Sally Peterson first wanted to be a teacher when she was only 11.
“I had a teacher at North Park School named Edith Freeman who went on to become a very famous woodprint artist,” she said. “I just absolutely loved that woman and she liked me. One day, I said, ‘I want to grow up and be a teacher just like you.’”
A few days before the end of her 25th and final year as a teacher at Pioneer School, Sally Peterson took time to reflect on her long career.
The road to teaching was a bit longer than she first imagined, as she got married and had a family first. However, she still had the desire to teach and decided to major in elementary education at Eastern Montana College shortly after her children entered middle school.
Darlene Kraft, a former first- and second-grade teacher at Pioneer, let Peterson know about the job opening at the elementary school located at 1937 Dover Road. However, Peterson had known about the school for many years already.
“I had friends that had gone to this school. I went to Lincoln Junior High and Senior High with them. So they had come here and I had come with them for a few Halloween parties and things like that. So I knew a little bit about it already.”
In fact, Pioneer School has been teaching elementary age children for 109 years. The independent school is located northeast of the Billings Heights. The original school building was built in 1905 and is still in use. A second, larger building was built in 1959.
“That first day I was here, one of the little boys was standing up in a swing,” Peterson recalled. “I said, ‘Honey, you’re going to have to put your seat in the seat because I don’t want you to fall … .’ And he said, ‘Mrs. Peterson, I’m sorry. I forgot and I won’t ever do that again.’ I just thought, ‘This is a little piece of heaven here. I think I’ll be sticking around for a while.’”
With a smile, she added: “Once you’re at Pioneer, you don’t want to go anywhere else.”
Peterson tried out a variety of teaching positions in her early years including title teacher, certified aide and kindergarten teacher, but she found her niche in teaching third- and fourth- graders.
“I loved that third- and fourth-grade combo,” she says. “It was a wonderful combination. The third-graders were coming in for the first time, but the fourth-graders knew me. They knew my grandmother look, they knew what I expected of them, and they helped. They were peer tutors.
“The last two years I’ve taught a single class. Last year, I had fourth-grade. This year, I have third-grade … . But I noticed we weren’t getting as much done this year with just the single group because the fourth-graders weren’t here to help them out.”
Peterson, who had eight third-graders this year, acknowledged that there are challenges with teaching the combined classes: “You’ve got a lot of different personalities and a lot of different strengths and weaknesses … . You have kids with abilities ranging from kindergarten all the way up to seventh or eighth grade. You’ve got to prepare for that.”
‘What makes it all worthwhile’
As she prepares to leave Pioneer School, Peterson thinks she will miss the students and their families the most, partly because Pioneer is such a tight community. “This is a great place,” Peterson says. “It’s a small, close-knit community and it’s a good place to be. People take care of each other here.”
Peterson also appreciates Pioneer’s small class sizes, which allow for greater interaction with the students. Her smallest class comprises six students while her largest had 19.
Peterson has also loved keeping in contact with many of her past students.
“One of the best things is seeing how many of my students have become so successful,” she says. “That’s what makes it all worthwhile. It’s fun to get all of the baby announcements and wedding announcements and graduation announcements. Some of my students went on to become valedictorians of their classes. I think a couple of my past students are raising kids that might come to Pioneer School.”
“I’m leaving before that happens,” she said with a chuckle. “That would be a little too much.”
Changes and challenges
In her career, Peterson has seen many changes, of which two stand out.
The first is technology. Desktop computers are on their way out of the school, and a grant has made iPads available as educational tools for all 50 students. While Peterson acknowledges that the devices are “a wonderful tool,” she also notes that she “still tries to get an actual book in their hands once in a while.”
The second big change is the challenges that her students are facing at home.
“Kids have different challenges now,” she said. “They’re still kids, but they have so many challenges that I can’t do much about. The meth and alcohol and things like that … . Every single one of the kids at this school has been touched in some way by drugs and alcohol … . It’s pretty devastating as a teacher when you realize there’s not an awful lot you can do about that.”
However, Peterson is proud that her students don’t let these problems affect their schoolwork.
“The kids come in, they drop the garbage at the door, do what you want them to do and pick the garbage up again when they go home,” she said.
One thing has hardly changed at all in the last 25 years: Pioneer School itself.
“It’s so peaceful and serene out here,” Peterson said. “There’s a lot going on in this world and this is just a little piece of heaven where things don’t change.”
After retiring, Peterson is going to be experiencing changes of her own. She is looking forward to having more free time and engaging in a variety of pursuits including fishing, traveling to the Black Hills of South Dakota, spending time with her family and friends, and going to garage sales.
“I think I’m ready,” she said. “It will be great.”
‘Your greatest weapon’
As she prepared to leave Pioneer, Peterson had a few life lessons for the students she’s leaving behind.
“Never tell somebody you can’t do something,” she said. “If somebody says you can’t do something, don’t listen to them. Don’t ever give up.”
After a short pause, she got up from her seat and pulled down a small piece of paper pinned next to the white board. On it was written a quote from Chief Plenty Coups: “Education is your greatest weapon.”
“I’ve told that to a lot of my kids who have rough home lives,” Peterson said. “You can do something about that if you stay in school.”
And what is the most important lesson she hopes to pass on to her students?
“Never stop learning,” she said. “I’m certainly not going to stop learning just because I’m done teaching!”