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Bigfork history teacher gains perspective from travels

by HILARY MATHESON
Daily Inter Lake | May 22, 2023 12:00 AM

While Bigfork High School history teacher Cynthia Wilondek is passionate about the past, her own history is filled with interesting accounts of travels and jobs abroad that eventually led her back to Montana.

“With teaching American history, it's really given me a broader perspective of our place in the world and our responsibility to it. You know, we do so many things so well and it's great to be able to kind of appreciate that both as somebody who lives here as well as somebody who's been abroad,” Wilondek said.

When Wilondek, who grew up in eastern Montana, graduated from Rocky Mountain College with a degree in history political science education she was ready for the opportunities life presented. While seeking a letter of recommendation from a college advisor to possibly participate in the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program, Wilondek ran into the dean of students who, coincidentally, was traveling to the college’s sister school in Japan the following week.

“A week later, she called and she’s like they’re interested in you doing classes, would you be willing to go to our junior college in Japan,” Wilondek said.

She took the job and during the day taught English as a second language. During the night she was in elementary schools running English clubs.

“In the morning I’m talking about gerund phrases and split infinitives and then in the afternoon I’m out in the field playing red rover with 6-year-olds. It was a crazy, great experience,” she said.

In her spare time, she would travel around the country.

“I ended up exploring a great deal,” she said.

Wilondek returned to America to attend graduate school at Brown University in Rhode Island and completed a yearlong program, earning a master of arts in teaching in social studies education. She was intentional about it being one year rather than two or three and not just for financial reasons.

“I wanted it one and done,” she said and understood it would be intensive.

“I think part of the reason I’m a teacher is I like school,” Wilondek said, from the lectures to the tests.

Her travels illustrate that history is still tangible in the modern day. Her trip to Egypt as one example, the pyramids and the Great Sphinx coming into view from the small window of an airplane. To reach the pyramids, Wilondek took a centuries-old mode of transportation — camels. Standing at the base of a pyramid Wilondek said even pictures couldn’t show the sheer massiveness of the structures.

“It’s just indescribably huge,” she said.

She also tried her hand at haggling in bazaars.

“I was not very good at it,” Wilondek said laughing.

IN 2003, Wilondek had the unusual opportunity to teach at a boarding school in England.

“So I was a school mum,” Wilondek said, smiling.

“It was an international school with an American education foundation,” she said.

By teaching students who were not Americans, she had to flip the script of talking about history from the perspective of an outsider looking in. She said it was an interesting and wonderful experience and learned a lot by asking students — “What is an American?”

“The reason we study history is to learn about who we are,” Wilondek said, and why.

After two years, she moved to Colorado where she took a position at a public charter school she said was “founded by teachers, for teachers.”

“The pedagogical component was just so stimulating. I would argue that even though I’ve taken ed classes and I have advanced degrees … I learned more about being a good teacher in that environment than I ever did anywhere else,” she said. “I have fabulous colleagues who teach me daily, but that was like a boot camp for teachers.”

“You really learned your craft very quickly. You had to keep up because everybody there was a master instructor,” she added.

And she said a charter school worked for that particular region because of the sizable population.

Eventually, Wilondek made her way back to Montana after a family member became sick. It was during the Great Recession and she took on substitute teaching in Billings when a position opened at Bigfork Elementary and Middle School and has taught in the school district ever since.

“It’s been a wonderful place to have a family and be a part of the community and I just feel like I know my students and I’m so grateful for that because sometimes that doesn’t always happen,” she said.

Wilondek said she enjoyed her years teaching middle school students and the energy students brought to the school day. At that age, children are discovering their interests, figuring out their personalities and seeing the world as a place of possibility

“How great is it to be around to help them make those good choices and be part of their lives?” she said.

While teaching at the middle school, Wilondek brought the National History Day competition to Bigfork. The competition operates like a science fair but for history — with displays, presentations to judges and written reports. Over three years, her students advanced to the state and national levels of competition.

“They worked on these projects, with topics that they were passionate about,” she said. “It was just such a wonderful encompassing engagement in critical thinking and creativity.”

The program went on a four- or five-year hiatus at the state level but has since been reinstated and Wilondek is hoping to hold local competitions at the high school.

“It was such an incredible opportunity,” Wilondek said.

Wilondek moved back to the high school when it started offering dual enrollment classes in partnership with Flathead Valley Community College because she had the proper credentials to teach college-level courses. As the school grows, so is the history department, which is bringing on a third teacher.

“We want to make sure that students have opportunities to take social studies electives, which they really haven’t,” she said. “We have our core that we always teach, right, but next year I’m taking on Montana History. I love Montana history.”

For the past four years, approximately, Wilondek has served as one of the Montana Historical Society's Teacher Leaders in Montana History fellows. The society is currently looking to add more fellows to the program with teachers demonstrating a commitment to history education and experience teaching Montana history to share best practices and resources with colleagues.

“I really act as an advocate for the society as well as a champion for teachers to become more interested and involved in Montana history,” Wilondek said.

FROM A young age, Wilondek knew she would become a teacher. Her mother and stepfather were college professors who shared their enthusiasm for education with their daughter. What sparked her interest in history, however, was the book “Johnny Tremain,” Esther Forbes’ work of historical fiction set in Boston during the outbreak of the American Revolution with a 14-year-old as the main character.

“I just loved the historical fiction of it, it’s an old-school book,” Wilondek said. “I was just fascinated to think that you could observe major events in the world and that idea kind of caught fire for me when I was in elementary school.”

“And then … slightly embarrassing, but I used to watch ‘Quantum Leap,” Wilondek said with a laugh.

It isn’t hard to see why a TV show about a scientist who travels through time to correct historical mistakes would be interesting to a budding history buff. The thought of being able to jump through time and experience a historical event firsthand was interesting enough, but so was the concept of how choices changed the course of history.

“How choice works into things — that fascinated me at a young age,” Wilondek said.

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.

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