Fieldnotes – The Rural Teacher

I love the little communities along the Rocky Mountain Front. It’s quiet here, apart from the winds that can kick up without warning in gusts so fierce they can rip a truck door from its hinges. I love the intersection of the wild and the domestic in places like Pendroy and Dupuyer and Bynum.

Tourists might know Bynum as a stop on the way to Glacier; a place to gawk at the seismosaurus and buy a few postcards at the Two Medicine Dinosaur Museum. But for the locals, the center of their community is – and has been for more than a century – the Bynum School and its teachers.

Susan Luinstra has taught at the Bynum school since 1974. For several years she presided over the lower grades, then the upper grades. For many years she taught all the grades – that is to say, she was the school’s only teacher.

“Some people don’t understand how rich and full this experience is,” she says. “They don’t understand the bond we develop in a place like this, where classes remain intact, and students have the same teacher for years at a time. People don’t understand the trust and respect that, of necessity, develop in a school like ours, in a community like ours.”

I have watched Susan Luinstra teach on more than one occasion, but have not been able to discover her secret. I’ve not managed to figure out how she teaches such a varied group of kids, and how she keeps them all engaged.

“It’s not me,” she says, modestly. “It’s them. Our students have always had an incredible sense of place. How could you not, living here? And that gives them a real strength. And that strength gives them confidence, and it makes them want to reach beyond what others might expect, and experience more of life.”

I ask Susan if she is always so upbeat. I ask if there haven’t been low points during her three decades here.

She thinks a minute, sighs, and says: “Yes, a few years ago, on the first day of school, only four students showed up. And I was afraid that the Bynum School might disappear. And the thought that such a thing might happen was too much to bear. But by the end of that year we had seven students, and the next year we were back up to ten, and now I think we’re out of the woods.”