Every state in America has some problem with public education. My home state of Florida, for example, soon will decide if it will further weaken public education by adopting universal vouchers. Montana, my favorite state to visit, must deal with the effects of wide-open spaces, long distances and too few teachers for certain subjects.
While vacationing in Montana in August, I had lunch at the Star Bakery Restaurant in Nevada City, a ghost town that still has a handful of businesses that cater to tourists. My waitress was 45-year-old Brigitte Hagen, a foreign language teacher. As we chatted, she introduced me to a side of public education I had not seen up close.
A Maryland native and a graduate of George Mason University and the University of Montana Western in Dillon, Hagen is no ordinary teacher. She does not drive to a brick-and-mortar campus. She does not work in a classroom where she can reach out and touch her students. She belongs to a corps of dedicated teachers who carry on the tradition of rural education in Montana's remote school districts.
She teaches by way of video conferencing. For more than a year, the service she uses has been provided by Vision Net, a Montana-based company in Great Falls.
Hagen's classroom, which doubles as her office, is in her Sheridan home she shares with her husband, a Montana Department of Revenue employee, and three daughters, ages 9, 13 and 15. The family's herd of Angus cattle grazes in the pasture surrounding the house. Sheridan is in the southwest, between Butte and Dillon.
Using a camera, a 32-inch television screen and a computer monitor, Hagen teaches French, German, Italian, Japanese and Spanish to a total of 75 students in the faraway towns of Chester, Harlem, Roy, Rudyard and Winifred. Harlem, the farthest from Sheridan, is 350 miles to the northwest near the Canadian border. Most of the Harlem students are American Indians living on a reservation. These schools cannot afford traditional classroom language instruction, and even if they could, there are not enough teachers available.
Working from home has not made Hagen's days less hectic than those of her colleagues in traditional schools. Until recently, she drove her daughters to school each morning, returning to her office/classroom by 8 a.m. to set up. Now the oldest daughter has her license and drives to school with her sisters.
The first of Hagen's eight classes begins at 8:25. Two are "bridged" classes, a combination of students from two different schools. She eats lunch at 2, and teaches two more classes after that, the last ending at 3:25. Some days, she takes a short break to grade assignments before reassuming the roles of wife and mother.
Although Hagen and her students are separated by hundreds of miles of hostile terrain, they experience a surprising degree of intimacy and camaraderie.
"My students get to know me with video conferencing, and they also get to meet my family members who might be home on a given day," she said. "One day my youngest daughter was home and was able to have show-and-tell with all of her pets, her chickens and cats. I get to know my students as if I were in the classroom. I answer their questions, and they're able to practice their pronunciation. I know their work habits and their sense of humor. I have made many new friends. Last year, three of my students from Harlem and their chaperone met my family and me in Bozeman, and we went to dinner and then to the opera. It is a joy to be able to expose these students to a taste of what exists outside of their community."
Hagen said video conferencing is the next best thing to being in the classroom. It enables many students to take language classes who otherwise would never have such opportunities. Students who complete the classes and graduate can qualify for admission to certain colleges and universities.
Hagen's students have good things to say about their experience. Two e-mailed their responses to me.
Justin Benzing, a 13-year-old seventh-grader in Winifred: "I like this way of learning because if you don't have a local teacher, this is the next best option. You can see and hear your teacher. Your teacher can communicate with you, and you can basically feel like you're in the same room."
Brandy Kamstra, a 16-year-old junior in Rudyard: "Video conferencing is just the same as having a teacher physically in the room. Plus, it's neat for two classes to come together from across the state to learn the same thing. With video conferencing, you actually have someone there with you who you can ask questions and who can hear you clear enough to correct your pronunciation. Our teacher can even position the webcam on other students' faces so we can see them better when they're answering a question, or she can move the camera to face the nearby television so we can watch a video. It's actually an efficient way to learn."
Rested from Christmas break, Hagen said she is ready to get back on the screen when classes resume this week. Without Vision Net and its video conference service, she said, many Montana children would not take a foreign language.