Infectious exuberance
Kelly Elder: 2017 Montana Teacher of the Year

 Kelly Elder explains latitude to his students at C.R. Anderson Middle School in Helena.
January 2017

Kelly Elder’s post-holiday classroom is buzzing with energy. As his sixth-grade students file in, Elder walks around to greet each one. “Hi, how you doing, buddy?” he says to one young man.

When the bell rings, Elder launches a short, fast-paced discussion, constantly in motion around the room. “How many of you had turkey?” he asks, raising his hand. “How many of you had mashed potatoes? Apple pie? Pumpkin pie? Corn bread and honey?”

Hands wave wildly; students grin at Elder’s infectious exuberance.

“Anyone have lefse?” A couple of hands tentatively go up. Elder briefly reminds students about the strong Norwegian presence in Montana, deftly tying in students’ holiday experience with what they learned earlier about Montana’s homesteading era.

Then it’s on to the day’s western hemisphere geography lesson, with students raptly engaged.

That’s one small sample of how Elder connects his students’ lives with the larger world.

Elder, who teaches at C.R. Anderson Middle School in Helena, was named 2017 Montana Teacher of the Year this fall. It’s the highest honor a Montana teacher can receive. Elder’s students clearly approve of the honor. “It’s always just fun in his class,” says student John Goodwin. “He’s good at describing things, teaching us new things,” says Emma Compton. “He jokes around a lot, and his jokes are funny,” says Willimena Mansfield. “He’s serious, too. He wants us to be successful.”

Elder says his approach to teaching is to get kids excited, intrigued, and motivated.

“I have succeeded if my students continually question and desire to learn more,” he says.

He often collaborates with teachers of other subjects. For example, he works with his team’s English teachers to have students discover the stories behind Montana’s beginnings. Students choose their own topics, interview an adult expert from the community, and get research training at the public library and Montana Historical Society.

Students share their final projects through a published research paper and create a newscast filmed on the site of their choosing.

Projects like this connect students with their community and turn them into budding historians.

Elder, a National Board Certified teacher, says creating solid relationships with his students, making them feel valued, is key to his teaching.

He builds on these connections by serving as student council advisor, leading the Dynamos Mountain Biking Club, taking students on an annual campout, and organizing trips to Central America.

Back in Elder’s classroom, he is teaching about maps, longitude, and latitude. The lesson is fast-paced, but Elder constantly checks in to see if anyone is feeling lost. His students seem perfectly comfortable speaking up if they’re confused.

“They’re at such a dynamic age,” Elder says of his sixth-graders. “They come in scared in the fall and leave knowing everything. They empower themselves to take on the world. By May, they’re on fire.”

As the 2017 Montana Teacher of the Year, Elder will serve as an ambassador for public education and represent Montana in the National Teacher of the Year program.

Finalists: This year’s Teacher of the Year finalists are Kimberly Knoche, a family and consumer sciences teacher in Forsyth, and Nicole Vradenburg, a kindergarten and first-grade teacher in Bozeman.

Nicole Vradenburg, Kimberly Knoche, & Kelly Elder at the Teacher of the Year celebration.
Elder, Knoche, and Vradenburg were honored at a celebration this fall in Helena, sponsored by the Montana Professional Teaching Foundation, in conjunction with the annual MEA-MFT Educators’ Conference. The Montana Professional Teaching Foundation administers the Montana Teacher of the Year program.

Congratulations to these outstanding teachers and MEA-MFT members!