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By Andi Bourne

Building a Sense of Community Through Teaching and Mentorship


December 14, 2017

Photo provided

Swan Valley Junior High teacher Colleen Harrington with the cardboard phone held together with tape that the students wired to call the office. "I was just blown away that the phone worked."

SWAN VALLEY – Swan Valley resident Colleen Harrington was offered her dream job this past fall when she was hired as the junior high teacher for Swan Valley School. After teaching at the Mission Mountain School for 18 years and spending the past seven years volunteering in various capacities at Swan Valley School, Harrington completed her teaching license and Masters of Education in May 2017. She looks forward to not only teaching her students the academics they need to succeed but also being their mentor and developing a life-long sense of community.

Harrington worked for 18 years as the English teacher and academic supervisor for the Mission Mountain School for teenage girls in the Swan Valley. She and her husband closed the school in 2008 so they could raise their own girls.

Harrington said in all the years at Mission Mountain School she learned that everyone has gifts and talents.

"I think it is my job to help them find it and carry it on in their lives," said Harrington.

With two girls in Swan Valley School, Harrington joined the Parent Teacher's Association and became the president of the group. Being a musician and having run track in high school, she also helped in the music department and became the assistant track coach when her oldest entered the fifth grade.

"I loved it; it was fun and I loved the kids," said Harrington.

Harrington decided she would like to get her teaching license so she could teach in the public school system, specifically Swan Valley School. In 2015, she enrolled in Montana State University, Billing's online program that allowed her to get her licensure and Masters in Education since she already had an undergraduate degree.

She finished the coursework for her teaching license in 2016 and did her student teaching at Seeley Lake Elementary in the fourth grade.

Harrington said everything worked out perfectly. She finished her master's degree in May 2017, graduated and was hired into the open sixth through eighth grade teaching position at Swan Valley School.

"I was thrilled to get it," said Harrington. "I just love this age of kids. They are inquisitive; they are fun and naturally creative. They are just a joy. They are full of energy and excitement and are up for anything."

Harrington has embraced the exploratory and practical arts requirements. She loads her seven students in her van and "takes excursions around the valley."

Students have toured the Mission Mountains Mercantile construction site and talked with the Matthew Brothers Construction about what it is like to be a contractor; they took a yoga class from local instructor Larrine Abolt; the Swan Valley Emergency Services certified the students in CPR; and after winter break they are going to the Photographers Formulary to learn how to develop their own photographs and complete their First Aid certification in the spring.

"I'm trying to get them out into the community and do things that are beyond the educational curriculum to give them some experiences," said Harrington.

Harrington is also trying to implement hands-on activities as much as possible. Last week they made their own telephones and walkie-talkies. Harrington found the boxed kits from 1995 in her storage room and turned the kids loose. It took them a little over an hour to assemble the kits.

"They plugged in one of their phones and called the office. Katie answered and it was like the highlight of their life. Then they made the walkie-talkies work and were running all over the school checking them out," said Harrington. "They figured everything out on their own and they had tremendous success."

Harrington also sees her role as not only an academic teacher but also as a mentor teaching her students to maintain clear boundaries, a sense of responsibility to themselves and each other and instill in them a sense of community.

Photo provided

Colleen Harrington's classroom at Swan Valley School.

"I believe that kids want boundaries, they just don't know it. The more you hold kids accountable, the more you realize that eventually they'll come to understand that you're doing it because you care about them, even though they don't like it at first," said Harrington. "I'm teaching them the quadratic equation, but I'm also teaching them how to be a kind, respectful, thoughtful person and to take that out into the world and teach others."

Harrington believes a sense of community gives children a sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves. It also helps them understand that the choices they make affect other people around them.

Harrington said, "I want these kids to have a sense of community for themselves, for the school and then to bring that later on into their lives and to recognize that community is important and to bring that wherever they go."


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