Jamie Matthew of Swan Valley School is Montana's Rural Teacher of the Year

Swan Valley School is nestled in between the Mission and Swan Mountains and inside Jamie Matthew’s classroom, light from the east-facing windows glows beautifully. The wood on her reading loft seems to stand out in the 3 p.m. sunshine.

Students had just been released, and Matthew hugged a former student in the entrance to the school before walking back to her classroom to talk about something she kind of hates talking about — herself.

Matthew was designated the Montana Rural Teacher of the Year by the Montana Association of County Superintendents of Schools this year. The award is intended to highlight teachers with “demonstrated outstanding qualities as (educators) and who (are) currently serving in a rural school setting.” Matthew said she was humbled enough by the nomination and that not in a million years would she have expected to be chosen.

Angie Mock, Swan Valley Elementary School principal and one of the people who nominated Matthew for the award, said one of the first things she noticed about Matthew was her ability to teach across levels.

“She’s just super valuable in the fact that she can make sure that all of her students are receiving what they need,” Mock said.

Like rural teachers everywhere, Mock said Matthew wears a lot of hats. She’s the school’s tech person. The one who does the cataloging in the library. A mentor to the new kindergarten through second grade teacher. And even when she’s overwhelmed, she doesn’t let it get her down.

Mock and the teacher Matthew is mentoring were the ones who broke the news to Matthew about her nomination.

“I just broke down crying,” Matthew said. “I can’t even tell you what it means.”

Matthew was raised in Seeley Lake, going through both the elementary and high school in town. She went to Bozeman to study photography at Montana State University, but never quite finished her undergraduate degree.

Her fiance at the time was diagnosed with cancer, and she left college to care for him. About a year and a half later, he passed away.

Matthew remarried and she and her husband, who she knew in high school, moved to Condon with their two kids. When both her kids entered Swan Valley School, Matthew found herself with some extra time on her hands. She started volunteering at the school, until a teacher suggested she work as a paraprofessional. Matthew said yes, went through the appropriate training and spent five years working in each classroom at Swan Valley School with students with special educational needs.

As those five years came to a close, Swan Valley School ended up with two teaching positions open and only one applicant. Matthew was asked if she was interested in a teaching job.

Since she did not graduate with an undergrad degree, Matthew completed a four-year program — the Western Governors University — in a year and a half while she was teaching full-time under an emergency authorization to become a licensed teacher, taking 56 credits in one six-month term in order to meet the deadline for student teaching.

“When I was a para I was in all three classrooms and I would have all these ideas. There were really cool things the teachers did that I would emulate and then there’s things that I was like, I’d do differently,” Matthew said. “I also had a lot of parent encouragement. I had ones coming up to me saying, I think you’ve got to be a teacher and there were honestly a few of those that probably put me over the edge of having the confidence to say, okay, maybe I can do this.”

Matthew has now been teaching in the third, fourth and fifth grade classroom at Swan Valley School for seven years.

Because of that set up, having three grades per teacher, Matthew said she gets really close to her students. Some she ends up teaching for three years. That’s not always ideal, Matthew said.

There’s a gap between a third grader’s abilities and a fifth grader’s, but one of Matthew’s approaches to teaching is making sure she finds a way for every student to understand something she’s explaining. Maybe this means she has to teach the same math concept in three different ways, but she’ll pursue that until each student is comfortable.

She sets high standards and has high expectations for her students — you do it nice or you do it twice, is one of her go-to sayings — a sort of tough love mentality she received from her fifth and sixth grade teacher at Seeley Lake Elementary, Lisa Pena, a teacher Matthew highlighted as one of her biggest inspirations. Pena was Matthew’s teacher during a particularly difficult part of her life after her father’s murder in 1992.

“Kids learn differently, they see things differently and it makes sense to them differently,” Matthew said.

Matthew equated it to parenting. A person might have their first child and think they have it figured out until the second comes along and the whole system needs to change. Children are always changing, culture is always changing, technology is always changing. To account for all of this, Matthew just tries to meet her students where they’re at, finding a balance between learning from them and breaking them out of their comfort zones.

This school year, Matthew has eight students in her classroom. Another element of rural education she appreciates, along with all the built-in relationship building that comes with small class sizes, is how much space it creates for one-on-one time, ensuring no student falls through the cracks. She tries to plan projects with real-life ties that help students understand the relevance behind what they’re learning.

This spring, Matthew’s class will dive into their animal studies projects, something Matthew said they’ve been talking about all year. They’ll create three-dimensional cities, using math, business and art skills to design their own rural or metropolitan landscapes. They’ll do an Oregon Trail project focused on Westward Expansion, trying to plan for a journey across the country by figuring out what they would need to take with them in a covered wagon and what could stay behind.

In February, her class exceeded its monthly reading goal — 15,000 minutes — hitting 16,501. (“In the month of February! Eight students!” Matthew said.) This means the class gets a trip up to Holland Falls and an afternoon at the swimming area.

“I’m grateful to see our school highlighted,” Matthew said. “What I keep looking at is it’s a chance for me to show such great aspects about Swan Valley, because it really is a pretty cool school to be a part of.”


Reader Comments(1)

Jackrich writes:

So very proud of my niece-a well-deserved honor! Jack Rich

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