Richie Farrar's path to become a teacher started when he was a student at Big Sky High School.
Today, he's one of the agriculture teachers at Big Sky and, in front of the entire school on Thursday morning, he got a surprise. The Missoula Education Foundation student board named him Outstanding Educator of the Year.
Farrar appeared in the bleachers and climbed down, clad in his muck boots. He walked across the gym to claim his award, spotted his family in the crowd and smiled.
"How did you guys all sneak in there?" he said to his family as they stepped into the second gym to snap some photos as the high school choir began singing holiday songs.
He gave his 4-month-old daughter, Ruth, a smooch on the cheek and grinned for the camera while she latched on to his collar.
Farrar, 26, graduated from Big Sky in 2009.
When he was a freshman, he said kids would make fun of Future Farmers of America. Many, if not all, FFA members are also involved at the Agriculture Education Center, formerly known as Vocational Agriculture, or Vo-Ag.
"One friend pulled me into it," he said, and he was hooked.
One of his ag teachers was Gene McClure, who retired from Missoula County Public Schools in 2008 after 27 years teaching in the ag department.
"He used to take his keys and jingle them right in front of our faces," Farrar said, laughing. "He was pretty old and was in his 27th year of teaching. He would say, 'I'm not going to be here forever, so who's going to take these keys?'"
That planted the idea in Farrar's mind. After graduating Big Sky, he headed to Montana State University, where he got a degree in agricultural education.
Then he came home to Missoula. This is his fourth year teaching at Big Sky.
Farrar is soft-spoken, and was genuinely surprised that he won, and that there were so many nominations.
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MEF student board secretary Annika Charlson, a senior at Hellgate High, said 300 nominations were sent in for the high school educator of the year. The students went through each one and narrowed the list to those with the highest number of nominations, as well as the quality of the nomination.
From there they narrowed it to 15, and then to five.
Farrar had nominations from students, fellow teachers, staff and parents.
"All of those nominations were quality, outstanding and well-written," Charlson said. "It was a unanimous vote (for Farrar)."
This is the third year in a row that a Big Sky teacher has earned this recognition. Last year, it was Tom Andres, Farrar's colleague in the ag department. The year before, it went to social studies teacher Cameron Johnson.
"I thought you would figure it out when I ironed your shirt this morning," Farrar's wife, Erin, said of the surprise. "I never do that."
She convinced him it was for a Christmas party after school.
The MEF student board launched about six years ago, with the idea to give students an opportunity to learn about leadership. They developed criteria for teacher of the year awards – with the middle school and elementary school awards still to come this school year.
Farrar couldn't say for sure why he had won.
"I work hard with the students," he said. "Most of my classes are more informal than a lot of others and I think the kids learn more in that setting."
It shows. The Missoula FFA brought home a pile of top trophies from the National FFA Convention in Indianapolis two months ago, adding to an ever-growing list of awards. The same goes for their three ag teachers: Farrar, Andres and Kristy Rothe.
The trio each have earned awards for their work in ag education, and all three devote countless hours to FFA, the ag students and managing the center's 80-acre farm.
"You can't learn if you're not having fun," Farrar said.