WATCH: In Rural Nebraska, a Teacher of the Year Weaves Her Community By Asking Students and Families to Wrestle With the World

By Jim Fields and
Emmeline Zhao
| May 8, 2022

By Jim Fields and
Emmeline Zhao
May 8, 2022

This is one article in a series produced in partnership with the Aspen Institute’s Weave: The Social Fabric Project, spotlighting educators, mentors and local leaders who see community as the key to student success, especially during the turbulence of the pandemic. See all our profiles.

Residents of tiny Taylor, Nebraska, call Megan Helberg a returner — one of the few kids to grow up in the town of 190 residents, leave to attend college in the big city and then return as an adult to rejoin this rural community in the Sandhills. More than just a familiar face, Helberg is an acclaimed educator who says she’s on a bigger mission: to help develop her hometown and nurture the next generation of returners to build a future in Taylor. 

Honored as the state’s 2020 Teacher of the Year, Helberg says she sees her role as going well beyond classroom lessons and academics. She teaches her students to value their deep roots in this close-knit community. She advocates on behalf of her school — the same one she attended as a child — which is always threatened with closure due to small class sizes. She has become active in community development efforts, to modernize Taylor and make it more attractive as a destination for industry and younger families.

She’s also launched travel clubs through her schools, which Helberg says has strengthened her community by forcing students, parents and other community members out of their comfort zones, offering them both a broader view of the world beyond Nebraska and an opportunity to connect with neighbors in a whole new context. 

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“It’s something that sticks with people and has created this tightly woven community of travelers,” she says, thinking back on the years of journeys outside the state. “Instead of the adults just seeing the students out on the basketball court on Saturday night, they’re really getting to interact and know each other and about their lives. And it created this really strong bond between everybody that went [on the trips].”

The 74’s Jim Fields and Emmeline Zhao traveled to Taylor to spend a week with Helberg this past winter, getting an up-close view of how one inspiring returner is weaving a stronger community in her rural hometown. Watch the documentary.

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Disclosure: The Walton Family Foundation provides financial support to both the Weave Project and The 74.