Saturday, April 10, 2021

Muldown principal closes book on rewarding career

Whitefish Pilot | March 24, 2021 1:00 AM

Linda Whitright can recall countless stories and moments that induced laughter over her 28-year career in education with the Whitefish School District.

Although her path to teaching and eventually entering administration at Muldown Elementary School was anything but typical, she has absolutely no regrets. Now as the Muldown principal announces her plans to retire at the end of the school year, it leaves her reflecting on the very unique experiences that shaped her career.

As she’s spent just over half of her time in the school district teaching and the rest in administration, Whitright has a hard time nailing down the most fulfilling moments in her career. Though she concluded the most rewarding part of her influence in education had to be working to ensure the various parts of a child’s educational development came together seamlessly.

“It’s seeing the thread that brings together the teacher, the student and the family, that’s what it represents to me is a thread that pulls it all together for the success of those kids,” she said.

According to Whitright, a passion for teaching has always been in her nature. When she was a child her pretend play was always a school setting and the desire to educate never left her.

“I know it sounds cliche, but I’ve wanted to be a teacher since I was little,” she expressed. “I mean it was always, always there.”

Despite that desire, life circumstances took her elsewhere at first and she didn’t enter the field of education until later in life.

She married her high school sweetheart and quickly started a life after graduating from Flathead High School. For years she worked as a bookkeeper at a printing company and then later as a purchasing agent. She and her husband raised two children in Kalispell and in her mind the opportunity to become a teacher had passed.

She made a career change after learning of an opportunity opening as a secretary at the Flathead Special Education Co-op and after getting her foot in the door of the education world, her life soon changed drastically.

Whitright said she recalls having a simple conversation with the director at the co-op durning which she mentioned she had always wanted to become a teacher; and the director looked at her simply saying, “well why don’t you?”

“I didn’t take the opportunity (after high school) to move on to college and once I didn’t do that then I think I always thought in my mind that I couldn’t,” she said. “That’s why that was so profound. My boss didn’t say anything Earth shattering other than, why don’t you? I don’t know why that was such a wake up call.”

With total support from her family, Whitright started taking college classes in Havre during the summer months and finally obtained her degree. She soon began her teaching career as a fifth-grade teacher at the middle school in Whitefish.

Teaching for 15 years, beginning in fifth grade and then moving to sixth grade, brought her endless joy. She says some relationships formed in the classroom last a lifetime and she values all the time she spent teaching. While she taught at the middle school, she wanted to further her education and participated in a masters of administration program out of the University of Montana.

Soon after obtaining her masters, Whitright was hired as the assistant principal at Muldown and three years later became the principal.

“Administration caught my eye because I really felt it was a great way to now not just have a classroom of kids but an entire school of kids,” she said. “Yes, there are many times I miss being in the classroom as the teacher. Yes, the kids know me, but it’s that relationship they have with their teacher that makes it and I miss that.”

Whitright is grateful she was able to stay in the same local community when transitioning to administration. Colleagues at the middle school — Josh Branstetter, now the middle school principal, and Kerry Drown, the high school principal — also transitioned to administration and her connections with them have laced the three schools together.

“We all taught at the middle school together and that’s unique,” she explained. “The fact that all three of us taught together, it has made for a strong connection. And I feel it made for a strong connectivity between the three schools.”

She wanted not only to transition to an administrative role because she could touch the lives of more children, but also because she believed her expansive experience in the classroom would help her to understand the needs of the teachers and create a successful learning environment.

“I really felt that my foundational experience of teaching for 15 years prior to it lent a strong understanding of their needs, what their jobs are, just that knowledge of having walked a mile in their shoes was important for me to be able to have,” she said.

In her 10 years as the principal at Muldown, Whitright shared multiple occasions that enhanced her experience while leading the school. But one of the most unique opportunities she had was to assist in the planning and construction of the new Muldown Elementary School building. It’s something she takes great pride in today.

“It was a once in a lifetime experience that not many people get and it was such a learning experience for me, as well as all of us,” she said. “While I know that it isn’t a building that embarks the education to those kids, I know it’s the relationships within. But I also believe that the atmosphere around those relationships is important and this is a stronger, more inclusive, cohesive atmosphere in just the way this building was designed.”

After working diligently with the district and contractors on the building she knew that retirement would have to wait until after she helped the school make the transition to the new building. Whitright wanted to be there to help everyone settle in and ensure the school was set for an abundance of successful years in the future.

However retirement has been on the horizon for awhile now, she explained. The reason for her choosing to retire now is both for personal reasons and for the future of the school.

Whitright is looking forward to having more free time to visit her son and grandsons in Wyoming and her daughter in Havre. She’s hoping to be able to go camping, her family’s favorite pastime, and enjoy time reading and relaxing at home.

More than that though, she says it’s just time. She can feel it is the right moment for her to move aside and let someone new lead the charge at the beautiful school.

“The decision (to retire) is hand in hand with the vision of the person I hope steps in here; it’s time, and you kind of know it,” she said. “I just want to know that whoever is here — that they’re innovative, they look to the future, they think outside the box.”

Whitright expressed she is ready for this next step in her life, but will miss coming through those doors everyday. Between the plentiful laughter shared amongst staff and administration, and of course the kids keeping her on her toes with the next quirky thing they say, she certainly has a collection of fond memories that will last her a lifetime.

“I will miss the laughter — the laughter amongst the staff and the laughter amongst the office, the laughter at the stories and laughing with the kids,” she said holding back a few tears. “That’s what I’m going to miss the most, and I guess that’s the relationship piece.”