Born to Teach

Pat Lowthian has Spent Decades Impacting the Lives of Others Through Education

Pat Lowthian was born to teach. The oldest of five, she cared for her younger siblings when she was just a girl. Later, she earned an elementary education degree and taught school for more than 40 years in Billings. Now, even after retiring from Billings Public Schools, she’s still at it. While she loves all children, Pat has always been passionate about the ones who can fall through the cracks.

“I’ve always loved kids on the fringe,” Pat says. ”I’ve taught so many different kinds of kids. Kids with autism, kids with ADD, kids with depression, kids with anxiety, kids who live with trauma, kid who don’t have their basic needs met.”

During her last several years teaching in public schools, Pat saw a growing number of children at risk facing all sorts of challenges.  

“Food insecurity, gun violence and all of the different things that move people into areas of anxiety and depression,” says Pat. “Those are more common now.”

Pat’s passion for helping children who face tough circumstances stretches back to her childhood in Southern California, when she witnessed the difficult lives of migrant families who worked in the fields.

“I watched all those families working in the fields,” says Pat. “I used to say to my dad, ‘They don’t even have water, they don’t even have a bathroom out there. What is going on?’ So I’ve always just had this heart for the people living on the fringes.”   

Seeing their difficult living conditions lit a fire under Pat, and she was determined to help migrant students improve their lives. For 35 years, she spent six weeks each summer teaching students in Montana’s Migrant Education Program. After retiring from Billings Public Schools in 2020, she was hired as the organization’s assistant director for eastern Montana. Over the years, she has taught hundreds of children of migrant parents who came to Montana for work.  

For several summers, Billings resident Liz Maya was one of Pat’s students in the Migrant Education Program. Her parents were migrant workers who traveled from Mexico to Montana for work. Like many children of migrant workers, Liz needed extra help to learn English and keep up with school. She says Pat was more than a teacher for students; she was a friend to the children and their families. 

“She is willing to go out of her way to help, not just in the migrant program itself, but outside of it,” Liz says. “Any personal issues anyone’s having, she’s willing to go outside the box to help, and she becomes more like family as opposed to a teacher or mentor.”

These days, Liz works part-time at Los Mayas, a restaurant that her parents own in Billings. She says Pat has made a positive difference in her life and in the lives of many other family members. Now, she sends her own children to the Migrant Education Program’s summer sessions.

“Pat’s a great teacher, and she’s a great mentor,” says Liz. “Not just to me and my kids. She has had my entire family there.”

Pat’s heart for children with challenges also stretches to those with mental health concerns. She understands their unique needs first-hand. She’s a single mom who raised her son alone from the age of 4. Her ex-husband suffered from addiction and mental illness, and her son has mental health struggles. Years ago, Pat took classes from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) to learn more about caring for someone with mental health challenges. True to form, she now shares what she learned by facilitating a caregiving class and serving on NAMI’s board.

“I took a 12-week training course called Family to Family and ended up learning so much,” Pat says. “Like I tell my people now, with mental illness, you don’t know what you don’t know. It’s like anything—you have to break through that denial.”

Over the years, strong friendships have helped Pat navigate life’s challenges. Each month, she gathers with a group of women who have played Bunco together for 36 years. 

“You talk about dark nights of the soul, I’ve had those,” says Pat. “But I’m one of these people who says, ‘OK, you get to mire down for this amount of time and feel sad and feel whatever you feel, and then you’ve just go to get with it.’ I always tell people you can’t go backward. You just have to go forward, and life is going to take you in really different directions. Some are going to be quite joyful, and others quite hard, but you just have to stay around positive people.” 

It’s hard to find a segment of our community that Pat hasn’t touched with her gift for teaching. For much of her career, she taught gifted and talented students, but her impact stretched across Billings schools and beyond. She helps organize the Eastern Montana Regional Science Fair, helped raise thousands of dollars for educational programs at ZooMontana, taught classes for parents of children with attention deficit disorder, and supervised many student teachers. She says teaching others gives her great joy.

“I’m able to get hope and give hope,” Pat says. “I’m giving what I can to my students, but they are giving me who they are and I’m getting so much in return from them.” 

Mary Sue Engel is a retired teacher who has been friends with Pat for many years. She loves the level of creativity and energy Pat brings to the classroom and to life.

“One of the things I’ve always marveled about is Pat can discipline children without them even realizing they were corrected,” says Mary Sue. “She did it such a creative, compassionate way, and then moved right on, keeping the flow and energy going without skipping a beat.”              

Pat is a woman of strong faith and teaches weekly religious education classes to elementary students at St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church. She says her faith has fueled her lifetime of service to children and the community. Her gift for teaching is matched by her love for learning. She reads avidly and enjoys writing poems, visiting museums and historical sites, and playing piano. There’s always something new for her to learn and teach. In this season of life, Pat hopes to teach other seniors about the importance of planning.  

“I think people retire way too early and then it’s like they don’t know what to do with themselves and that’s where I’m seeing issues with depression,” says Pat. They’re not engaged with the world as much as they once were. I’d like to encourage women to have a backup plan before they retire.”

It’s hard to keep up with Pat. At 69, she’s still a woman on the go and exudes energy and enthusiasm. She says she takes her cue from other strong women who made a positive difference in each season of their lives.

“I think of Betty White, she’s one of my heroes. I think of Mother Theresa, Jane Goodall … you could go on and on with what they’ve accomplished in what some might consider the twilight years of their lives,” Pat says. “You’ve got to just make a difference. I don’t care what you’re doing, just make a difference and make life better for other people.”


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