Out There

TSA in Bethel

Posted in Uncategorized by Pete on April 21, 2008

OK, here is a random topic that has bugged for a while.  The TSA is actively recruiting for employees at most of the Alaska hub villages, including Bethel, Kotz, Nome, Barrow, in addition to Fairbanks and Anchorage.   The normal starting pay for a full-time TSA airport screener job is apparently $24,432 per year, or $11.75/hour.  But in the bush they apply a 25% bonus for cost of living and another 25% for a “retention bonus.”  The resulting salary is $36,648/year or $17.62/hour.  They have been advertising these positions for years, I believe, as far as I know without a single taker.  Ciin?  That isn’t great pay for Bethel, but there is worse.  Then again, just casually looking online I see you can be an “eligibility technician 1” for public assistance with basically a high school diploma and start at over $48,000 with 24 paid vacation days (2 accrue per month) and 12 paid holidays per year.  For an entry level position?  Egads!  Oops, now I’m getting distracted.

The silly part is that they’ve rented out an entire B&B in Bethel for years now and filled it with TSA people from all over the country who come in and out on some kind of rotating basis.   So Uncle Sam is paying airfare and expensive lodging to keep these positions filled with outsiders, and all this is happening in the area with the highest unemployment in the state! Now.  I know a lot of Alaskans would say its because everyone in Bethel is lazy.  I’m not really interested in that discussion, so if thats the point you’re interested in making, I’ve saved you the time.  I’m sure Bethel has its share of lazy folks, as does anyplace.

Call me crazy, but here’s an idea:  Raise the offer you’re making (that has failed to get local hires).  Figure out what you’re spending on the Brown Slough B&B and on Alaska Airlines flying those people up here and back, and add maybe half of that cost into the offer for new local hires.  Presto!  You have local workers who are making good money, and the TSA saves a bundle of money (and I can finally stay at the Brown Slough again!).  The outside people could try for those jobs as well, but they’d have to take care of their own lodging, flights, etc if they’re hired.  Is it too much to ask to have people who want to live here in those jobs?  When they first came up I saw them asking little old ladies from the coast to take their mukluks off, and they either couldn’t hear very well or didn’t speak Kassatun, probably the latter.  I couldn’t help but think how it would function more smoothly, quickly, and quietly if a couple local guys worked there too.  All that said, let me affirm that this post is not about bashing the TSA workers in Bethel who from what I’ve seen are doing a good job. I’m aiming at the hiring structure, and whoever controls it and is trying to use this one-size-fits-all approach.

Now as long as I’m being creative, lets go all out.  One thing I’ve heard is that the TSA doesn’t pay that well but they have great medical benefits.  Half (or more?) of the people in Bethel don’t need TSA medical benefits, they get free care at YKHC already.  My overly creative idea would be something where they can opt out of the medical benefits for an extra $5,000/year or something or whatever the TSA spends on the average employee medical per year.  Or half that amount!  I think with these simple things the starting offer could go from $36K and change to something closer to $45-$50K, and that would probably get a response and it would save the TSA money!  The TSA’s usual template for hiring isn’t working, and they’re not adjusting.  If you’re pitching  your usual assortment of pitches and they’re hitting them all over the fence, and you don’t make an adjustment, you’re dumb.

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warm bodies

Posted in teaching by Pete on April 20, 2008

I get copies of messages posted on the Alaska Teacher Placement forum.  It is THE site for those interested in teaching here, and you can visit them here.  The forum is where people ask questions in pursuit of better understanding of what they’d be getting themselves into.  Anyway, today I got a copy of a post with the subject “Getting to Kwethluk.”  Here is the message:  ***UPDATE – This thread has been generating a lot of traffic and I don’t want this new hire feeling singled out or ashamed.  I’ve changed the places they’re coming from and going to, and I removed the exact age of their child.***

is there any way to drive from the lower 48 (Phoenix) up the can-am (or whatever it is called) highway to Bethel-then put my vehicle on a boat to the village (Kwethluk) so we’d have a vehicle?(4wheel dr)?? Considering I’m coming with a middle schooler, 2 dogs, a cat, LOTS of books (heavy to ship $$$) #’s of boxes I thought it might be less hassle and possibly cheaper.

My intention here is not at all to mock or demean this person.  I just feel for them.  Not knowing if you can drive to Bethel or not?  It sounds like she already has a job and has signed a contract but doesn’t know the most basic information about this part of the world.  As a single teacher your first year in the village is stressful and very hard work in the midst of major culture shock and transition.  Having 1 pet is hard, because you don’t have the time to give them what they need.  Having 3 is going to be tough.  Can you imagine the three animals rattling around inside a little apartment for 6 months of winter?  Now the son/daughter might help give the animals attention, but giving them the time they need will be tough too, and he/she will probably need more than ever due to the culture shock.

Its just hard that we’re so desperate for teachers that we bring in lots of well-meaning, nice people and throw them in completely over their heads and then we bemoan our teacher turnover rate.  I’m not trying to single out any particular school district or that person or anything, this is par for the course.  I believe the average stay for teachers in LKSD, my district, is right around 2 years.  Someone correct me if I’m wrong. 

I think this might be the most devastating hardship that our village schools deal with.  New teachers usually arrive in the village less than a week before class starts.  They’re trying to unpack and find which box has the spaghetti so they can eat, and set up their room, and how do I get to the post office so I can find my boxes, and they’re often just learning what classes they’re going to be teaching in 3 days!  They’re tripping over the cultural differences all around them and making all kinds of questionable assumptions about their neighbors based on misunderstandings.  They’re intimidated about teaching (which is totally normal), sleep-deprived, and stressed out.  And often they have to figure out a curriculum that might be totally unique and nothing like they prepared for in school, like LKSD’s phase system.  If you ask many veteran teachers, they’ll tell you that the first year they did a pretty lame job teaching a lot of the material.  Not because they were lazy or at fault in any way, they were just new and totally overwhelmed and learning as they went.  Someone told us that your first year teaching in the bush is like getting run over by a train.  And the next year you see the train coming but can’t get out of the way in time, and the third year you MIGHT get out of the way barely, and then each year keeps improving.  This is only our 5th year, but its totally true in our experience.  When we have a first year teacher who leaves after 1 year, the next year we’ll often discover they spent the first semester treading water for the most part and the kids are way behind or there is little documentation of progress as there should be.

We sell the experience to college seniors as “adventure,” which it certainly is, and they want to believe “high pay,” which it mostly isn’t when you consider the cost of living & travel.  But don’t we owe our kids better than an “adventure” when it comes to knowing what kind of education they’ll get?  I think the thing we need to stress to prospective teachers is how very different the local culture is here.  This is less true in hub villages like Bethel, Nome, Barrow, etc.  But new teachers think the weather will be hard.  Or not being able to ever have a drink, or go shopping or to a movie, that will be tough.  Those things are pretty trivial compared to the culture shock most teachers find themselves in.   “Why won’t anyone answer me when I ask a question?  What did I do to them??  Even the native staff won’t look at me or answer my questions!  Or I don’t hear them and say “What?” and they don’t answer!”  Or “Why don’t people get plumbing in their homes?  What is wrong with them?  How can they be so lazy/nasty?”  “My only toilet is an incinerator toilet!?!” “My student has a BOIL on his arm – don’t these people take showers?!?”  “Why are these kids always harassing me wanting to VISIT at 11 pm??”

I know I move onto controversial ground, thin ice, when talking about culture.  Every culture has its strengths and weaknesses.  Alaska is made up of many different cultures and I’m not going to be so foolish as to try and list my take on all of them here.  But teachers should expect something similar to moving to the third world to teach.  They might not have running water, they might not understand their neighbors (language or behavior!), they might be forced to live in what they consider lousy housing and possibly with a roommate(s).  They might believe they’re being judged by people and they don’t even know why or what they did to offend anyone.  The huge cultural transition is a complex thing, not to be taken lightly.  But how do you educate someone about this at a job fair in a fancy hotel?  I think for the most part its not talked about that much.  If they had these expectations, the only surprise they might get is a pleasant one.

I realize that I’m throwing lots of stones so far and not providing any answers.  I don’t know.  There is no easy answer or don’t you think we’d have implemented it long ago?

I think its great if people can visit prospective villages before signing contracts.  Yes, expensive.  Maybe the district could agree to reimburse them for half of the cost only 3 months after they start teaching, so if they visit then say no thanks they get no reimbursement.  They could sleep on the floor of the school–the point is not a half-price vacation for 22 year olds.  Of course this would still be a cost for the districts, but I believe it would cut back on 1 year teachers (and especially the rare teacher who shows up, sees the village, and immediately leaves, which does happen occasionally).  Maybe they could get half of it reimbursed after their first year teaching, and the other half after their 3rd year or something.

In addition, I think teachers should be encouraged to live in the village in the SUMMER with reduced rent during those months.  Something really small just to cover utilities like $300/month.  My district is  penny-wise and pound-foolish in this regard, charging full rent for June & July if you stay (and even a “storage fee” for your stuff if you leave it).  We spent our first 3 summers here, and it would be every summer except I’ve been required to do summer internships in Anchorage for my master’s degree.  We think its the best time to be here.  Totally relaxing, beautiful, warm.  You sleep in and read and get your classroom and planning ready at a nice pace, while your neighbors work feverishly all summer fishing & hunting & berry picking, stocking up for the year.  We go with them sometimes and have a blast.  Anyway, by charging full rent, teachers are out of here to see friends and family.  Maybe if they could stay for cheap, some would leave to see friends and family but then return for the bulk of the summer.  They could form relationships with the village outside of their role as a school authority figure, play with the kids, go to feasts, go berry-picking and fishing with people, etc.  Totally different from the school year, and an experience that would help them understand the village better, and help the village understand THEM better, and ultimately that can only lead to more positive results.  Hardly any teachers stay at this point, so I don’t think this would reduce district revenue much, if at all.  Relationships are key to people being happy and staying, but new teachers have no energy or time to form those relationships during their first year or two.  So let’s be creative and make it easier to be there in summer!

My only other ideas are problematic.  A big bonus after every 5 years with the district?  I don’t like that it would be an incentive for bad teachers to stay (which reminds me of another soapbox of mine, I wish it were easier to get rid of the really bad teachers/principals, who are rare but they do exist and most people onsite know who they are).  Or some kind of merit pay or reward system?  I know the Chugach School District does this, or at least they used to.  Its based on a combination of factors like academic performance of students, parent/student questionnaires, etc.  The union would blow its stack at these ideas, but its a way to pay the best teachers a bonus and hopefully help them to stay.  Like I said, these ideas are problematic.  If you have an idea to add, put it in the comments!


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Posted in Uncategorized by Pete on April 18, 2008

OK, I wrote this post a couple hours ago already, and it was long, and funny, and profound. And mind-blowingly stupendous. It was SUPER. But now its gone! (Like Frank Sinatra…) But it was about bags. And saving the planet.

Let me explain.

No…let me sum up.

Tammy and I were driving from LA to AK (which is another story entirely), and we stopped in lovely Prince George for groceries on our way to the Cassiar Hwy in Western BC. Prince George is the biggest town you see until Anchorage, 1800 miles later.  We bought a pile of produce and a bunch of canned food. The cashier rang it all up and I waited expectantly for a total.  Instead of the usual drill, the clerk broke all the rules as we had this exchange:

Cashier: “Would you like a bag?”

Me: “uh…[staring at my pile of stuff blankly]…um…[staring at the cashier even blanker]…yes? Yes!  Definitely.”

Cashier: “How many?”

Me: “[blankest]…How many? uhhh….as many as it takes?”

I know my grocery store social pragmatics, and this was some very odd stuff indeed.  So they threw it all in bags and then counted them and charged me a fee per bag.  Aha!  At last I understood. As we left the store I commented that had I known I would have only asked for one bag.  Or just scooped it all into my shirt. Those Canadians don’t mess around when it comes to recycling. At least not in Prince George. None of this voluntary garbage (no pun intended), you’ll recycle or you’ll pay! : – )

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  Back to saving the planet. These people here seem to think that bags are a way to do that. Hey, more power to ya. Those plastic bags all over are an eyesore and a total waste. Most of Ireland has even kicked the habit, apparently. How hard can it be to carry a bag or two folded up in your car? I wouldn’t know since I mail all my groceries in boxes…RECYCLED boxes I might add, but that’s another story too.

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forever baseball

Posted in Uncategorized by Pete on April 18, 2008

OK, despite living in western Alaska, faaaaaar from where it is supposed to work, we have XM radio here and it works great (for those of you into such things I get a BER rate of 0.0 or 0.1 on every channel – that means crystal clear digital sound). So I use it almost exclusively for listening to baseball, mostly the M’s. But tonight I noticed the only game still going was the Padres vs Rockies in the 13th inning, at 0-0, an oddity in today’s offensive environment. So I turned it on (instead of working on my paper on memory loss related to normal aging), and now hours later it is 1-1 in the 22nd (!!!!!!) inning! Right when I turned it on the padres were up with noone out and the first guy hit a double but was thrown out at 3rd base by 20 feet. ohhhhh bad baserunning. Especially when a pitcher who was pinch-hitting (!!) lined a 2 out single that would have scored the run.

On to the 14th, where the Rockies got a single and then 3 walks to force in a run. The last walk was with 2 outs and after a great at bat with lots of foul balls. Then the padres loaded them up too, got a 2-out single to tie it but the guy on 2nd was too slow to score and they didn’t have anyone on the bench or a pinch runner would have been in for him so they would have scored. The next batter, a rookie without a hit yet in his MLB career, went to a 3-1 count and then took a pitch that was ruled a strike but made the announcers howl with frustration. Then he grounded out, so on it went. As I’ve been typing this post, the rockies scored a run in the top of the 22nd off of 2 padre errors. Now San Diego is up trying to tie the game or its over.

This is the longest game in the history of both franchises. Surprisingly the fans are still there and pretty vocal, at 1:15 AM PST. “Let’s go Padres!” First Padre batter just got hit by a pitch so the tying run is aboard. I’m not sure if the announcers want the padres to score or not. : – )  Quite a game.

UPDATE – Padres also got a walk but failed to score in the bottom of the 22nd, so that’s it.  Time to write that paper.

PS – to see a map of all XM users and where they’re located (I’m on the Alaska image to the left of the “U” in “United States” – you can’t miss it), try this link:  http://ward.xmfan.com/viewtopic.php?t=54863

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April 15?

Posted in Uncategorized by Pete on April 15, 2008

Tax day! Hooray! I love doing my taxes. How can you not? Refunds baby! Well, I guess if you’re extraordinarily wealthy you probably dislike them, but hey then you have little to cry about. Plus I’m an anal, pencil-necked accountant so I just loooove fillin out all those forms. In addition, I tend to think things like schools, libraries, roads, and runways are good.

Completely off-topic rant: As opposed to many Alaskans (oh, those wacky ADN commenters!) who believe we should dissolve state government entirely and send every Alaskan (or is that just “real” Alaskans?) a check for six figures and then we’re all on our own forever. (Or better yet seize the pipeline by force, secede, and bring the lower 48 to its knees. These are real suggestions by “real” Alaskans I’ve seen in editorials of the ADN. Oops, way off topic.) Back on topic:

Alaskans get worked up every spring about taxes, this year in response to massive spending by the legislature that just adjourned. Although they also saved something like $5B for the inevitable, impending, fateful, imminent, inexorable, inescapable, unavoidable, unstoppable, looming, rainy day eternity when the oil revenue goes dry.

Don’t get me started on those comments in the ADN. In fact, I’ll make that a separate post sometime. CRAZY stuff they write. “Even me!” : – )

Now for something completely different, what is up with the COLD weather? Nengllirtuq! The ambient temp was subzero this morning, and we’ve been averaging about 30 mph sustained winds all day (as I type this it is blowing at 37.8 mph). That makes for one mean windchill, like -30 to -40. Which is pretty much par for the course in winter, but on April 15th????? Come on, enough already! UNCLE!!

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Real Alaskans

Posted in grim stuff by Pete on April 15, 2008

Quoting from the 4/15/08 ADN newsreader:

Racist joke may mean radio boycott. The Alaska Federation of Natives is considering a boycott of KBFX-FM’s advertisers after radio DJs Woody and Wilcox made a racist joke during their morning show. Listener Michelle Davis told KTUU that the DJs said, “You are a real Alaskan if you have made love to the Yukon River and you have peed in a Native woman.” The DJs and the station have since apologized.

Any other state and I contend they’d be fired. I don’t really endorse that because it would only enflame people and not really engage them in a way that can bring about much change. I’m more for social change than I am for vengeance, but that’s easy for me to say as someone who hasn’t had to suffer because of my race. Some links from my personal website that pertain to sex crimes in Alaska:

2/24/07: Another grim but informative story on sexual crimes in the YK Delta (where we live), apparently reported at a rate 25 times that of the nation.

5/15/07: And a companion story to that one, found on NPR, about a Amnesty International study of rape among Alaska Native and American Indian women. Native women make up less than 10% of Anchorage’s population, yet they are the victims of over half of all rapes committed there. Click on the red “listen” icon.

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