Sunshine poured over the mountains circling the small town of Morton and filling it with light. Amanda Blaire West knew she was early for her first day of work as a teacher —- an hour and a half early, but her nervousness at meeting her future employers got her out of bed and on the road to Morton early.
Everything in this town was so different — a single blinking traffic light to direct traffic, the breakfast served at Cody’s Cafe and the mountains so much bigger than the trees back east in Pennsylvania. But Amanda loved it all.
Amanda came to Morton to work with AmeriCorps for two years. She had just graduated from Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. After two years in AmeriCorps, she went to Vanderbilt University and then returned to AmeriCorps to teach.
AmeriCorps volunteers serve nonprofits, schools, public agencies, and faith-based community organizations. During her two years with AmeriCorps, Amanda worked in the Morton teen center as a teen co-mentor. She also organized an after-school program in Packwood.
She decided to be a teacher and was lucky that three student teaching openings were available at Morton School District. They knew she wanted to come back, and eventually, she was hired as a full-time teacher and returned to Morton Junior/High School.
In college, Amanda majored in political studies and history. Now she teaches social studies for grades 7 through 12 and has one class of English literature. “I really like teaching social studies and literature,” she says. “They really go together.”
Amanda is also the advisor for the mock trial club. “We prepare fictional cases for a criminal or civil case and present them to other schools in the courthouse in Vancouver. No other school in Lewis County has mock trials,” Amanda said.
After a few years of teaching, Amanda decided to go for her National Board Certificate, a program “designed to develop, retain, and recognize accomplished teachers and generate ongoing improvement in schools nationwide. It is the most respected professional certification available in K-12 education.”
It took her two years to get her National Board Certification, which has changed over the years, so teachers can take multiple years to complete requirements instead of finishing it in two years or starting over. With her multiple commitments in school and the community, Amanda says, “I would never have been able to handle that.”
Other activities keeping Amanda busy are the four years she served on the city council, volunteering with the Cowlitz River Valley Historical Society and helping with the children’s group in the Fire Mountain Arts Theatre that puts together a play every summer.
This past summer, three or four adults helped supervise and support around 60 children who put on “Mary Poppins,” a children’s musical that seemed doomed to COVID-19 complications. “The fact that they put on performances every summer is magical,” Amanda says. “They always pull it off.”
When Amanda moved to Morton eleven years ago, she noticed how under-resourced things are in rural communities. “I wanted to be a teacher, especially a rural educator, and work with these students who are geographically isolated from a lot of things and provide them with the same type of opportunities I had growing up,” Amanda said.
According to a survey by the Morton City Council, the average income in Morton is under $40,000. “As a teacher, I make substantially more than the average. It’s an interesting place to be,” Amanda said. She wishes she could help more and tries to be financially supportive when she can.
“One thing I learned in AmeriCorps is that when you don’t make much money, that’s when my time helps. If I can’t help financially, I can at least help by donating my time.” Amanda said.
Recently a student approached Amanda waving a book in her face and shouting at her. He was upset because he found objectionable sections in an assigned book and wanted them removed from class reading.
Sometimes Amanda is confronted by students and community members who are not happy with the material presented in class. “I tell them to focus on the things we have in common,” she said. “Ignoring topics because parts of it are controversial is not a way of becoming part of a community.”
Her devotion to the community and students is evident. “I care about Morton and want to see students be successful,” she said. “Focusing on what we do share is more important than focusing on the differences that we might have. We can have different opinions and still respect each other. If nothing else, I just want to teach people how to communicate their ideas clearly and effectively.”
“Everything I really enjoy about teaching in a small school is also what makes it very challenging,” Amanda says. “The staff are all stretched very thin because we are all wearing multiple hats. There are not a lot of resources, mental health resources, or social services resources. The teachers try to fill in those gaps. It’s exhausting.”
But on the other hand, Amanda has an amazing opportunity to get to know her students as she teaches them from middle school and through high school. “I meet them when they are twelve years old and get to watch them grow up and graduate,” she says. “I’m friends with former students, and they tell me how things are going. I don’t think I would have had that type of experience in a bigger school.”