BELGRADE — School children are more than test-score numbers, and teachers must be more than bean-counters and scorekeepers.

That was the message John O'Connor delivered to hundreds of teachers in one of the keynote lectures given Thursday at the MEA-MFT Educators' Conference.

Some 2,500 teachers from all over the state have gathered at the Belgrade schools for two days to attend workshops, share ideas, become inspired and learn about everything from Common Core state standards to how blogging can help educators working in isolated schools.

O'Connor, who teaches English at an Illinois high school and education at Northwestern University, quoted one of his students who said she didn't want to be just “a ghost, a number in a file.”

One antidote to today's “test craze” in American education is writing, he said. By writing poems, journals or blogs, students can learn and grow as people. O'Connor urged teachers to think of students as complicated human beings, and themselves as researchers or mentors, rather than people who try to fill kids' heads like piggy banks.

A recurring topic at the conference was Montana's new Common Core standards, which spell out skills and knowledge students should learn at each grade.

Todd Kettler, a University of North Texas professor, told an audience he likes the Common Core, even though his state is one of three to reject it.

To friends who say they don't like the government telling Texas schools want to teach, Kettler said he suggests that it makes no sense to keep going without nationwide standards and then complain that the rest of the world is out-competing us. Besides, he added, the state of Texas has been telling its schools for years that they must teach that the men who died at the Alamo were heroes.

Before the Common Core, Kettler said, schools in Massachusetts had better standards for preparing students than did schools in Louisiana or Mississippi. All kids should have access to the best standards, he said, no matter where they live.

Bobbi Jo Hansen, a Belgrade fifth-grade teacher, said her school has been working on Common Core for the past year, and it does seem to help students get a deeper understanding.

“The dream is we'll be able to focus more on mastery of concepts, instead of being a mile wide and an inch deep,” Hansen said.

Perri Sherrill, a teaching coach at Bozeman High School, said the MEA conference is a great chance to hear national speakers, find out what other teachers are doing around the state and consider other ways to teach.

“Most of us are lifelong learners,” Sherrill said.

Eric Feaver, MEA-MFT president, said the conferences have been held at least since 1974, when he started teaching. In 1987, a state law passed requiring schools to close, so teachers and administrators could get professional training at educational conferences.

“Ours is designed and delivered by teachers,” Feaver said. “They share lesson plans and teach teachers what they think works.”

Danielle Schultz, a middle school counselor from Pennsylvania, gave a workshop on how counselors and teachers can use blogging and social media like Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram to communicate with other counselors for support and sharing ideas.

“Montana's a huge state, you can feel very isolated,” Schultz said. “I get such amazing ideas from other people. It's not about the technology – it's about the connections.”

Gail Schontzler can be reached at or 582-2633.