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Local Teacher Wins Award

On May 5, Sheena Wortman, who teaches at Bear Paw Elementary School (BPES) in South Blaine County, learned she had won a Rural Teacher Appreciation Award from Hill County Electric Cooperative. A $1500 cash prize accompanied the award.

Currently in her 15th year as an educator, Wortman began her career as a second grade teacher in Big Sandy, where she also taught junior high math due to a shortage of teachers that year. After moving to Chinook, she accepted a teaching position in Harlem where she served as the librarian at the elementary school for several years but devoted one year to teaching kindergarten when a vacancy there required her to be flexible.

When she and her husband moved sixty miles south of Chinook to his family ranch, Wortman left teaching for a time, but she missed the classroom and took substitution positions whenever she could. Upon hearing that the BPES was looking for a teacher, Wortman learned that the school had been closed for almost three years and was on the verge of being closed for good. "I had reservations at first about taking the position because of the distance I would have to drive each day. The school is thirty-eight miles one way from our ranch, on some of the most treacherous roads in winter and spring. However, I found relief in the fact that the school did provide housing if needed."

Wortman started there in 2018 with two students and claims the experience surpassed her expectations. "The kids were ranch kids and had a general love for the great outdoors. I could relate to these students. I grew up on a ranch south of Big Sandy and love all things about ranching. I know the difficulties and also the joys. I thought this position was hand-made for me, teaching in true rural Montana."

During her four years at BPES, the enrollment has grown to eleven students, ranging from kindergarten through fourth grade. Otherwise isolated and far from any town, six of her students make the commute with her to and from school each day. "Because the Bear Paw School is closest for a lot of these kids, I can help the parents out by transporting them, and they help keep our numbers up at the school, so hopefully it won't have to close anytime soon."

Wortman was inspired to become an educator by her third grade teacher, Mrs. Nelson. "I loved the way she used a hands-on approach to learning that made school fun. I try to use the same approach with my students, and I love to take them on field trips to places like our hundred-year-old ranch to teach them about homesteading."

The Wortman Ranch has an original cabin from the first homesteaders, so students see how homesteaders lived, observe old machinery, and churn butter in the old-fashioned way. Students often remark that a highlight of the field trip is feeding the bottle calves.

On another favorite excursion, students trek to the Stafford-McClelland Ferry, where they perform a scavenger hunt for such things as wildlife, landmarks, and different plants. After the ferry operator shares a history of the area and of the ferry, the students get to ride the ferry across the Missouri River. Believing that some things just can't be taught in a brick and mortar classroom, Wortman provides alternate experiences to deepen students' understanding and knowledge base. "I love that these students have the unique opportunity to learn and see what rural Montana has to offer them," she said.

Although teaching multiple grades presents "demanding and sometimes exhausting" challenges-such as teaching five different grades across the curriculum at the same time-Wortman finds satisfaction in the support she receives from parents and the community. "I have had flat tires changed, special treats made, a record attendance for our Christmas Program, winter clothing donations, pizza deliveries, and much more. I know the community loves seeing the school open as much as I do. I am so thankful for my position at this country school and the involvement of the community."

Blaine County Superintendent of Schools, Valerie White was on hand for the award presentation, which took place at the school on May 5. About her award, Wortman expressed pleasure: "It was a wonderful surprise," she said.

When asked to name the most satisfying aspect about teaching in a rural school, Wortman answered: "It's the kids. Most come from a ranching background, so they know what hard work is and have been brought up with the best manners and work ethic. They also exhibit wonderful imaginations. These are my kind of kids! In fact, they become like family to me."

Wortman went on to outline a recent teaching pleasure. By May 19, her kindergarten through third grade students had met the required contact hours, so the academic year had concluded for them. Given those circumstances, Wortman explained: "I have one fourth grade student left for the last two weeks. She came home with me yesterday after school. We had big plans of putting a garden in, but the weather didn't cooperate. So for math at my house, we played Cribbage-a great game for mental math. My student was a quick study and loved the game. I would never be able to do that in a bigger school!"

This teacher appreciation award will actually enable Wortman to remain in her current position. "I love my job, but the drive is expensive! With fuel prices rising and general wear and tear on my vehicle, it is hard to afford the daily drive. The school does not provide for my transportation to and from school. I would stay at the housing provided, but I feel bringing the kids to school daily is more helpful in keeping our school open. I also spend my own money buying supplies for our school when the budget doesn't allow for the expense. The money our school gets each year is based on the number of students over a period of time, and since it was closed for almost three years, our average number barely supports the current enrollment. However, this job is more than a paycheck to me, and doing what I get to do every day in a small country school with some of the smartest country kids makes it all worth it," she said.

Because the Hill County Electric (HCE) Board of Trustees believes that recruiting and retaining quality educators in rural Montana schools presents significant challenges, they offer this unique award opportunity to rural communities. HCE annually presents an area teacher with a $1,500 award through their Teacher Appreciation Program to a current or incoming educator who teaches at a Class B or smaller school district in HCE's service area. If the teacher continues to teach in a rural school in the HCE service area, the award is renewed for a second year.

Applications are due on March 1 each year. The award is paid at the completion of the school year, and it is not required for the teacher to be a member or member-dependent of HCE.