Pam Birkeland’s method for teaching and instructing
“I would yell so loud and then I would come back on Monday to Helena to work and I couldn’t talk, and I think that’s what happened,” Pam Birkeland said as an explanation for her soft voice. Beyond cheering, Birkeland sang the National Anthem at Montana State University (MSU) football games twice during her son’s collegiate football career.
“My knees shook,” she said quietly, remembering the experience.
After hearing that story, it took a bit of creativity to picture Birkeland screaming at a football game—her speaking voice is sweet and small. But she has a Bobcat tattoo on her ankle and her face covering was blue and yellow, MSU’s mascot and colors. So maybe it is conceivable.
“I’m a pretty big fan,” she said. The last three years of her son’s football career at MSU, Birkeland attended every home and away game. At one of these games she would end up meeting Gary, her significant other of 15 years.
“I was waiting for my son and I had my little mom button on and he [Gary] asked me if I had a son who played, and I said yes. He said, I played for the Bobcats. He told me he had a ranch over here,” Birkeland recalled of their first conversation.
“So, we visited a little bit and then the next weekend I waited for my son because he had another home game, and there he [Gary] was. So, we visited again and the next weekend we had an away game and I said, you should come. You played for the Cats, you would love these away games. And so, he did. And we’ve been together ever since.”
Before this encounter, Birkeland received her undergraduate degree in elementary education from MSU and met the man she would end up marrying and having three children with. He was a farmer and not very involved in raising the kids. While not a single mom technically, Birkeland raised her kids and continued teaching along the way.
Her first teaching job was in Highwood, Mont., a town the 2010 census designated as having a population of 176. She taught kindergarten, K-2 physical education, seventh/eighth grade reading and language arts and was the K-12 librarian. “It was a great opportunity to see the whole spectrum of what you could do in education,” Birkeland said.
“My philosophy as a teacher was always to be connected with families and be there, and build relationships and help them in any way that I could,” Birkeland said. It incorporated the student’s health, at-home life and made sure their parents felt supported.
“I think what might come out of this [COVID-19] though is that the relationships will be strong and then there will be more partnership between family and schools as we move forward, because they had to work so closely together,” Birkeland said.
The concept of the whole child, her teaching philosophy, informed Birkeland’s style and does her current duties as county superintendent of Madison and Jefferson counties. Before taking these positions, Birkeland was hired as a curriculum and instruction administrator at the district level in Helena. She worked with teachers to design curriculums, oversaw federal programs, ran state assessments and was in charge of collecting and reporting data to outside entities.
Her next step was to retire early, but she found an ad for the Madison County superintendent job after moving to Ennis in 2013. “You look at your background and what you can bring to the table,” Birkeland said of what a superintendent position entails. There are requirements at the state level, but after filling those, superintendents’ roles boil down to finding ways to support their districts or counties.
“Through the COVID I worked closely with all three little schools because there was a whole series of planning that had to take place when the governor closed schools. After two weeks, every school had to submit a plan to the governor to continue getting funding,” Birkeland said. These three small schools included Alder in Madison County and Basin and Cardwell in Jefferson.
Small schools like these do not usually have administration. County superintendents fill this role as an authorized representative and act as the superintendent in collaboration with the lead teacher and rest of the staff.
Birkeland does not know exactly why she is attracted to these smaller areas. Her graduating class at Billings Senior High School was 700 plus. However, her grandfather homesteaded in Billings and she lived on some acreage outside of town while going through school.
“When I left Helena, they had a little retirement get together for myself and a principal and they asked what I was going to do. I said, well I’m probably going to sleep in to 5:30, because I always got up at 4:30, and I’m going to practice adult 4-H because I recognize that I was missing that,” Birkeland explained.
She missed her connection with the land. Now, she has a large garden on her property outside Ennis.
As it turned out, her family history on the land tied into her family history in education. Her great-grandfather on her mom’s side was the territorial superintendent of schools for Montana before statehood.
Working as the Madison and Jefferson county superintendent allows Birkeland to use the knowledge she gained over a career in public education. She goes to board meetings to remind members she is there for them and offers whatever help she can. She helps teachers integrate technology into their classrooms, first delving into this facet as part of a curriculum cooperative in Fort Benton.
“It’s hard for some teachers still. I mean people my age, if you didn’t have the opportunity like I did to help other teachers integrate technology, you use it, but it’s not your natural go-to, where a younger teacher comes out of college ready to do that,” Birkeland said.
Evident in the way she spoke about teachers, schools and her family, Birkeland cares comprehensively—the whole child, the whole school, the whole district and the whole family. She knew she wanted to be a teacher from her first year in public education. Her mother, not an educated teacher as Birkeland put it, used to help the neighborhood boys with homework as needed.
Caring just ran in the family.
“I care about people. I feel like you’re there to give what you can. Give, and help people.”