Rising to the Occasion for Our Teachers and Students

By Laura Crist

1989 marked 100 years since Montana became a state. It was a big deal in all the schools. At the time Mary Sheehy Moe was teaching in Columbia Falls. She organized a group of students and teachers to create a song-and-skit program celebrating the state’s centennial.

The play, “Echoes from the Past,” was performed in several communities across the state, but the best performance was in their hometown.

Columbia Falls was struggling. The aluminum plant, then the largest employer in the area, was in danger of closing.

Tensions were high.

However, the night “Echoes from the Past” came home, the community packed the high school auditorium. Neighbors laughed together, cried together and found joy in the talent of 20 students telling the story they shared, Montana’s story.

“It was a career highlight for me,” said Mary.

Doing the play wasn’t required by her job, but she knew that the time, heart and soul that went into this experience would be one of her students and she would remember forever. She was right.

Mary had a 40+-year career in education, teaching students at every level from middle school to graduate school. She’s been a union leader, a college administrator, a deputy commissioner for the university system, a school board member and a legislator on the Education Committee. In short, when it comes to education, she’ s done it all.

Over the past year, concerned about the exodus of teachers from the profession, especially in Great Falls, Mary began interviewing teachers around the state to understand why.

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Education is struggling everywhere, not just in Great Falls. Mary shared her insights about this.

“Teaching is not the same as it was even 20 years ago. Teachers have less latitude for creativity in their classroom or even teaching to their expertise in subject areas.

There is a combination of new stressors that make teaching very different – armed intruder drills, combative students, endless testing.

student sitting on chairs in front of chalkboard

There is a general lack of respect, less autonomy in the classroom and increased needs of students.

Essentially our teachers are more tired than ever and have fewer resources in the form of paras, aides, custodians, librarians, substitutes and other staff than ever before.”

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Mary pointed out that teaching is a uniquely isolated profession. Teachers can’t do the things other professionals do to reduce job stress. There are no business meetings at the local coffee shop or going out for a group birthday lunch. Even going to the restroom is a challenge!

There is no “downtime.”

“Long after the school day ends, you’re still thinking about your students, “ Mary said. “You worry as parents worry, but you have 21 or 28 or 128 kids.”

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Because their experience is so unique and isolating, teachers form strong bonds with one another and with all the staff in the school.

When the custodian quits because she can get better pay working at Hobby Lobby, teachers feel it.

When resource teachers are cut, classroom teachers feel it. When special teacher training, conferences, and collaboration opportunities are cut, teachers are cut off from the interactions with one another they need.

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In Great Falls, Mary said, the cuts over the last 10 years have increased not only teachers’ workloads and stress, but also their isolation.

I asked Mary how our community could be more supportive of teachers and staff. “We’ve been digging a hole for the past 10 years,” she responded. “You don’t see the effect so much year to year, but over 10 years it’s taken a heavy toll. So the first thing we need to do is put down the shovel. We need to recommit to giving teachers the resources they need to do great things with kids. Right now, they’re just surviving. It’s going to take time to fill up the hole we’ve dug, but we can do it. I know we can.”

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During her career, Mary weathered tough times in other communities.

“It’s hard when the economy changes and everything seems to cost more.

But the communities that thrive don’t lose sight of the important work their schools are doing.

Yes, they’re laying the foundation for tomorrow’s workforce. But it goes so much deeper than that.”

To illustrate, Mary said “she likes to go out for a beer with her husband and his buddies from time to time. Most of them became friends as classmates half a century ago.”

“They all have very different incomes, careers, and political perspectives, but they have this incredible bond,” Mary mused.

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“It started way back in elementary school and was cemented at Great Falls High. They have that ‘glue’ that makes a community a community. And that glue extends to everyone they went to school with. They understand one another and they’re there for one another.

I’ve lived in lots of Montana communities, but this amazing bond is what makes Great Falls so special.”

toddlers wearing sports jersey suit standing near white wall

Great Falls has had some tough times in the decades since these guys graduated from high school, Mary said. Just like Columbia Falls, those good blue-collar jobs are harder to find, and reinventing your economy takes time. But through good times and bad, communities that thrive make the excellence of their schools a point of pride.

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“We need to recommit to that. Not just because great schools attract desirable businesses and professionals,”

Mary said, “and not just because great schools create tomorrow’s workforce. We do it for the same reason that all those stressed-out citizens of Columbia Falls crowded into that auditorium 30 years ago:

because we love our kids. They are our joy. They are our legacy. They are today’s sweetness and tomorrow’s glue.”

Excellence in education has a proud history in Great Falls. We have been the best of the best. But after digesting the comments of dozens of Great Falls teachers, Mary’s concerns about the district’s teachers intensified.

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“They’re losing hope,” she said, shaking her head. “After 10 years of cuts, they don’t have the support staff or the resources or the workload they need to do what they know is quality work. And the effort is exhausting them.” The result? “Like most Montana communities, Great Falls is struggling to recruit new teachers. Unlike most other large communities, now we’re struggling to keep them.

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And not just teachers. We’re having trouble keeping custodians, paraprofessionals, and substitutes too. Frankly, it’s scary.”

Then Mary smiles. “But when I sit around a table with my husband and his friends, I just have to believe in the glue. An earlier generation worked hard and made sacrifices to give these guys the great schools that made such a difference in their lives and in this community.

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I’m confident that we still have those values and that we can still have those schools.

But it’s time to put down the shovel, Great Falls. Enough is enough. Our students, our teachers, and our community need our support. We need to rise to the occasion. And I believe we will.”

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