Montana State alum teaching in rural one-room school named Montana Teacher of the Year

Wednesday Oct. 21st, 2020

Kristi Borge, a Montana State University alumna who now teaches kindergarten through eighth grade in a one-room schoolhouse in the small rural community of Polaris, has been named Montana Teacher of the Year.

Borge said she was humbled by the award, given by the office of the Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction, and called it a tribute to the “incredible mentor teachers” she has had.

“Every action I do is a result of the leadership of others who have really shown me the essence of teaching,” she said. “I feel incredibly proud and honored. However, I think that there are so many teachers who have influenced me who are equally deserving of this recognition. While the (Montana Teacher of the Year) is awarded to an individual, I think this year it celebrates the hard work of the rural, multi-grade teachers who share similar responsibilities (to) my own.”

Borge currently teaches 11 students, including students in first, third, fourth, fifth and seventh grades. She said she enjoys teaching in a small school and loves Polaris, which is located about 35 miles northwest of Dillon and has only about 100 residents.

“I get to know the families so closely, which allows me to illustrate relevant connections between student lives and classroom content,” Borge said.

Borge began teaching in Polaris in the fall of 2015 after four years teaching middle school social studies and language arts at Monforton School in Four Corners. Earlier that year, she and her husband, Erik, were considering moving to the outskirts of Bozeman when they learned Maverick Mountain Ski Area near Polaris was for sale.

“We are both passionate about skiing – we actually met coaching ski racing in Big Sky – and Erik convinced me that we could sell our house and have enough for a down payment on the ski area,” Borge said. “I knew that in order to feel fulfilled and be happy, I would need to be able to keep teaching if we moved.”

Coincidentally, Polaris needed a multi-grade teacher.

“I immediately felt comforted by the wide-open valley nestled into the Pioneer Mountains,” she said. “The school is really cozy and picturesque and is just so inviting.”

Borge noted that the educational setting is particularly appealing because it affords her a great deal of creativity and autonomy.

“I can integrate curriculum – or connect subject area topics – easily because I am so in tune with what each student is learning in every subject,” she said. “If we are really caught up in a specific lesson, I can adjust the daily schedule as needed to allow for those teachable moments.”

Borge said some of her current challenges include having no preparatory periods, long hours and a lot of lesson planning each week to address unique grade-level standards.

“This year I have five grade levels, so you can imagine how complex that can look when planning five math lessons, five reading lessons and so on,” Borge said. “I spend long hours at the school most days and have a lot of extra duties that one may not think of, such as shoveling the sidewalk, ordering supplies, coordinating school maintenance projects, managing all of the technology devices and writing administrative reports.”

Borge was born and raised in Big Sky. She attended Ophir Elementary School and high school in Bozeman. She enrolled at MSU after receiving a Montana University System scholarship, which covered her tuition. She also competed as a member of the university’s alpine ski team.

She credits her own early educational experiences for choosing to study education at MSU.

“I had such a positive elementary school experience and have always been drawn to the classroom,” Borge said. “My own fifth through eighth grade teacher, Alec Nisbet, created a remarkable sense of community and belonging for me and my classmates that really made me love school and all it entailed.”

At MSU, a number of professors in the Department of Education were especially impactful. Among them were Ann Ellsworth, who had high expectations and reminded Borge that teachers should approach reading and writing instruction with a deliberate, research-based approach; Lynn Kelting-Gibson, who related theoretical methods to real-world applications; and Christine Rogers Stanton, who Borge said pushed her to think critically and was an important mentor when working on her master’s degree.

She also valued the field experiences that came with her major in education, said Borge, who completed her student teaching at Anderson School outside of Bozeman.

“Getting to spend time in the classroom is really what gave me confidence that I was on the right career path,” she said. At Anderson, her mentor teachers, Stephanie Lourie and Sandy Wilson, “opened my eyes to the art and science of teaching” and taught her to incorporate humor and relationship building to make deeper connections with students. 

Borge received a bachelor’s degree in elementary education K-8 with a reading K-12 minor in 2010 and a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction with an educational researcher option in 2016, both from MSU’s College of Education, Health and Human Development.

In a press release from the Office of the Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction announcing Borge’s award, Beaverhead County Superintendent of Schools Linda Marsh said she was honored to nominate Borge for the honor.

“I have worked with Kristi for several years and have seen firsthand her ability to create an environment with a positive culture for learning in which all students are free to make choices, ask and find answers to their questions, and develop a love of learning,” Marsh said. “During the school closures this spring due to COVID-19, she displayed great flexibility incorporating technology to ensure her students didn’t miss a beat. She even kept the year-end awards tradition alive virtually and provided summer school instruction to her students.”

For her part, Borge said she loves seeing both social and academic growth of her students over time.

“I have had students for several years who I taught to read and count in kindergarten and are now writing essays and multiplying decimals as fifth graders,” she said.

Borge hopes to continue to learn and implement research-based practices that directly impact student success both academically and behaviorally.

“As a professional, I hope to continue to learn about the instructional planning practices of multi-grade teachers and establish frameworks and systems to help both myself and other multi-grade teachers to manage our workload and be more efficient, effective educators,” she said. And, “with the COVID-19 pandemic at the forefront of our lives, I am focused on building social-emotional skills with my students so that they can have a strong foundation of stress management and tools for building growth mindsets during challenging times.” 

Borge will represent Montana in the 2021 National Teacher of the Year Program. More information about the Montana Teacher of the Year program is available at the Office of Public Instruction’s website at