GREENOUGH - Toni Hatten never imagined she’d be teaching in a town with less than 2,000 people and in a two-room schoolhouse with less than 15 students - but she’s been doing it now for over a decade and is winning awards for her dedication to her students.
Hatten was awarded the Montana Association of County Superintendents 2023 Rural Teacher of the Year Award for her work at Sunset School in Greenough, located between Missoula and Ovando.
It was because of Hatten’s connection with her students that she was able to win this award.
“My talent is my ability to connect with my students in some way or another, or find a way to connect with kids,” she says. “Because if you don’t have that, it’s really hard when you’re trying to challenge them, or when you have to address an issue.”
In a school with ten enrolled students, Hatten has plenty of opportunities to connect one-on-one with her kids.
“The beauty of teaching in this kind of environment is that you get to build a relationship with a kid, like a genuine relationship,” she says. “You get to know this kiddo pretty well. You get to know what makes them tick, what bothers them, how they learn.”
Her eighth grade students, who will graduate this year and move onto much larger, public high schools next year, say Hatten has dramatically changed their educational experience.
For Adam, an eighth grader who travels from Clinton every day to go to Sunset, previous middle schools were never a great fit for him.
“I was having problems with other kids, and the school was just not handling it, so I left,” Adam says.
Now, at Sunset, Adam is able to feel happy and welcome at school.
“I’m no longer complaining every day about school,” he says. “I’m enjoying it. And I feel like I’m finally at a place where I actually fit in with everybody. I don’t feel isolated. I have a great group of friends, I have tons of support, it’s just been absolutely amazing here.”
Rowan, an eighth grade student who had basically stopped going to school during COVID-19, had a similar experience coming to Sunset and learning under Hatten.
“Mrs. Hatten, in a way, has really brought me out of a really dark place that I used to be in when I came here,” Rowan says. “I was very angry, and I was very sad before I had a fulfilling family in life, because I was lacking that in the home where I came from. And I can say I’m a lot more free, and I’m a lot more kind than I used to be. And that’s all thanks to her, and the people around me, and the community she’s built.”
Rowan was two years behind when she came to Sunset, but Hatten was able to get her caught up with her peers.
“Now I’m graduating on time, with people my age, and it’s just a lot more fulfilling to be in this kind of space with her, and it all just starts with Mrs. Hatten,” Rowan says.
Sera, the only other eighth grade student at Sunset, was bullied in her previous schools. Now, with the support of Hatten, she has broken out of her shell and gained self-confidence.
“I was so self-deprecating and there’s just been a lot of stuff that I’ve went through,” Sera says. “But people here, especially Mrs. Hatten, have helped me shape who I am today, right now in this moment, and who I will continue to try to be.”
Due to its size, Sunset School offers a different learning style than traditional public schools. Besides a more personal connection with the faculty, students at Sunset have more opportunities for hands-on learning and field trips.
Hatten has taken her kids to Glacier National Park to meet with forest rangers, to Bozeman to see the Museum of the Rockies, and even to Washington D.C. She plans to use some of the prize money from the award to take the students indoor rock climbing in Missoula.
The kids also get regular visits from local artists, music teachers, and yoga instructors, all of whom are invited by Hatten.
Another benefit to a school like Sunset is the relationships between the students themselves. All grades learn and play together, creating a small community inside the schoolhouse.
The youngest kids have the older students to look up to, and the older kids learn the responsibility of looking after the younger students.
“You’re a role model, regardless if you want to be or not. You are," Hatten says. "Because they’re looking at those big kids and wanting to do what they do, you know? Kinders can’t wait to have their first spelling test, because they see the older kids doing spelling tests.”
While Hatten couldn’t imagine teaching anywhere else, she didn’t feel that way her first school year. When she started at Sunset 12 years ago, her class was as small as it could get.
“The first year was tough, because I only had one student, and college doesn’t really prepare you for that,” she says.
She worked with the school board to encourage enrollment to Sunset, and even put ads in The Pathfinder — the local newspaper in Seeley Lake. By her third year, the schoolhouse had eight students enrolled.
Hatten encourages the kids to put on school plays each year to attract the community and prospective families. It's important that Sunset School maintains student enrollment.
“If our numbers were to go away, then we could close, the school would close after a certain period of time,” Hatten says.
Since her first day at Sunset, Hatten has had to work hard to adapt to the unique teaching style.
“The teaching part is the hard part because you’re teaching multi-grade,” she says. “Even with low numbers, you have maybe a kinder and seventh grader, and so you can’t do things together in that scenario.”
Over the years, Hatten has found a method to cope with the madness, and can now run the day pretty smoothly.
“You try to make it cohesive, and when you can’t, you just try to have some sort of group, and some sort of coordinated dance where they’re learning all at the same time,” she says.
Throughout the years, Hatten has had extra help with part-time paraeducators.
This year, with ten students enrolled, Sunset hired another, full-time teacher to handle kindergarten through fourth grade, a paraeducator — who happens to be Hatten’s daughter — and a student teacher from the University of Montana.
Having the extra support is helpful for a classroom setting, but also as a social aspect. Hatten says working in a small, rural school can feel lonely.
“It’s very isolating because you don’t have coworkers, everyone is far away,” she says. “So now that I have a para and a teacher? I feel like I’ve moved up in the world.”
Even with more staff members, the teachers and paras at Sunset School are responsible for all of the kids’ needs.
“We are everything to the students,” Hatten says. “We are their cafeteria lady. We are their P.E. teacher, their music teacher, their art teacher, we do it all.”
Hatten has had an effect on the small school in Greenough, and the school has had an effect on her.
“I can’t imagine going anywhere else, honestly. They’re going to have to ship me out when it’s time.”
Sunset school accepts out-of-district students but gives first priority to Greenough residents.
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