MT History Teacher of the Year

Christina Cote-Reinhart poses for a photo outside of her Bozeman home on Friday morning, July 31, 2020. Christina has been named Montana History Teacher of the Year by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History in New York.

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History teacher Christina Cote-Reinhart is amazed at how many parents tell her they hated history in school and are surprised that their kids actually like her class.

Cote-Reinhart – who has taught history for 20 years at Gardiner School — says instead of treating history as a bunch of dates to memorize, she has her students read the original documents, where people from the past speak in their own words.

That means documents like Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and Abigail Adams’ letters asking husband John to remember rights for women during the American Revolution.

Rather than saying, “Here’s the textbook, now repeat it back,” Cote-Reinhart encourages students to come to their own conclusions and interpretations – to be their own historians.

“I want to make history come alive, so they can see it’s relevant to today,” she said. “I don’t think of teaching as helping them get a career, but understanding their world – which in today’s world is very important.”

Her dedication to teaching and using primary documents – as well as her success coaching and helping students from her small rural school travel to Washington, D.C., Uzbekistan and Japan – have won Cote-Reinhart the Montana history teacher of the year award.

It comes with a $1,000 prize from the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, a New York-based nonprofit dedicated to American history education.

“I like what I do, so it’s an honor,” Cote-Reinhart, 59, said Friday. “When you teach at a rural school, you can be overlooked… It’s nice to be recognized by people you respect.”

She is Gardiner School’s only history teacher in grades seven to 12. Every hour she teaches a different grade and different subject – from ancient history to modern European history, U.S. history, government and two Advanced Placement classes. It makes for great variety but requires tons of preparation.

Rather than teaching history chronologically, she teaches history around themes, like inequality in America or human rights. Students may read Frederick Douglass’s Fourth of July speech or documents from the Holocaust.

Cote-Reinhart has coached Gardiner’s speech and debate team to 14 state championships, the Gilder Lehrman Institute said.

She said one of the coolest things she has done is take teams of Gardiner students every year to Missoula for the Academic WorldQuest competition, which has students learn about world affairs.

The last three years Gardiner students have won the competition, and the chance to compete at the nationals in Washington, D.C.

“I feel vindicated,” Cote-Reinhart said, because many people assume her students won’t do well because they’re from a small high school of about 60 students.

This year their trip was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. But last year she took 12 students to Washington, where they so impressed a man from the Japanese consulate that he arranged an all-expense-paid trip to Japan for them and students from Missoula’s Sentinel High.

Cote-Reinhart said she’s proud that she recently finished training to become a teacher-fellow with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. She was working with other Montana history teachers to bring a Holocaust exhibit to the Bozeman Public Library, but it had to be postponed because of the pandemic.

Cote-Reinhart said she grew up in Texas, came out to Yellowstone National Park to work at the Old Faithful Inn in 1982 and ended up staying. She was working as a library aide at Gardiner School, thinking she could never get a teaching job, when the history teacher who coached football suddenly quit in August.

“They were desperate and hired me for a one-year job,” she recalled.

Her first husband died at age 45, leaving her with three daughters.

“Gardiner was amazing,” she said. “Then I had to support three children on a teaching salary. The community was so wonderful in helping me raise my kids. It sounds really sappy but part of the reason I want to teach there is to give back.”

Now that her second husband, Daniel Reinhart, has retired from working in the park, she splits her school weeks between their retirement home in Bozeman and a vacation rental in Gardiner. She plans to be back teaching this fall.

“My dad always said,” she said, “if you have a job you enjoy, you don’t have to go to work.”

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Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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