Elizabeth Hanson never thought she would mold the minds of the next generations.
“Teachers didn’t make enough money and didn’t get enough respect,” the Cody School District’s 2021 Teacher of the Year said.
After graduating from Montana State with a B.A. in English literature, Hanson went to work for an education nonprofit, mostly doing administrative work.
“I found myself doing this strange thing: I would drive in my car and imagine explaining things to other people,” she said. “I realized that I was building this strange lesson plan in my head for a career and a subject and a student that I didn’t have, which is a very strange cognitive exercise, I think.”
One quarter-life crisis later, she went back to Bozeman to get her teaching certificate and finish a history degree. Her career took her first to Red Lodge, then down to Big Piney (“It’s not the middle of nowhere, but you can see it from there,” she said, quoting the 1991 film “Thelma & Louise”) before a job in Cody came open.
“I was really anxious to get back up here,” the Cody High English teacher said. “The Greater Yellowstone ecosystem feels like home. My whole adult life has been around the Park and my husband worked for the Park for 10 years, so that kept us close to the Park Service.”
Now with 16 years at the blackboard under her belt, Hanson is right where she was meant to be.
“The minute I started, I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else,” she said. “It’s so fun. I like going to work every day. I like being here.”
The classes taught by the Boise native can be a little chaotic despite an abundance of planning. She prefers to go with the flow and encourages students to ask questions. That can mean she gets behind schedule, but she equates it to eating a balanced diet.
“It’s more like, ‘Did I eat enough vegetables today? No, but did I eat enough vegetables this week to stay healthy? Yeah,’” she said. “So if it’s all cake one day, we have to get serious the next day. I let it flow with kind of what the kids are ready for. I think if you remain super rigid and you’re like, ‘We have to get through this or else,’ then you lose so many opportunities to have conversations, learn and for kids to ask questions.”
Hanson cherishes the kind of environment that style of teaching creates – a feeling of community.
“She’s willing to do anything she can to help kids, academically and personnally,” said CHS principal Jeremiah Johnston. “She forges relationships that are really strong and powerful for our school.”
Unlikely groups become friends. Students share and grow more. Everyone is ready to stretch and learn. That feeling surpasses any individual memory she has of her career. It’s about the students she’s with. That those students nominated her for the award makes it all the better.
“The number one reason that it feels good that I got this is that kids notice. I don’t really care about the rest of it,” Hanson said.
“They’re the ones that are going to matter … I can’t fix the structural, systemic issues that exist, but I can change the way some kids see the world or think about stories or books or feel empowered to write or read more ... I have those kids. They’re what really matters.”