There’s a rotting apple sitting on a shelf in Carolyn Wieringa’s classroom in West Glacier. Most teachers would have thrown it out ages ago. The apple is slumping and browning and a bit of a mess.
But it’s also a teaching moment, so Wieringa lets it sit there and her fifth-and sixth-grade students record its slow, but eventual demise.
Eventually, they’ll cut some slides and look at it under the microscope to see what they can see.
Learning is way more than textbooks and Wieringa has been teaching generations of students at West Glacier for 28 years now. For her efforts, she was recently recognized by her peers as the 2019 Montana Rural Teacher of the Year.
Wieringa grew up in Ronan. Her parents were teachers and she followed in their footsteps. She received her education degree from Montana State University and came to West Glacier shortly after that. She’s been in the small school at the edge of the Glacier National Park ever since — through thick and thin.
The school almost closed down in the early 2000s due to lack of students and Wieringa recalled that one year she was pregnant with twins and had a young child as well with the prospect of having no job.
In year’s past, enrollment at West Glacier depended largely on the park and its employment. Today, with enrollment of more than 60 students, they come from as far away as Whitefish. With Glacier in its backyard, the school has always had strong support from Park Service. For a small school, it has a broad curriculum, including music, art and even Spanish.
Glacier Park has also been a great classroom. For several years students monitored the Middle Fork of the Flathead River, learning about water quality and river life. This year, they’re learning about the birds of the park.
At least once a week students walk in the park, making a round trip over the old Belton Bridge to park headquarters and then back through West Glacier to the school again. Sometimes the creatures visit them. A couple of years ago, the first day of school had a woolly visitor — a black bear was in the playground.
West Glacier is unique in that the teachers share the administrative duties — it has no principal.
The most enjoyable part of the job?
“I still learn something new everyday,” she said. “It’s cool to learn with the kids and as a staff, we learn from each other.”
Her advice for those getting into teaching is a simple one.
“Relationships are key. If you have good relationships and a good fit, it’s a wonderful profession,” she said.
She’s impressed with the students she works with everyday.
“They’re really busy. They work really hard and it shows. They go to Columbia Falls (for higher education) and they do really well,” she said.
Wieringa and her husband, Ridge, have three teenage boys that attend Columbia Falls. Ridge works as a maintenance technician in Glacier National Park.