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Winnett from the rimrocks

Winnett is shown from the rimrocks east of town off Highway 200 in September 2016. 

Trisha Lincoln grew up north of Hingham — almost closer to the Canadian border than the high school she attended.

Montana’s most isolated schools have to search harder and harder to find teachers, in some cases coming up empty. They’re looking to teaching students like Lincoln, a teaching student at Montana State University, as a solution.

“I saw it on one side” as a student, Lincoln said. It makes sense she’d fit in as a teacher.

Bart Hawkins is the Superintendent of North Star Schools, which students from several Hi-Line towns including Hingham attend. Its enrollment is still small enough to play six-man football.

He’s blunt about small-town teaching, noting that teachers are sometimes expected to handle multiple subjects. He’s also blunt about small-town living.

“What it means is if you go tie one off Saturday night at the local bar, your kids are probably gonna know that,” he told Montana State University students like Lincoln at a rural schools event in Bozeman in December.

“If I’m talking to someone that’s from a small town, that’s a pretty easy conversation,” he said. “That doesn’t mean if you’re not from a small town it’s not going to work out.”

But for many Montana teachers it doesn’t work out. Rural schools have trouble filling not just high school subjects and special education jobs, but the smallest schools have had trouble finding previously abundant elementary applicants.

Potential solutions touch on several topics, like better pay, changing certification processes, and targeted professional support for young teachers. But one solution already available is the concept of growing your own teachers — kids who attended a rural school and come back to teach in one.

Lincoln is seriously considering the idea of getting her first job in a small, isolated community. But she’s not sold on building a life in her first landing spot.

“I don’t want to go somewhere and get stuck,” she said.

'Starting spot'

Growing up in Ronan, Aaron Skogen never thought he’d end up teaching in a small school. He landed in Highwood for his first job, teaching and coaching six-man football. His players had to correct plays he drew up that accidentally violated six-man rules.

“I didn’t know that was a thing,” he said.

Skogen stayed five years in Highwood before moving on to administration, working in Geraldine and now as a principal in Colstrip.

He’s become a vocal advocate for rural education, highlighting relationships between teachers and students.

“I’d have kids knocking on my door because they wanted help on their math final” at 8:30 p.m., he said. “You get to witness student growth over the years.”

He’s also realistic about the lack of amenities — no big box stores or supergrocers.

“There’s Amazon Prime, that always helps,” he said.

Brian Murakami attended a small high school in California before studying education at MSU.

“I think it’s a great starting spot,” he said about small schools. But he’s most focused on keeping his options open.

Skogen doesn’t disagree with that approach.

“We’re not asking you to live in Highwood for 30 years,” he said. “A lot of these places will pay for you to go get another (subject area) endorsement … with that, you can go wherever you want.”

However, part of the problem with teacher shortages is that high-need areas tend to churn through inexperienced teachers, who are generally less effective than veteran teachers. That hurts kids. And if schools spend money on developing teachers, it doesn’t pay off if they leave the school soon after.

But that support can help keep teachers around, even if they didn’t necessarily plan on it.

Samantha Van Horn grew up in Circle and now teaches first and second grade at Richey School. The rural environment and small class size appeal to her, but so do resources geared at keeping her around.

“I think in a small school they really invest back in you,” she said.

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