MOLT — After 34 years of teaching, including about 20 as the Molt K-8 school's lone teacher, Debra Flynn was recognized as the 2021 Montana Rural Teacher of the Year by the Montana Association of County School Superintendents.
“I was really surprised, because I just think of myself as a teacher and I’m here because kids need an education. Some of them need this small environment. Some of them need this one-on-one. It’s not for every kid, but some of them do need it," Flynn told MTN News Wednesday.
The job at the Molt School was Flynn's first and only teaching position for her entire career. And the award comes at a poignant time in her career: retirement. Flynn will hang it up at the end of the school year. She said it felt good to be recognized with the award, because there's no other staff for her to lean on day to day.
"You don’t have a support staff. You have to be self-motivated, because there is nobody here to pat you on the back if you do a good job on something. You just come every day. Some years it will just be the kids and I. It felt really good to be acknowledged, because I try really hard. I try to keep up with things," Flynn said.
Flynn was born and raised in Butte and lived in New Mexico for eight years with her former husband and two kids before moving back to Montana. She graduated from college in Dillion at the University of Montana Western. Then she got the job in Molt and has been there ever since.
“I wanted a small rural school and when I first was interviewed here, I loved it and they loved me, which was good," Flynn said.
Life for a teacher at a rural school is much different from teachers at other schools, who may instruct several classes per day attended by 25 to 30 students. Flynn has taught classes as small as three and as large as 13 with students spread across all grade levels K-8.
“It’s very unusual. The kids learn from each other and they listen to other people’s lessons. They’ll say, ‘Oh, I remember so and so did that last year. I can remember how to do it. And I’m like, okay. But then they teach each other too because otherwise we wouldn’t get through the day. There’s so much stuff that we have to get through," Flynn said.
The Molt School is small, with one classroom, a common room and a library that was formerly a classroom. About 20 years back, there were too few students to require two teachers, so Flynn stayed and the other classroom was converted.
Imagine having to plan lessons in multiple subjects across multiple grade levels every day. That's what Flynn has been doing for decades. She said much of her course planning falls outside of the normal workday. She said she's able to get a lot of planning done after school or on Fridays, when school lets out an hour early at 2:30 p.m.
“There’s no down time. I had someone come in to visit one time who said, ‘where’s your lounge?’ and I went, ‘What’s a lounge?’ A teacher’s lounge doesn’t exist here. My break is if the aide takes them out to recess, and then I grade like crazy or prepare for the next lesson," Flynn said.
This year, Flynn has gotten some extra teaching help, thanks to a teaching aide, who was hired to help across grade levels. The lone kindergartner is learning remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic this year, so the aide's help has gone farther in the classroom, Flynn said.
The current class is made up of five students in kindergarten, fourth, fifth, sixth and eighth grades.
“I still have the aide, which is really, really nice because it gives everyone one-on-one time. We do main course subjects. I mostly teach the math, simply because it is core math and it is kind of a struggle for these kids sometimes and a struggle for me. The eighth-grade math and I, I have a math minor, but I haven’t used those algebra skills in a long time," Flynn said.
With 34 years teaching in the small community of Molt, there's no doubt that Flynn has left an impact.
“Right now, I’ve got two students whose parent went to school here and her brothers went to school here. I’ve had this eighth grader now for nine years. So that’s kind of a big deal for me. I think that he likes it here," Flynn said with a smile and laugh.
The Montana Teacher of the Year award comes with the perks of a $500 endowment and an all-expense paid trip for Flynn and a substitute teacher to the Montana Association of County School Superintendents spring conference.
But after that, Flynn plans to move to Billings to spend time with her mother, sister, kids and other family. She currently lives in a modest home next to the school called a teacherage. She also mentioned plans of a road trip to the Phoenix area with another retired friend to see a fellow teacher.
“We thought we would just take a road trip. And it sounds fun, you know? We can just go when we want to. And I would like to spend more time visiting with my mom and my family, because they are scattered across the state," Flynn said. “I’ll probably go find something to do, because I will probably be bored. Because I’m used to going, having purpose. It’s important to have purpose," she added.