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Montana's Teacher Of The Year On The Joys, Challenges Of Rural Education

A headshot of Kristi Borge. She has long dark blonde hair, green eyes and a friendly smile. She stands in front of a library book shelf.
Kim Giannone
Kristi Borge, Montana's 2021 Teacher of the Year

Kristi Borge was recently named Montana’s 2021 Teacher of the Year. She teaches K through 8th grade in a one room schoolhouse in Polaris, a small, tight knit community at the feet of the Pioneer Mountains in Beaverhead County.

In her classroom, Borge has dressed up the whiteboards with polka dot and tie dye paper borders. Student made posters about respect and responsibility hang next to the schedule for the day.

Borge moved to Polaris in 2015 after she and her husband decided to sell their house in Bozeman and buy Maverick Mountain Ski Area.

“We didn’t have a place to live in Polaris so we bought a 1992 Bounder RV and limped it from Spokane and parked it in the parking lot up at Maverick, and we lived in that RV for two years,” Borge said.

She says teaching in the nearby one room schoolhouse was a big change.

Kristi Borge
Polaris Elementary after a recent snow in 2020.

“I had gone from being pretty specialized, doing mostly middle school social studies to having a kindergartner, second, fourth and seventh grader my first year. So I had to learn all the new content and every subject,” Borge said.

This year, Borge has 11 students across five different grades. She says one of the benefits of being a multigrade teacher is that she understands her students’ progression of learning and can better prepare them for the next grade.

“That’s definitely an advantage of being a multigrade teacher,” Borge said. “You have these students returning year to year and you know where they left off.”

Borge says having fewer students has also made it easier to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic and communicate with parents. She says the transition to remote learning last spring was relatively smooth because her students were already familiar with independent study and using online programs.

While educators across the U.S. have expressed concern about academic setbacks for students who struggled with remote learning, something dubbed the COVID slide, Borge says having fewer students made it possible to offer one on one summer instruction.

“[It] hit those last key math units that I knew we hadn’t gotten to. I knew where we needed to start back up again in the fall.”

Borge says she has several new students this fall because some families with second homes in the area decided to stay year round, partially for their kids to have in person learning during the pandemic. Interest in smaller schools and pandemic pods has been on the rise across the U.S. as many schools continue to operate partially or fully remote to reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus.

But being the only teacher in a multigrade, multi subject schoolhouse also has its challenges.

“When you are the only teacher at a school, you are planning for so many different subjects and grade levels that your planning time is astronomical and you also don’t have any preparatory period,” Borge said.

Borge says she and a lot of other rural teachers wear many hats.

Kristi Borge
Third grader Raelynn Tash practices roping next to her one room school in Polaris, Beaverhead County.

“It’s not like we have a secretary so when the phone rings, you’ve got to stop your instruction and go answer the phone, and so there’s just a lot of little things. You know, you don’t have a technology person in your building,” Borge said.

Outside of the regular school day, Borge coaches an alpine ski racing team. She works with teachers at other one and two room schools in Beaverhead County to host basketball games, track meets and science fairs.

Even though Borge is often the only adult in the one room schoolhouse in Polaris, she says she doesn’t feel isolated, crediting her mentors and the Montana Small Schools Alliance, a professional development group that hosts bi monthly workshops and offers a network of teachers to draw support from.

Borge says the 2021 Montana Teacher of the Year award is a collective achievement, a celebration of the hard work of rural, multi grade teachers across the state.