There’s a hint of nonchalance as Judi Fenton talks about the time she was nearly attacked by a deadly cobra on a playground in Senegal, or tells about the time she almost died of dengue fever contracted during a trip to Costa Rica.
But to know Fenton is to know she is fearless and that her job as a consultant for international schools around the world trumps the risks associated with living and working in developing countries.
“To me it’s all about making a difference,” said Fenton, who lives in Kalispell when she’s not traveling to set up curriculum programs or train teachers in far-off lands. “I don’t want to compromise my experiences and life by being afraid.
“I know in my heart of hearts these kids are going to change the world. We have to give them the skills. I do it for that reason.”
It may have been Fenton’s upbringing on the plains of Eastern Montana that best prepared her for a career in education that ultimately prompted her globe-hopping pursuit of helping international students and teachers.
“We were raised to be rough and resilient,” she said about growing up in Scobey.
Her family moved during her junior year to the Hi-Line community of Glasgow, where she graduated from high school. She sang in the chorus, twirled batons and was a cheerleader.
“I’m a noisy type,” she said with a laugh.
The pivotal moment that turned her onto the path of becoming a teacher came in the seventh grade when she got the opportunity to teach Sunday school at the small Episcopal church in Scobey. The following year she taught fellow students how to twirl a baton.
Fenton earned a degree in elementary education and master’s in education administration from the University of Montana, with an endorsement in curriculum development.
“When I graduated in the ’60s, you could be one of three things: a teacher, nurse or secretary,” she said. But even if other career paths had been common for women at that time, Fenton said she still would have chosen education.
“I think my strength doesn’t lie as much with academics as it does in visualizing things,” she said, likening the challenges in her career to a tapestry.
“I have a God-given ability to know where to put those threads,” she said. “It’s intuition, a gut feeling I’ve learned to trust over time.”
Fenton spent 13 years as an elementary and middle-school teacher in Montana, including a stint teaching a pilot program for gifted students in Missoula. She spent several years as a school principal, too, in Missoula and Havre.
While she was working for the Montana Office of Public Instruction she took her first big risk by challenging her boss, the incumbent for the job of superintendent of public instruction.
A divorced mother of two young children at the time, Fenton drained $18,000 out of her savings to get through the campaign.
She lost in the primary — and lost her job.
“I’m not a political animal, but I learned so much about how connected people can be,” she reflected.
About a decade later, while she was a principal in Missoula, Fenton was accepted for a principal exchange program with Victoria, Australia.
“It was a magical year, life-changing,” she recalled.
When Fenton returned home to find the same teachers, sitting in the same chairs in the teachers’ lounge, voicing the same complaints, she knew it was time to move on, so she took a principal job on South Whidbey Island for the next six years.
As the call to return to her roots — teaching — became louder, Fenton responded in a big way. She accepted a teaching job at a large international school in Shanghai, China, where the diverse student population included children of diplomats, missionaries and overseas business executives, among others.
Shanghai was the springboard for what would become a global hop-scotch of international jobs. Next she was off to be an assistant principal at an international school in the Dominican Republic. From there Fenton went to Senegal, West Africa, for four years.
“My heart is still there,” she said. “In each of these countries I visit (she’s been in 47 countries) it’s the people and the culture. These kids are going to be the leaders of tomorrow. They’re so resilient and politically astute.”
But war, poverty and disease often are close at hand in developing countries.
“When we walked out of school [in Senegal] it was poverty; dirt roads, squatters’ villages, tin shacks,” she said.
When Fenton returned to the United States from Senegal about five years ago, she was struck by the anti-Muslim sentiment she saw in America, a contrast to her harmonious life alongside Muslims in West Africa.
“It made me beyond sad,” she said. “Those people treated me so well.”
Fenton then went back to Shanghai for a couple of years as a program director at the same school in which she’d launched her international career. It wasn’t long after that she found herself in demand as an international school consultant.
A lifetime in education had prepared Fenton well for her consultant role.
“I’ve taught at every grade level. I’ve been a teacher, principal, superintendent, worked at the Office of Public Instruction,” she said. “And I have a lot of knowledge and information about setting up programs.”
Fenton typically spends three weeks at an international school, then is on to the next assignment. This week she’s headed back to Guyana, on the northern coast of South America. Then it’s on to Brazil, Honduras, Ghana and back to Senegal. Many of her contracts come through the U.S. State Department.
When she’s not on the road she’s in Kalispell, spending time with John Hendricks, her “significant other” for the past four years. She tried retirement, but it didn’t take.
Fenton doesn’t travel from school to school because it’s easy money. She often does pro bono consulting, and offers a discounted price to almost every international school she works with.
“These teachers and kids and those who run the schools need the support,” she said. “Now my work is to contribute.”