Out There

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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7 Responses

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  1. mpb said, on April 21, 2008 at 12:36 am

    Old Minto Cultural Heritage and Education Institute used to run teacher training camps with Minto elders to provide some means of enculturation. But it isn’t well-funded.

    There are certainly ways, without costing much money, to lessen the damage (to all parties) of inadequate preparation but it has been frustrating for decades now to get institutions to understand that a systems approach might be better than piecemeal ones. The description you have clearly stated also applies to the health corporations. Maybe the health corps are worse in deliberately (?) providing inadequate information to new hires. For example, Trucks/cars are NOT a necessity in any YK community that I know of, not even Bethel (no more than 3 miles from anywhere unless you don’t have animals and live out in the furthest ghetto).

    Accurate information about living conditions, much less the history, social organization, and dynamic cultural backgrounds to communities is missing or hard to find. I try to provide some mapping info and I am now trying to build a collection of “how to live in Bethel” handbook (without funding) for use by those coming from the villages or from Outside (for example, how to fix toilets and when to wash clothes so your septic tank is ready for evac day and never, ever believe what anyone tells you about Bethel.)

    In Alaska, some villages do not allow summer stays. Some schools can make more money renting their unused rooms to others than providing low or no rent to teachers. Some communities have equally unrealistic expectations of their health and teaching corps. Many, many schools in Alaska communities operate as autonomous enclaves, despite the stress they put on the water, sewage, solid waste, electrical, family relations, etc.

    I wish better screening techniques were implemented, based upon whether prospective teachers or medicos want to “save the natives”– this affects Hawai’i, the South Pacific, New Mexico, and other communities as well– Are prospects primarily interested in doing their job or on a personal mission for “life-changing” moments? We all have cultural lenses which color what we see and do.

    Judging by some of my research, there are a lot of people who decide on the huge move to rural Alaska without much more than the coincidence of town names (“Beth-El”). In larger or more varied communities, there is a greater room for error in judgments than in small homogeneous ones.

    I agree that institutions who recruit owe it to recruits and to the rest of us to make sure there is sufficient accurate information representing a number of biased viewpoints from which to judge. I’m an analytical anthropologist among other things (public involvement specialist and community-based research) so I know the value (and difficulty in overcoming pre-conceived notions and stereotypes) of trying to enculturate non-Native people. But without some funding and more importantly without institutional support (schools, hospitals, communities) we can only get more of the same old same old. This is not a status quo issue– the longer people are discouraged the harder it is to overcome discouragement.

  2. Pete said, on April 21, 2008 at 2:25 am

    Hey, thanks for the response. My first comment, and it’s a good one! I’ve only just started letting this be sort of a public site. Thanks for your thoughtful words.

    I thought it was interesting that you said some schools don’t allow summer stays because they want the extra rent revenue. #1, here in Kasigluk and I’d guess most of the LKSD villages noone is coming here in summer looking for rooms to rent. Zero interest that I know of. One of the benefits of living in what many regard as “the armpit of Alaska.” #2, even if people are interested I think it would be in the best interests of the district to take a few hundred bucks less and have a happier teacher who might stick around longer. Cheaper than having to endure more of the revolving door of new hires. You seem to largely agree, but I just had to articulate those thoughts.

    As for “saving the natives” (more thin ice!), the worst teachers/principals I’ve seen seem to be playing out the string just marking time to retirement. Some were petty & nasty and just generally unhappy people, but I haven’t seen that desire to “save” the natives as their motivation. I’m not saying that it doesn’t exist though. I think a lot of teachers can have a bit of a complex where we try to save everyone — some call that compassion, perhaps gone too far. But thats why teachers help kids when they call at 10:30 at night with a math question, or why they help them pass a class in the final week after the kid has been a pain in the neck for the previous 3 months. And thats why a lot of teachers freak out when their kids fail. I’m sure you learn to deal with this or you don’t last real long in the profession. Even so, I’d bet that MOST teachers anywhere in the world want to “save” students from…dropping out, poverty, ignorance & fear, addictions, bad life choices, etc.

    As you said, we all have our own lenses that color what we see and do. I guess I’m more concerned with the resulting product than the teacher’s particular internal motivation. The teachers I’ve seen who see it only as a job are the ones who are maybe more prone to not really enter into community life and end up feeling very alienated by misunderstandings and conflicts with students and neighbors. I guess I see teaching in a small village as a huge committment, and not an ordinary job. Its a cultural exchange and if you don’t throw yourself into it, all of it, it doesn’t go as well for the teacher or the kids. You have to lay down your perception of your own rights and humbly learn as an outsider for a while, or you’ll just end up fighting over stuff that isn’t super important.

    Imagine moving to Paris to teach, and resenting not being able to understand the local language, and stumbling over foreign customs, and just clocking in and out from 8 to 4:30 and never mingling with the life of the city. Its easy to see that this would be a silly thing to do, and not a good recipe for a fulfilling experience for you or the students. Somehow we form a different expectation when moving as new teachers to bush Alaska. Weird.

    Sorry to write so much. Thanks for your post, I appreciate your well-articulated thoughts. I don’t have it all figured out AT ALL and its great to have multiple informed perspectives.

  3. Pete said, on April 21, 2008 at 2:32 am

    Sorry, one more thing. I failed to mention the actual solution to the turnover problems. Native teachers! Our school is fortunate to have 2 certified teachers who are from Kasigluk. The other k-12 school in our village (long story) also has 2 or 3 certified teachers who grew up here. We also have a couple more who are very close to getting certified. Obviously, local hires and greater local ownership is the best solution to turnover and probably a bunch of other issues, and I’m embarrased I didn’t mention it in the original post when I was talking about the “answers.”

  4. mpb said, on April 21, 2008 at 4:18 am

    If there is construction going on or “the Feds” or “the state” coming to visit, they tend to use vacant teacher housing, but I agree letting teachers over-summer would be better.

    Motivation affects outcome when folks arrive unwilling to set aside their original mindset, I think, or maybe what I really mean is the difference between entering teaching/medicine/science for the sake of children or entering teaching for one’s own sake.

    Your Paris on the Seine vs Paris on the Kuskokwim analogy is excellent. We expect one to be different but not the other.

    I would like to know why many Alaska Native teachers don’t stay in the classroom (remain in the area, but not in the schools system)

    I hope you get more commenters on this interesting post.

  5. Sandra said, on April 21, 2008 at 7:24 am

    I lived in Alaska over 55 years (I am now stateside) with some years as a kid in the bush during territorial days, and one year plus in Bethel as an adult. It is just amazing to me this problem still exists, but then it isn’t.

    First, why do we allow recruitment of first year teachers to the bush? Although I do know why (not that I accept the reasons as final answers), it totally does not make sense in terms of student development and growth to constantly barrage students in rural school systems (or any system really) with such high proportions of inexperienced teachers. Nor is it fair to the many beginning teachers who truly do want to do well, adventure or not. In such systems, the number should be small, small, and set up with master teachers. The state did start a traveling master teacher-as-mentor program. Is that still going on, and if so, is it helping?

    Second, in this day and age with the Internet and other media, there is really no strong reason for not getting decent information on what to expect to prospective and new hirees. I like your attitude that I, believe, should prevade this information, namely that it is a huge commitment and a cultural exchange.

    I do like your idea of summer residencies with reduced rent subsidies and perhaps others–pay for curriculum development onsite (not the quick, get-it-done-to meet-some-grant requirement but curriculum that meets teachers’ and districts’ needs, etc. With minimal structure to keep overhead down and creativity high, it could be a strong community enhancement measure that would pay many benefits to all stakeholders, the biggest one being getting to know each other on village turf, as you have so well noted.

    Finally, I just grit my teeth that the Alaska education system from K-12 through the University continues to be used for private retirement plans, with people manuevering for areas with the highest paying salaries the last three years. I do not begrudge anyone their retirement but then it does seem we are doing what is best for the individual and not the students or their school. And I still suck in my breath when I recall a good friend say that people coming to Alaska pay their dues teaching in the Bush before getting the plum jobs in Anchorage or Kenai! Talk about painful!

    It is great to hear your concern and to express it from the experience of a village based teacher. Keep at it!!!

    Best wishes, Sandra

  6. Serena said, on May 2, 2008 at 8:40 am

    I agree with Sandra on the availability of information on the internet, but there is something to be said for reading that information on a computer screen in one’s comfortable house in the city and experiencing it firsthand. I would also venture a guess that many feel they might be strong enough to understand and conquer all the challenges that might greet them upon entering the bush but only time and true experience can actually reveal one’s true mettle and determination. In the lower 48, we can expect to go from state to state and city to city and be accepted just about anywhere. Here we also have the luxury of understanding that even if we are not accepted it really doesn’t matter because there is no such thing as true community in many cities. We have the ability to live anonymously and just ignore those that might not accept us. I imagine the bush is much more difficult because we are supposed to be involved. It is hard to be involved and remain anonymous at the same time. I think I heard it best said somewhere else and this is the attitude I am affecting if I ever reach my destination: no matter how many years I might spend in the village and the culture of the Alaskan natives, I will always be a guest and I must always approach everything that way. Moving there, as opposed to moving somewhere else in some instances, does not entitle me to anything – not even a kind word. Perhaps most importantly (and please understand I am speaking from an outsider’s point of view and cannot hope to ever really understand until I experience it firsthand), teachers need to remain students. Open minds and humility are the tools that need to carried with us at all times. The willingness to learn and to accept (even if we don’t understand) will provide us with the ultimate chance to actually teach.

  7. mpb said, on May 2, 2008 at 10:54 pm


    And I still suck in my breath when I recall a good friend say that people coming to Alaska pay their dues teaching in the Bush before getting the plum jobs in Anchorage or Kenai!

    As late as 1996, a native teacher, first year, from Fairbanks was required to spend one year at the mouth of the Kuskokwim before being allowed to stay home with her family and kids and teach in Fairbanks. But I know three beginning teachers (2002) allowed to stay in Bethel, their home, to teach.

    First year teaching anywhere is hard enough, but in an isolated area….

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