Molt teacher receives Montana Rural Teacher of the Year Award

Thursday, April 8, 2021
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Debra Flynn sat between two math books for two different grade levels. Photo by Emily Schabacker

The spotlight has fallen on Molt school’s solitary teacher, Debra Flynn who was recognized in the 2021 Montana Rural Teacher of the Year award.

The award is designed to honor a teacher who has demonstrated outstanding qualities as an educator in a rural setting with no assigned administrator except for a principal or superintendent.

In Flynn’s case, her only administrator is County Superintendent John Smith, who nominated her for the position.

“She’s an outstanding teaching,” Smith said. “She’s built that school from top to bottom. She’s a cut above everyone else.”

The award was a surprise to Flynn, though very much appreciated as she nears the end of her 34-year career as a rural educator, which began and will end in the single Molt classroom.

“It’s not for the faint hearted,” Flynn said. “It’s challenging. You do everything.”

She fills all the school positions from janitor to nurse to librarian, math and science teachers for grades kindergarten to eighth grade. This year, she has five students that span across all different levels, with the single kindergartner learning remotely due to the pandemic.

When she first started at the school there was a second teacher, but as enrollment dropped, one had to be let go. Flynn ended up as the only teacher in Molt, and the second classroom was converted to a library.

In order to keep accreditation for the school, Flynn took an online course for a library media endorsement while she taught her normal class.

“So I can run a library with very little help,” Flynn said.

She wears all sorts of hats to keep the school up and running. Sometimes the transition between levels and subjects can be jarring, but she also has opportunities to work with the kids one-on-one.

“There’s a need for some children to be in this small school setting, but it’s challenging, how do you guide each grade,” Flynn said as she sat between two math books, one that explained fractions and the other with transitional geometry.

Her classroom has seen up to 13 students at one time, again spanning across the grades.

“That was a crazy year,” Flynn said. But despite the challenges, Flynn said she couldn’t imagine teaching anywhere else.

“Either way, I like it here or I’m crazy,” she said.

Flynn was born in Butte, Mont. where she spent most of her young life. After an eight-year move to New Mexico, she decided to return to Montana and pursue a career that would allow her to fulfill her responsibilities as a single mom.

Teaching became the obvious choice that would permit her to both support and spend time with her children.

Flynn attended the University of Montana Western in Dillon, Mont. where she earned a teaching certificate and a minor in math, “which has been helpful,” Flynn said, gesturing to the math books surrounding her.

“I interviewed at tons of places,” she said. “I didn’t think I got this one at first.”

Her initial interview at the Molt school didn’t go as well as she would have hoped. After her interview she drove back to the school district where she was student teaching in Great Falls and was sick later that night.

“But I guess they liked me,” Flynn said. “I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

Her work in the rural school positions her to also act as a counselor to her kids.

The school “provides a sense of belonging for the kids, a safe environment and some needed structure,” Flynn said.

But all the cogs of working in the rural community have brought her and her students together to be a family, Flynn said. She has two sets of siblings in her classroom this year and is teaching the children of some of her former students.

She has one student that has been in her classroom for nine years and will go on to high school next year.

With retirement quickly approaching in May, Flynn said she’s tired.

“It’s time. I’m sure I’ll miss it like crazy, but it’s time,” Flynn said.

She plans to move to Billings, where her daughter lives to spend more time with family.

As for the teacher to fill her shoes, Flynn’s advice is to “take it one day at a time. There’s always tomorrow.”

Montana Rural Teacher of the Year

Flynn will receive an award of $500 and an all expense paid trip, including a substitute teacher, to the National Rural Education Association convention in the fall. She will also receive $500 from Montana Unified School Trust insurance.

In June, if the COVID-19 pandemic allows, Flynn will be honored at the Educator’s Night of Excellence in Helena.

“She has been in Molt for 34 years, which in itself is an amazing accomplishment,” Chairman of the Montana Rural Teacher of the Year Award Susan Metcalf said. “Besides that, she is an outstanding teacher. That community feels so truly blessed to have had her as their teacher for two generations. Deb is humble, but she is truly outstanding.”