Opening the doors to Ben Steele Middle School

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Originally printed in the pages of Simply Family Magazine’s August 2017 issue. Never miss an issue, check out SFM’s digital editions, here

article by Brooke Wagner
photos by Jana Graham Photography

Joe Halligan never set out to become an educator. He didn’t spend his childhood days dreaming of the smell of chalk dust, anticipating classroom hours spent molding and shaping young minds in the reflection of shiny red apples sitting on the teacher’s desk. In fact, even as he began college at MSU-B (Eastern Montana College at the time), he hoped to pursue a career in engineering. He quickly realized, however, that, in his words, “God did not gift me mathematically!” After struggling laboriously through a calculus class, he realized that his strengths leaned more towards people, specifically young students entering their own school days. This revelation would result in Halligan’s foray into the world of education, planting his roots firmly back in his hometown of Billings. Fast forward more than a few years later to the fall of 2017, as Halligan prepares to serve as the principal of the newest school on the block; Ben Steele Middle School. Although his journey to the head of the class may not have been the one he originally set out on, he is certainly glad his feet have found steady ground in the world of school administration.

Halligan was born and raised in Billings and is himself a product of Billings Public Schools. He attended Miles Avenue, Arrowhead, and Central Heights Elementary schools, continuing to Will James Middle School and West High as a 1993 graduate. He recalls an idyllic childhood growing up on the west end of town when it was still relatively “wild.” Halligan says, “Our summers were spent playing outside until after dark, exploring construction sites of all the new homes, and just being kids before technology took over our lives.” Exceptional teachers and a supportive group of friends were some of the hallmarks of his early education, and he enjoyed staying active through sports and other extracurricular activities. For two years after his graduation from West High school, Halligan worked as a youth intern for Faith Evangelical Church while also attending college classes. In 1995 he married his high school sweetheart, Tonya, and together they moved to Bozeman to finish college. The next year brought many changes for the newly established Halligan family as Joe enlisted in the United States Marine Corps. H spent the next six years as a Marine reservist and completed a degree at MSU. In brief time, two boys were added to the family, first Jake (now 17) and then Connor (now 15). Halligan began his teaching career at Orchard Elementary and was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps. He recalls, “Tonya and I decided I would pursue a master’s degree in Educational Leadership, so in 2006 I graduated (again) from MSU and started on the path to school administration. The rest, as they say, is history!”

Speaking of history, Halligan has seen his share of it…along with math, reading, writing, biology, and spelling classes. After nearly 17 years spent in an elementary school setting, both as a teacher and as an administrator, he has come to appreciate the hills and valleys that come from working with students. When asked what he loves about his job, Halligan’s response is thoughtful. “No two days are the same in education. The same can be said about a lot of jobs out there, but in my case, it is very true. While no day is easy, every day presents new challenges and opportunities to learn from those around me.”  Halligan transitioned to the middle school setting several years ago and exudes just as much passion and care for students in this often awkward and hormonally charged season of life. He credits the kids with making his jump back into the waters of adolescence an exciting one and says that he loves the change of pace young tweens and teens bring. Halligan paints an all-too-accurate portrait of today’s middle-schooler with these words: “Whether it’s 5th graders at Orchard, 6th graders at Arrowhead, students at Broadwater, or the almost 700 kids at Will James, they keep me coming back. They are exhausting, frustrating, wonderful, talented, hilarious, surprising, naughty, and grateful…often all in the same day, just like our own biological kids!”

Halligan recognizes that although he may no longer be the one at the head of the classroom, he still carries a responsibility to every teacher, student, and family represented by the Billings public school system. The individual culture of each school might be slightly different, but an overall climate of respect, high expectations, responsibility, and of course, FUN is an integral part of Halligan’s recipe for success. An attitude of servant leadership guides Halligan as he navigates how to best support each teacher at his school. Today’s educators are presented with the unique challenge of addressing the needs of many diverse learners with somewhat limited resources and (all too often) lack of support from home. Halligan notes, “I personally know dozens of teachers who spend hundreds of dollars each year out of their own pockets to supplement what is being done in the classroom to ensure that every student is learning.”

0U3A4409In the case of Ben Steele Middle School, the challenge of meeting the needs of many distinct types of learners will hopefully be eased by some of the building’s unique features. The brand-new facility will make effective use of every penny of the estimated 29.6-million-dollar budget by serving not only as an educational hub but also a gathering place for after-school and community activities. The school supports a booming far west end building explosion, with new houses meaning new families and students looking for a place to call home, at least for a few years. Projected enrollment is around 800 sixth, seventh, and eighth graders, and Halligan expects the school to reach capacity within the first year. These numbers reflect just how long overdue a school like Ben Steele is to our community, and as one of the first schools to be built in Billings in over 30 years, it’s easy to see why there has been so much excitement surrounding the project. For years to come, the new school will serve as a recreation area for countless students and families, with a football field and track, three full-size soccer fields, two softball fields, and maintained walking paths leading to the surrounding neighborhoods. Halligan feels thankful to be the one to open the doors to the community, but says he, “Understands that my time here will be a drop in the bucket compared to the generations of kids, families, and community members that will enjoy all this school has to offer.” *Bubble Quote

Kinship and a sense of community have played a key role in Halligan’s own journey to his new undertaking at Ben Steele. He says, “My family has been tremendously supportive throughout this process, and really throughout my entire career.” His wife Tonya stayed home for almost 10 years raising their young family, and together they made the decision to sacrifice a more lucrative lifestyle for the benefits that having her home would bring. Tonya lent a creative and artistic touch to her husband’s efforts over the years, and Halligan says, “She is the reason my classrooms always looked so inviting!” Towards the end of last year, Halligan invited Tonya to a gathering of the new Ben Steele teaching and administrative team held in front of the building. He introduced her first because he “Wanted everyone to see the face of the person who has given so much so that I might have the opportunities I have had. She doesn’t hear it often enough – ‘Thank you, Tonya, for all that you do for me!’” Halligan is quick to express his gratitude for his family’s support, even recalling many late nights the whole crew spent preparing the classroom for students to arrive for another school year. His face lights up when he talks about how quickly his two sons volunteer to help someone in need and is especially grateful when it is he himself who benefits from their strong work ethic and willingness to lend a hand.

Ben Steele students

With Joe Halligan at the helm, the first generation of students fortunate enough to roam the halls of Ben Steele will have an experienced and capable leader. From raising his own boys to being surrounded by other people’s offspring most of the day, Halligan has a few words of wisdom to share with parents of up and coming middle schoolers. His care for the hearts of young people is evident as he says, “Trust the teachers, administrators, and other school staff to take good care of your kids. That is our job; it’s what we train for and what we are passionate about. The decisions we make regarding instruction, discipline, and daily student interactions are all made with your child’s best interests in mind.” Halligan has noticed a disturbing trend among teens and tweens to discourage their peers from overachieving when it comes to academics. The term “try-hard” (as in “Oh man, I can’t believe you are such a try-hard!”) is a common dig at a student’s character, and Halligan hopes to turn this around. He says, “Since when was trying hard, putting in some extra effort, or achieving a goal a BAD thing?” His advice for parents hoping to combat this is to encourage their student to surround themselves with a group of friends who will support their goals and dreams. “Encourage your kids to be themselves and identify with people of similar interests, and enjoy being who they are.” Halligan has also seen the disengaging effect that overuse of electronics such as smartphones, video game systems, and other technology has had on his students. An adolescent psyche needs a break from the constant “ding” of a new Snapchat alert or text, so Halligan recommends storing devices away from a tween or teen’s bedroom each evening. Lastly, he says, “Listen to your child. No matter what, listen to them. As awkward teens, they may not always want to talk to you, but when they do, listen to them – they need you more than they may let on.”

about the author…Brooke Wagner is a Southern girl at heart, but a Montana girl by choice. She lives in Billings with her husband, three children, one dog who thinks she is human, and one very therapeutic horse.