BELGRADE – To teach kids math, it helps to get them up, out of their chairs and moving around.

That’s one strategy Bozeman High School math teacher Eric Humberger heard about Thursday at the annual Educator Conference held by the Montana Federation of Public Employees.

“Students need to move around every 20 minutes,” Humberger said, because when kids just sit for an hour, “your brain stops working.”

Some 1,200 teachers were registered to attend this year’s two-day conference at the Belgrade Events Center. Public schools statewide are closed Thursday and Friday so teachers can attend the two days of professional training.

Montana’s annual teachers conference “is the best I’ve been to,” said Humberger, a Bozeman teacher for 22 years. “I’ve been to the national conference twice and this is better. I get more activities I can take and use in my classroom here.”

Hundreds of Montana public school teachers came to hear from inspirational speakers and attend workshops on teaching everything from science to English, art, gifted classes and speech and debate.

The annual conference is an important opportunity for teachers to compare notes, share ideas and build collegiality, said Erik Burke, executive director of the MFPE, the state’s largest union.

It also helps teachers to earn the 60 renewal credits required every five years by the state Board of Public Education to keep their teaching licenses, Burke added. The conference goes back more than a century to territorial days.

“Roots really run deep to try to create a professional network across the state,” Burke said.

Sara VanDerWerf, a veteran math teacher from Minnesota, gave a lecture calling for changes in the way teachers teach math. Research shows most math is taught in ways that are not very effective, Humberger said. The message he took away was that it may be difficult but “change is actually possible.”

Teachers often have too many responsibilities on their plates, VanDerWerf said, so she urged them to pick just one thing to try to change in their teaching practices each year and concentrate on that.

Carolyn Sevier, director of the Montana Audubon Center in Billings, lectured on the value of teaching kids about their local environment and communities. It helps students to feel connected, at home and less isolated, she said, and place-based learning ties in well with project-based learning.

Students can learn a lot if they “actually identify and solve problems in their local communities,” she said.

Lacey Hermiston, an art teacher from Sheridan High School, said she likes learning about new art processes at the conference. Kari Shelkey, originally from Bozeman and now teaching English in Frenchtown, said one benefit for her is learning about new books to teach.

Also attending the conference were more than a dozen Fulbright Teaching Excellence and Achievement exchange teachers, who came from countries like Tajikistan and Rwanda for professional training sponsored by the U.S. State Department.

They’d had the chance to work with teachers and students at Bozeman High. Teacher Dali Kotrikadze of Georgia said she held a human geography lesson by teleconference with Bozeman students and her students back in Tbilisi.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at or 406-582-2633. Follow her on Twitter @gailnews.

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