From a two-room schoolhouse to the White House, Divide School teacher Judy Boyle has taken a route untrammeled.
Boyle went from the Divide School, where she teaches six students in two rooms, to the White House this week to shake the hand of Michael Kratsios, deputy assistant to President Donald Trump. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Science Foundation chose Boyle, along with 139 others, for awards in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math).
Boyle was one of two teachers from Montana to receive one of the $10,000 awards given for the honor. The organizers chose Boyle for excellence in teaching science. The other Montanan to get the honor was Dacia Lackey from Bozeman, for mathematics.
Boyle has traveled far in more than one way. Now 59, she didn’t teach science until age 26 when she taught third grade, where science was part of the daily curriculum. But she didn’t become a full-time science teacher until she was 40, when she took on eighth-grade science at a school in Idaho.
Boyle wasn’t looking through a microscope as a kid; she was reading “Jane Eyre.” In college, she minored in English. She began her career teaching middle-school English.
She didn’t even like science as a kid.
“There was a lot of memorization, a lot of copycat science experiments,” Boyle said.
But that’s not the way Boyle teaches her students, who learn in a valley ringed by snow-capped mountains in southwest Montana where a traffic jam is more likely caused by a herd of elk than a line of cars.
There’s even a river that runs through it.
And she takes her six students to that nearby river — the Big Hole — to sample water. If there’s a bald eagle outside, she doesn’t pass up the chance to walk through the door with the kids to look at it. Her own joy in discovering the natural world is why she wants to spend her $10,000 presidential award money exploring Alaska during some time off.
Such a policy seems to pay off.
Her kindergarten student is already learning algebra.
“He hears what I teach the older students,” she says.
In the 15 years she’s been at the Divide School, she's seen her students go on to college and win awards of their own. In an era when "teaching to the test" increasingly becomes the norm nationally, she brings the whole world into her classroom. Her students use the second room in the Divide School to hatch trout eggs. They set the grown trout free in a Bozeman fishing pond.
Despite such a sophisticated teaching philosophy, Boyle had to tell others in Washington D.C. that her school has electricity.
But Boyle takes such jabs in stride. She leans in to look her listener closely in the eye when she talks about her brood, saying that a kindergarten student asked what pollution is a couple of years ago.
And as she tells the story, a big smile on her face, she relates that she didn’t have to answer. The other students shot their hands up in the air, ready to teach the smallest of them all.