at Loyalsock Township High School, in Williamsport, PA since 2006 and the Pennsylvania College of Technology since 2015. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Cabrini University in history and a master’s degree in educational leadership from the Pennsylvania State University. She has been working on equitable access to career and technical learning in rural areas throughout her tenure.

This post is a part of an ongoing series, called “Why I Teach Where I Teach,” which asks educators in high-need schools to share what has attracted (and kept) them in the challenging environments they’re in. They share important stories and experiences that should remind us all of the power of strong school leadership, a network of supportive colleagues, and the genuine opportunity to have a say in schoolwide decisions. Listen up! They’re teaching us.