Class Acts:
The Teacher Feature.

Let’s take a moment and reflect on how lucky we are to have all our schools filled with outstanding, dedicated educators.

 

FEATURE

Clare Menzel, Whitefish Montana, ski, author

BY KATIE CANTRELL

As Benjamin Franklin famously said, “Nothing is certain but death and taxes.” Until the world turned upside down in March of 2020, few of us probably realized that we also counted on school as a third inviolable constant. We took it for granted that we knew exactly where our kids would always be on weekdays from September to June, and it certainly wasn’t at home with us, crying through online lessons about dividing mixed numbers. (Note that I didn’t specify who was doing the crying.) 

It’s safe to say that no parent has ever appreciated their kids’ teachers like we did by June of 2020. But then fall rolled around, the pandemic dragged on, the elections approached, and schools became a focal point for all the fear, division and uncertainty roiling our country. With so much roaring noise, it was easy to lose sight of the fact that the Flathead Valley managed to keep our schools open, to give our kids more normalcy and a better learning year than the vast majority of their peers across the nation. It was easy to forget that our teachers were setting aside their own worries and questions every morning, putting the emotional well-being and academic progress of their students first. They navigated quarantines and figured out how to teach lessons multiple ways. They worried about isolation and mental health. They checked in on absent kids and unresponsive families. They were cheerleaders and sounding boards.

Even in the best of times, there’s no job quite like teaching. We’re so fortunate to have our valley packed from one end to the other with exceptional educators, administrators, and staff who are positively impacting our kids every single day. They care deeply about their students and want them to both do well and be well. We’re unlikely to ever fully rise above the politics and differing opinions that schools attract like lightning rods. But let’s not lose sight of what is consistently outstanding about our schools: the teachers and staff who fill them.

It’s safe to say that no parent has ever appreciated their kids’ teachers like we did by June of 2020. But then fall rolled around, the pandemic dragged on, the elections approached, and schools became a focal point for all the fear, division and uncertainty roiling our country. With so much roaring noise, it was easy to lose sight of the fact that the Flathead Valley managed to keep our schools open, to give our kids more normalcy and a better learning year than the vast majority of their peers across the nation. It was easy to forget that our teachers were setting aside their own worries and questions every morning, putting the emotional well-being and academic progress of their students first. They navigated quarantines and figured out how to teach lessons multiple ways. They worried about isolation and mental health. They checked in on absent kids and unresponsive families. They were cheerleaders and sounding boards.

Even in the best of times, there’s no job quite like teaching. We’re so fortunate to have our valley packed from one end to the other with exceptional educators, administrators, and staff who are positively impacting our kids every single day. They care deeply about their students and want them to both do well and be well. We’re unlikely to ever fully rise above the politics and differing opinions that schools attract like lightning rods. But let’s not lose sight of what is consistently outstanding about our schools: the teachers and staff who fill them.

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ANGIE FINBERG

English | Whitefish Middle School

There’s not a lot of chatter in Angie Finberg’s English class. Probably because she teaches eighth graders at Whitefish Middle School—at this age, their default setting is cool and skeptical. Fortunately, after three decades of teaching, Mrs. Finberg knows these young teenagers inside and out, and doesn’t for one minute believe the stereotypes.

“Middle schoolers are not what people think they are!” she says. “I think I’m fortunate, as a writing teacher, because I feel like I genuinely get to know them. They’re just good. They’re insightful. They’re funny. They’re deep thinkers and motivated. They’re imperfect, but they’re fun. … I am just impressed with them all the time.”

The class is in the middle of a unit on poetry, which sounds like a tough sell to a group of stoic eighth graders. But not with Mrs. Finberg at the helm. Today is poetry in the form of song lyrics; tomorrow they’ll write and perform their own mic drop poems. She knows they’ll spend plenty of time analyzing sonnets in high school; middle school is a chance to let them experience poetry, write it, and share it.

Mrs. Finberg hooks the kids’ interest right away with a series of “Who is this?” photographs of famous musicians. They instantly recognize a very young Miley Cyrus, but several famous faces stump them. They misidentify Prince as Michael Jackson and throw out tentative guesses of “Elton John?” and “John Denver?” before someone finally lands on John Lennon.

The lecture instantly makes clear why technology is one of Mrs. Finberg’s favorite parts of teaching. Instead of scratching out thoughts longhand on the chalkboards of yesteryear, she runs an engaging, immersive presentation on a giant touchscreen television. Everything she presents in class is available in Google Classroom, a huge help to kids who are sick or traveling, and the class is paperless—no assignments forgotten in lockers or eaten by the dog. She says that it’s also added a whole extra level of communication to the writing process.

“One of my favorite things about Google Classroom is that they can be writing and I can get into their writing,” she says. “So kids who are hesitant to ask questions, I can get in there and edit and suggest things.”

Over the course of the class, they learn about Johnny Cash’s unpublished poems and letters that famous musicians, from Elvis Costello to Willie Nelson, reverently set to music in 2016. She uses that moment to point out that if anyone is developing a love for poetry, becoming a lyricist is one viable career path. The students watch one short video where a speaker asks the audience to guess whether snippets of poetry are rap lyrics or Shakespeare (and I am wrong every time), and another video where Eminem explains to Anderson Cooper how even “orange” rhymes if you bend the words the right way: “I put my OR-ange fOUR-inge [inch] doOR hinge in stORage.”

“We chose this profession for a reason, and it’s the kids.”
 

The class wraps up with everyone listening to songs of their choice on their laptops while reading along with the lyrics, experiencing how the music and the poetic techniques work together. Mrs. Finberg reminds the class that next week they’ll be writing a villanelle—a highly structured form of lyrical poetry from the 19th century. It will be an opportunity to put the techniques they’ve experienced today into practice: the word-bending of Eminem in five tercets and a quatrain.

Mrs. Finberg simply comes alive talking about words—it’s no surprise that she says the idea of a life surrounded by books first attracted her to the idea of teaching English. What she quickly discovered, though, was that she loved having a career surrounded by kids. That’s the common thread among teachers, she says.

“We chose this profession for a reason, and it’s the kids,” she says. “I want kids to read books, to think for themselves, to talk to each other, to write amazing things.”

Angie Finberg

Anna Porter

ANNA PORTER

School Counselor| West Valley Elementary

At West Valley Elementary, school counselor Anna Porter walks into one of the first grade classrooms carrying a storybook, sheets of colored paper, and a poster. She’s here to do a lesson on integrity, but the kids instantly hone in on the stuffed moose tucked under her arm.
“It’s Bruce!” they chatter excitedly.

“Dear Bruce” is a Mrs. Porter original program. Each month, Bruce the Moose has a problem that he needs help with. Today, his letter explains that he “borrowed” his teacher’s toy microphone for the night, thinking he could bring it back unnoticed. But his little brother broke it, and now he doesn’t know what to do.

“If you have any answers for Bruce, don’t tell me!” Mrs. Porter reminds the kids, who are bursting to offer solutions. “Write him a letter and give him some ideas about how he can fix his problem, okay?”

Richard Gross, West Valley’s elementary principal, says that Bruce has been a hit with every class, not just the younger students.

“Honestly, I didn’t imagine that the older kids would take a lot of that to heart, but they do,” he says. “We see fourth graders who are so into writing a letter to Bruce, and it starts the process of being open to her [Mrs. Porter].”

In addition to teaching skills and strategies, all these interactions help make mental health and counseling a mainstream part of school.

Mrs. Porter is constantly—and strategically—connecting with the students. This lesson with the first graders was part of the regularly scheduled time she spends in classrooms teaching social-emotional learning—essentially, the self-awareness, self control, and interpersonal skills kids need to thrive in school and in life. She runs a biweekly art group for the third grade girls, something she developed in response to the teachers noticing strong cliques that needed softening. Last year, anticipating the lag in social skills after the shutdown, she was in kindergarten classrooms every day with supplemental social-emotional learning lessons. In addition to teaching skills and strategies, all these interactions help make mental health and counseling a mainstream part of school.

“It shouldn’t be something that is weird, or where kids feel they’re being singled out if they’re coming to see me,” she says. “I want it to be a very normal thing, and I think that’s something the students really do feel: they can come here and it’s not looked at as anything except coming to see Mrs. Porter.”

VICKI HEUPEL

Science | Bigfork High School

It’s a lab day in Vicki Heupel’s sophomore biology class at Bigfork High School. The kids have been studying the digestive system and are testing how quickly amylase, a digestive enzyme, breaks down starch under different conditions.

There are eight teams of kids with five test tubes per team. Beakers of starch and bicarbonate solutions sit on each lab table next to droppers of iodine. On the back counter, electronic water baths keep their contents at a constant 40 degrees Celsius. The kids are constantly shuttling test tubes between their stations and the back table, clocking the speed of the reactions on their phone timers, and typing the results into their school-issued laptops. There’s a lot going on. And Mrs. Heupel — sharp and witty, joking with her students but definitely in charge — is on top of all of it. I also notice that she answers almost every question with another question.

So when a student offhandedly asks, “What is bicarbonate, anyway?” Mrs. Heupel doesn’t say, “Baking soda.”

Instead, she produces some litmus strips from her pocket and conducts a mini-lesson on the pH levels in different parts of the body, guiding the team of students to understand that the bicarbonate solution has the same pH as liquid found in the intestines, while the acid is the same pH as the stomach.

“My main goal was to help them understand that amylase was something they have in their body, and how does it work, what does it actually do?” she explains. “I’m answering with a question because I’m trying to get them to develop their ideas.”

Mrs. Heupel is wrapping up her 15th year at Bigfork, where in addition to leading dynamic classes in biology, astronomy, and forensics, she continually searches out new innovations in teaching. Like answering a question with a question. And cloning herself.

“If I’m standing in front of the class [lecturing], that’s all I can do,” she says, explaining that her array of teaching strategies is limited by the fact that there’s only one of her. “So one strategy that I use is recording myself for a short lesson.”

She’ll have some of the class watch the video on their laptops while she does one-on-one lab report reviews or pulls out an accelerated group of students to teach them a harder concept.

And at its heart, isn’t that the point of education? Not to simply check the box and pass the class. But to learn, and to learn in a way that makes you want to learn more.

As Mark Hansen, the Bigfork High School principal explains, education has started shifting over the past few decades from the sink-or-swim, “one size fits all” model to the idea of differentiation: adapting lessons to abilities and learning styles so that everyone can learn.

One way Mrs. Heupel puts this concept into practice is by creating three versions of some assignments—“I get this topic,” “I need a couple hints,” “I have no idea what’s going on”—and then motivating the kids to pick the one that’s right for them, which she likens to choosing the shoe that fits. It gives all kids the ability to feel successful learning a topic, which, she says, is the key to keeping them engaged and “starting that snowball of wanting to be a learner.”

And at its heart, isn’t that the point of education? Not to simply check the box and pass the class. But to learn, and to learn in a way that makes you want to learn more.

Vicki Heupel

 

Paxton Schmauch

 

PAXTON SCHMAUCH

Fifth Grade | Hedges Elementary

Since she was in second grade at Evergreen Elementary, Paxton Schmauch wanted to follow in the footsteps of her teacher, Carrie Elliott, and her mom, Pam Doty, who still teaches at Evergreen Junior High.

“Watching my mom and how she cares for kids, I knew that I was put on this earth to teach,” she says. “I know that sounds really weird, but I just felt like that’s what my calling was.”

So Ms. Schmauch—or as the kids call her, Ms. S—walked into her first job as a fifth grade teacher at Hedges Elementary in Kalispell fully prepared to begin her career.

Except that her first year in the classroom was the 2019-20 school year.

When the pandemic hit and the schools closed, “I was so scared,” she says, explaining that, as a brand-new teacher, she was still getting a handle on all the curriculum. Figuring out how to also navigate uncharted educational waters was another matter entirely.

“I was still here almost every day,” she remembers. “It kind of hurt to be away from the school. But I will tell you, it was eerie without the kids. Because that’s not what schools are created for. It was very disheartening to walk down hallways and not see coats hanging and not hear learning happening.”

In any given day, I can be a nurse giving band-aids and an ice pack to having heart-to-heart conversations with kids who are going through a tough time, to giving them advice and being a role model.

Ms. S is bubbly, articulate and quick to laugh. She describes herself as flexible and adaptable, traits that have helped her through the vastly different scenarios of each of her three years of teaching. During the 2020 shutdown she helped her kids focus on moving forward, reassuring them that they’d find their way together. The 2020-21 year brought new challenges with contact tracing requirements, quarantines, and all the restrictions that kept normalcy just out of reach. But, she says, even those experiences have had their benefits.

“If kids are gone now, if they’re sick or on vacation, I’ll get on a Google Meet with them,” she says, explaining that it’s an easy way to go over a math lesson or alleviate a student’s anxiety about getting behind. “And I don’t know if I would have done that pre-pandemic.”

Through the ups and downs, she’s kept her focus on creating deep relationships with her students, emphasizing empathy and kindness along with reading and math. Elementary students probably spend more waking weekday hours with their teacher than anyone else, which creates the opportunity for a unique type of relationship.

“In any given day, I can be a nurse giving band-aids and an ice pack to having heart-to-heart conversations with kids who are going through a tough time, to giving them advice and being a role model,” Ms. S says. “The roles are kind of endless. That’s the very special thing about being a teacher, we cover a lot of bases.”

She sees fifth grade as a pivotal year, an important opportunity to prepare her students for middle school and beyond, both academically and as people.

“I think it’s very important to lay the groundwork now,” she says, “so that when they get into those upper grades, they know that ‘It’s okay to make mistakes and I’m going to live through it.’ That ‘It’s okay to step out of my comfort zone and do things that I may not be super comfortable with, but that I’m going to learn from.”

JOSH FORKE

Music | Columbia Falls High School

“I’m not bothering them; well, I guess I did, but I’m not trying to,” she says. “Living in a very beautiful place, we have this idea that art has to be about landscape or be beautiful to look at, but whoever came up with that idea? I don’t really do it to shock anybody, to push buttons. I don’t like to do that anyway. I just draw what I draw.”

Josh Forke is about halfway through his advanced jazz band class at Columbia Falls High School. They’ve warmed up on a piece he wrote and worked through a Stevie Wonder number for the first time. Now they’re on to something else.

“Find Tiger of San Pedro,” he says, directing the kids to dig through their thick folders of sheet music. “Tiger of San Pedro is like an old rock ’n’ roll latin beat. It’s a samba, which means what, guys?”

“It’s cool!” a student replies.

“It is cool. How many beats are in a samba?”

“Uh … eight?” another student guesses.

“It’s more than one and less than three,” Mr. Forke says jokingly—these kids had to audition to get into this class; they don’t need a heavy hand. “So it goes buh-doe, buh-doo, buh-doe, buh-doo …”

He vocalizes the beat, then the bass line, then the horn part. When the song kicks off, he plays along on the trumpet, dancing in place to the beat, somehow both contributing to the song as a musician and listening to it as a teacher.

Music simply pours out of Josh Forke. In addition to the trumpet, he plays the trombone, piano, and bass and was once performing in four different bands at once, though he’s now scaled back to one, Roots Uprising, a local reggae band.

But a deep love of music is absolutely the wrong reason to become a music teacher, he says.
Professional musicians want to play music, not sit with a tenth grade flute player for 10 minutes, adjusting her form so that she can hit a difficult note. To be a music teacher, you have to start with a passion for teaching. He cites advice passed on to him by a peer: “I don’t teach music to kids, I teach kids — music.”

“Teaching kids is the number one thing,” he continues. “It just happens that we’re teaching them music. … I particularly enjoy teaching, no matter the subject, I enjoy that aspect of it.”

Teaching and kids may come first, but Mr. Forke’s passion for music — any and all music — is a close second. And the combination produces amazing results.

On his very first day at the high school, he asked a jazz class what they thought about Miles Davis? Charlie Parker? Duke Ellington? The blank looks on their faces changed his whole teaching mindset — he realized he didn’t want the kids’ only focus to be preparing songs for a concert. He wanted them to learn about music, all music.

“The whole first part of this year, every Wednesday was a listening day,” he says. “We hardly got our instruments out. Sometimes I’ll present on classical pieces, sometimes I’ll just say that today’s a fun day, we’re going to learn about punk bands. Here are the top four punk bands, let’s check them out, see who they are.”

“Teaching kids is the number one thing. It just happens that we’re teaching them music. I particularly enjoy teaching, no matter the subject, I enjoy that aspect of it.”
 

He was the first teacher in the valley to teach an EDM class—yep, electronic dance music, the stuff of clubs and raves. It’s music largely generated on a computer, using mixing boards and effects, and the class reaches an entirely different segment of the school than traditional band.

“EDM is the kids who come out of the shadows a little bit,” says Mr. Forke, explaining that he loves getting to introduce all kids to the music that interests them. “Band kids are more gregarious, a little more outgoing, and the electro-music kids are like ‘I’m totally fine,’ headphones on, ‘Don’t talk to me.’”

From the wind ensemble playing Gustav Holst to the EDM kids laying down thumping drum beats, the essence of Mr. Forke’s teaching philosophy is that music should be a fun thing to do, a thing you practice because it’s more fun when you’re good at it. He recognizes that the time in class is his chance to communicate this joy to the kids, to create an environment where music becomes the thing they want to do, not the thing they have to do.

Josh Forke

 

I could fill a book with stories just like these from every single school in our valley. We are so lucky to have our schools filled with passionate educators, administrators, and staff, people who get up every morning to welcome our children with open arms, to share their knowledge and passion, to do whatever they can to help our kids grow into productive citizens with bright futures. Every single teacher I talked to wanted you to know the same thing, this one thing: they’re here because they care about our kids and they want them to succeed in school and in life.

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