By Mira Brody EBS STAFF
POLARIS, MT. – Teaching in a one room schoolhouse in an unincorporated town with 132 residents requires many hats as Kristi Borge can attest. On top of teaching nine students each day, Borge, Polaris’ only K-8 teacher, preps for five different grade levels, covering topics on every subject, all while answering phones, fixing computers, shoveling snow and changing light bulbs.
“You have to be really self-sufficient when you run a one room school,” Borge said.
Borge’s work in the classroom recently earned her the distinction of Montana Teacher of the Year, an award that recognizes one teacher in every state for their exemplary work in their classroom and community. Superintendent Linda Marsh, who oversees Beaverhead County’s six schools, nominated Borge last spring, receiving word that Borge was a finalist just before school started in the fall. To break the news, school board members, Borge’s husband, students and a news crew waited outside her classroom one day to surprise her.
“I was in class, learning how to log into one of our math programs, when the school board chair came to the door and told the students they had to do a special drill and made them all go outside,” Borge said. “They said, ‘Ms. B, you have to wait here and then you can come out.’”
Borge is a Big Sky native who attended Ophir Elementary School from Kindergarten through eighth grade. Her father was a ski instructor at Big Sky Resort the year it opened in 1973. She attributes much of her success as an educator to her time in the Big Sky School District, particularly to her fifth through eighth grade teacher, Alex Nisbet.
“I do think it was being in a small school environment and having such a positive experience at Ophir that makes me love school and learning,” Borge said. “It wasn’t until I was an adult teaching that I realized why [Mr. Nisbet] was so pivotal because he really worked to build and maintain relationships.”
Borge continues to create the welcoming atmosphere she remembers from Ophir and Big Sky as a community to her own classroom in Polaris. After graduating from Montana State University and four years of teaching middle school social studies and language arts at Monforton School in Four Corners, Borge and her husband, Erik, were ready to return to the small town, community atmosphere again.
Polaris is a recreationist’s paradise located along the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway. Although some families own vacation or second homes in the area, a lot of the core community originates from remaining ranches or those who grew up in nearby Dillon. It’s a tight-knit community and has been nothing but welcoming from the moment the Borge’s arrived.
“All these teachers working in these one room schools are working super hard,” Borge said. “When you work in a small district, the funding is much smaller they are getting paid a lot less, but they’re also in these beautiful communities.”
“I just want to emphasize how great a community it is out here,” she said. “When you get an award it always is a collective effort of a lot of people—mentors teachers and community members who welcomed us to Polaris. It takes a village.”
Their first two years in Polaris, the Borge’s were living in a 1992 Bounder RV in the parking lot of their new investment, Maverick Mountain Ski Resort. After a friend told them that Maverick was up for sale, Erik, with a degree in business marketing—who Borge says has an eye for ‘the bigger picture,’—started calculating their options, and although it wasn’t a glamorous start, they were a couple driven by their passions.
“Before the sale I knew that in order to be happy out here I needed to pursue my teaching career because that’s what I’m most passionate about,” she said. She was offered the teaching position at Polaris School shortly after the sale of the mountain.
Today, when she isn’t in her classroom, she coaches her own nonprofit ski team, watching as her students fly down the same mountain, in the same race bibs as she did when she was a child. Borge herself was a former competitive ski racer on the Montana State University ski team, until an ACL tear transitioned her into coaching.
Despite the workload, Borge says working in a schoolhouse is gratifying because you watch your students grow and get to know their families.
“My third graders, most of them I’ve had since Kindergarten when they didn’t know how to read and then all of a sudden they’re reading paragraphs to you and it makes you really proud,” she said.