Polaris teacher is 2021 Montana teacher of the year

Casey S. Elliott
Wednesday, September 16, 2020
Teacher of the Year

Polaris educator Kristi Borge is the 2021 Montana Teacher of the Year. Borge received the recognition last week through a surprise visit from Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen, right. Kristi’s husband Erik is also pictured. Courtesy photo

POLARIS – One of Beaverhead County’s rural teachers was awarded the 2021 Montana Teacher of the Year award last week.

Polaris teacher Kristi Borge received notice of the award in the classroom, with a surprise visit from Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen and county Superintendent of Schools Linda Marsh.

“I was really honored and surprised to earn this award. I think it’s so important to say that any success I’ve had is because I’ve learned from other teachers and mentors,” she said, extending credit to Marsh and other teachers Borge worked with in the past. “A lot of what I do in my school is made possible by the work of other rural school teachers in the county and around the state. We have to work together though we are spread apart by distance.”

Borge holds a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a master’s of education in curriculum and instruction, both from Montana State University. Polaris is a rural one-room schoolhouse with students from kindergarten through eighth grade. This year, the school has 11 students and Borge is teaching first- to seventh-graders.

Borge is a fourth-generation Montanan, drawn to teaching as a result of her own school years.

“It was having so many positive teachers in my own life and having a really positive elementary and middle school experience. I went to a smaller school, and I just felt really cared for and loved returning to school in the fall,” she said. “As I became an adult, I realized how influential it could be on youth.”

This is Borge’s 10th year teaching. Her first position out of college was at the middle school level, where she had approximately 30 students in her class at a time. Borge moved to Polaris with her husband, who operates Maverick Mountain ski area, and filled a vacant teacher position at Polaris.

“It worked out really well, where I could keep doing my passion, and my husband could keep doing his,” she said.

Borge was nominated by Marsh for her ability to be creative through her instruction.

“I have worked with Kristi for several years and have seen firsthand her ability to create an environment with a positive culture for learning in which all students are free to make choices, ask and find answers to their questions, and develop a love of learning,” she said. “During the school closures this spring due to COVID-19, she displayed great flexibility incorporating technology to ensure her students didn’t miss a beat.”

Borge noted teaching during the coronavirus pandemic brought new challenges for teachers across the country, and more so to rural districts like Polaris. Abrupt school closures in March threw regular instruction off-kilter, but Borge filled in the gaps by holding summer school outdoors to help get her students caught up.

“One thing about a small school is you can be really flexible – you don’t have to coordinate with so many people. You can work with each family one-on-one,” she said. “We are also really grateful because we have so much technology available, even in rural Polaris. That has made planning for teaching during the pandemic a lot easier in our case.”

Arntzen said she was most impressed by Borge’s innovation in teaching and her family’s contribution to the Polaris local economy with Maverick Mountain.

“She is not only building community through her teaching with children, but also economically and structurally supporting the community,” she said. “I think that is exceptional.”

Arntzen said she was also impressed with how Borge tailors learning to individual students – something that all rural teachers must do with multiple grade levels in the same room.

“If she was teaching in a bigger setting with multiple teachers, she would still bring that uniqueness and strength out of every child,” Arntzen added.

In Montana, state teachers of the year assist legislators and the office of public instruction with policy, bringing ideas to possibly incorporate for instruction statewide, Arntzen said.

“Being a teacher right now in the era of COVID is a risk – not because of the virus, but because of such an unprecedented stop of education flow in the traditional manner,” she said.

“I’m really proud of what rural school teachers in Montana do,” Borge said. “I think this pandemic really emphasized the important role of all teachers and how schools are so important to the function of our society.”

Borge will represent Montana in the 2021 National Teacher of the Year program. She will receive professional development – where she decides the focus, with the costs covered by the state of Montana. The national teacher winner will be announced on television. The national teacher travels across the country to share their wisdom and inspire others to join the profession, though the way this is done may change due to the ongoing pandemic.