ARLEE – By now, you’d think Anna Baldwin would be used to winning teaching awards.

Instead, the Arlee High School English and history teacher says she “basically didn’t believe it” when her phone rang at 8 o’clock Sunday night with the news:

Baldwin is Montana’s 2014 Teacher of the Year.

On the other end of the line was Eileen Sheehy of Billings West High School, the 2013 honoree.

“I asked her three or four times if she was sure,” Baldwin says. “I was ecstatic.”

The Montana Professional Teaching Foundation, which sponsors and administers the award, made it official with an announcement Monday, and called it the highest honor a Montana teacher can achieve.

Baldwin will serve as an ambassador for public education, and attend several national events along with teachers of the year from the other 49 states.

It’s hardly the first time Baldwin has been recognized for her innovative ways in the classroom.

In 2011, she won the Distinguished Educator Award from the Montana Association of Teachers of English Language Arts, as well as the Arlee School Staff of the Year Award.

Early this year, Baldwin was one of five educators in the nation who received the Southern Poverty Law Center’s 2012 Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Culturally Responsive Teaching.

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Baldwin, who is from Virginia, has taught on the Flathead Indian Reservation for 15 years, the last 11 in Arlee.

She works to connect with her students through their cultures – and by understanding that those cultures aren’t limited to their ethnicity.

“Yes, we live on a reservation and that’s part of it,” she told the Missoulian when the Southern Poverty Law Center recognized her.

But, she added, “There is teen culture, home culture, as well as traditional culture. We have students from Native American families, homesteader families, cowboy culture – and some whose backgrounds include all three.”

Skateboarding has its own culture, Baldwin explained, and there are students who are into that.

“I try to get to know the students and their interests, and incorporate them into the classroom,” she said in January. “I go to their sporting events, band concerts. I talk to them – ‘What did you do over the weekend?’ ‘Is that a new coat?’ ‘Are you going hunting?’ ”

Baldwin says the cornerstones of her teaching methods are “high expectations and cultural responsiveness.” Her classrooms, she says, are “active, carefully structured and adventuresome.”

The goal, she says, is to help students find a personal connection to each lesson.

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When students in Baldwin’s Multicultural Literature class read Debra Magpie Earling’s novel “Perma Red,” set on the Flathead Reservation, they don’t just discuss it or write book reports.

Their teacher wants them to appreciate the novel’s imagery, “so we spent time locating richly descriptive passages about landscape,” Baldwin says.

Then, armed with digital cameras, they head out on the reservation to photograph the landscapes Earling describes. Later, the students make audio recordings of the passages illustrated by their photographs.

The students worked in teams to assemble the images and recordings into a slideshow that was uploaded to YouTube, complete with background music and written descriptions.

By the time they’re done, students have worked individually, in small groups and as an entire classroom. They’ve developed skills in literacy, writing, speaking and technology.

And, they’ve read a celebrated book set on the reservation where they live.

Montana’s Teacher of the Year for 2014 arrived in the state after graduating from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

A friend suggested Baldwin join her on an adventure to faraway Montana.

“She was gone in six months,” Baldwin says, “but I never left.”

Baldwin earned her master’s degree and doctorate at the University of Montana, and taught at Two Eagle River School in Pablo before taking a job at Arlee High School.

She was one of three finalists for the 2014 award. Jan Krieger, a Spanish teacher at Chief Joseph Middle School in Bozeman, and Paul Swenson, a science and math teacher at Lone Peak High School in Big Sky, will join Baldwin on Oct. 17 in Bozeman, where the three will be honored during the annual MEA-MFT Educators Conference.

Baldwin says she wants to use the honor to celebrate students and colleagues, and to “cut through the negative rhetoric surrounding education issues and the demoralizing treatment of our profession with resoundingly positive, supportive and constructive messages.”

Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or by email at vdevlin@missoulian.com.

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