College of Education > News and Publications > News: Oct.-Dec. 2012 > Alumna Receives Dissertation Award for Groundbreaking Research

Alumna Receives Dissertation Award for Groundbreaking Research

Dr. Erin McHenry-Sorber '11 Ph.D. has received the Edward W. Chance Memorial Rural Education Dissertation Award from the National Rural Education Association for her groundbreaking research on the politics of teacher strikes in rural communities.

McHenry and little girlCollege of Education alumna Dr. Erin McHenry-Sorber ’11 Ph.D. has received the Edward W. Chance Memorial Rural Education Dissertation Award from the National Rural Education Association for her groundbreaking research on the politics of teacher strikes in rural communities.

Most studies on teacher strikes take place in large urban settings. However, “rural schools and rural communities operate much differently than large urban settings, because community identity is so closely linked to the rural school,” Dr. McHenry-Sorber explains. There’s a big gap in our knowledge of what happens when teacher strikes happen in rural communities.”

Dr. McHenry-Sorber conducted her research in a Pennsylvania community that has experienced several teacher strikes in the span of only four years. She discovered that the prolonged conflict had divided the community into opposing political factions.

“The majority thought of the school district as serving as a social hub of engagement. Things like basketball games and school plays brought the community together,” Dr. McHenry-Sorber says. As far as academics were concerned, she was told that, “the district should focus on the basics, on preparing students for life.”

The teachers on the other hand felt that because of the economic distress in the area, it was their job to help “educate promising youth out of the community.”

Dr. McHenry-Sorber found that, in rural areas, when conflicts aren’t resolved in the formal arena, the different factions develop what she calls competing narratives of community and the conflict moves to the streets.

“The school board really propagated the narrative that the teachers were the enemy of the district, and that they were an elitist group that was willing to bankrupt the district for their own gain,” Dr. McHenry-Sorber says.

With top teachers’ salaries at more than 200% the median household income for the majority of families in that district, it was no surprise that class conflict was at the root of the problem. The surprise is how far it went.

The conflict “really had long-lasting devastating effects on the community,” Dr. McHenry-Sorber says. Over the course of the conflict, the district had a 40% turnover rate, and the teachers who stayed felt they were being treated like second class citizens. “In fact at one point a sign was up in a community storefront in the town that said, ‘Make my Day…Shoot a Teacher.’”

Dr. McHenry-Sorber hopes to continue researching the educational politics of rural communities. “I grew up in a rural district, and I also taught for several years in a pretty isolated small, rural district. So often there’s the perception in the American mindset that rural communities are these harmonious places full of close knit relationships, but it had been my experience that rural communities were actually political communities full of factions and fragmentation.”

Dr. McHenry-Sorber was invited to present her research at the National Rural Education Association’s annual convention and research symposium in October 2012, in Cincinnati. “It was an amazing study to do. It was a very eye opening experience for me.”

Dr. McHenry-Sorber received her doctorate in educational leadership from Penn State in December 2011, and is currently teaching as an Assistant Professor of Education at Wilkes University.

-- by Chris Whitehead (November 2012)