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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