Personal touch the key to success
There is something to be said for working in a small school in a small town. "It's the personal touch. We get to know our kids very well," says Helper Junior High School Principal Tom Montoya.
It was that way when he was an elementary student at the old Helper Central School. He remembers time when his family was so poor they could not afford to buy class pictures. "I had to bring the proof packet back to school. My teacher, Mrs. Whetmore, asked what was the matter and I told her. So she paid for my pictures out of her own pocket." That's why she became one of the two most influential teachers in his life - the personal touch.
The second teacher was Gerald Anderson, who "opened up avenues in woodworking, being creative, learning how to apply learned skills." Take a walk through Helper Junior High and look at the craftsmanship of the bookcases, the showpiece stained glass window depicting Balanced Rock. They are all student work under the direction of Tom Montoya. Local artist Karen Templeton designed the window and provided the training. The kids did the rest, applying learned skills to create something people can appreciate.
Looking over the walls, coat rack and book cases of his office, one would wonder if he has ever thrown out a photograph or memento in his life. There are baseball team pictures covering one wall. "I can bring a student in here and point out, 'This is your dad, or, this is your uncle in this picture,'" he says. Same thing with year books that cram his book case. "Here's what your mom looked like when she was your age." He allows students to take text pictures of old yearbooks on their cell phones - the only permissible use for those devices in school.
Mr. Montoya has been principal at HJHS for 14 years. He spent his first 21 years in education at Wellington Elementary, 19 years as a fifth and sixth grade teacher, two years as principal. During his early years as a teacher, his mentor was principal Ralph Dyett. "Sally Mauro saved him from polio," he notes, by an accurate and early diagnosis. "He was a champion of the poor kid."
Relative poverty was Tom Montoya's early lifestyle. He remembers days in Helper, Latuda and Rains when his father, a coal miner, didn't know from day to day if there would be work or not. His mother cleaned houses to augment the family income. His parents, while loving and caring, could not offer any career counseling since they had no experience outside their own jobs. They did push the importance of going to college, though, so he went to the University of Utah. He later earned a master's degree at BYU. How's that for diversity?
"I had never considered teaching as a career," he recalls. "I didn't even declare a major at the U until my third year. I thumbed through the course catalog - I remember it was red - and I came to Education. I thought, I wonder if I can do that." So he tried and found he could teach.
He did student teaching in a low-income section of Salt Lake, and found that he had instant identification with the students there. That's when he discovered teaching was a "black hole."
"I tell our new teachers to get out now if they don't want that to happen to them. If they stay, they'll discover education is a black hole. You get sucked in and you can't get out."
Mr. Montoya emphasizes that the teachers and staff at HJHS are on the same page with him. "You can go ahead and quote me on this: I believe that Helper has the best teachers, best students and best community," he declares.
But nothing is perfect. There was a student-teacher sex scandal last summer, a major embarrassment. He says he got only two phone calls from concerned parents, and does not think that this indicates the community is apathetic, but that the community trusts the school to set things right when problems arise.
As for the changes in education policy and practices he has seen, Mr. Montoya says he is not opposed to standardized testing, but is concerned about what he calls "high stakes testing." His hypothesis is that a few tests cannot tell the whole story about any one individual. Suppose, for example, a student doesn't feel well on test day, or has some temporary personal issue that impairs performance, or whose parents can't get him or her to school on time, or misses school on test day.
Coming back full circle to an earlier part of the conversation, he explains that learning to apply learned skills is just as important, if not more so, than test performance. "Like the end of 'Schindler's List,'" he says, "people don't remember you for how much money you had or how much was left undone, but they remember how well you served."
On the way out of Mr. Montoya's office, a visitor passes the desk of Administrative Assistant Joyce Branson. The wall beside that desk is a montage of what looks like between one and two million photos and clips: students she has connected with over the years. Here's another person at HJHS who doesn't throw any memories away.