In a school district roughly the size of the state of Minnesota, you have to do some things, um, differently.
Take, for example, the District Inservice Meeting. A standard part of the professional lives of most teachers. A day or two of mandatory lectures/workshops/training. Maybe good, maybe not. Maybe relevant, maybe not.
We have them in the Alaska Bush too. But ours require airplanes. And air mattresses. And sleeping on classroom floors.
Once or twice a year the Bering Strait School District flies its teachers (and sometimes its paraprofessionals) to the district headquarters in Unalakleet for inservice and training. I included a link to the Wikipedia entry on Unalakleet so you could get an idea of the place and the fact that there’s not a lot of commercial options for lodging. We stay in the classrooms at Unalakleet School using district-owned air mattresses. Sometimes there are men’s sleeping rooms and women’s sleeping rooms. Most often, each school is assigned a classroom, and you sleep coed, shoulder-to-shoulder with your colleagues.
I’ve been to over twenty similar gatherings in my thirteen years in the Alaska Bush, ranging from two days to seven or eight. And I’ve learned a few things (although this post might be eventually moot because I’ve heard rumors that October Inservice 2017 might be BSSD’s last full-district face-to-face inservice gathering EVER).
1. Be comfortable (but courteous)
Yes, I might be sleeping on an air mattress on the classroom floor, but I can still take steps to be comfortable.
Bringing a good pillow is key for me. I also recommend bringing sheets and a blanket instead of a sleeping bag, especially if it’s a sleeping back designed for super cold temperatures. Lots of people in a room = hot.
(Fun fact: Steve and I were introduced to this pillow by his mom, who had one in her guest bedroom. We each loved it so much that we legit fought over it. If I got up to use the bathroom, Steve would switch pillows so that he could have it. If Steve got up to comfort a crying child, I switched it back. When we got back to Brevig Mission, I ordered two of them. And that’s how we’ve been able to stay married.)
Inservice survival pro tip: try not to let your comfort make infringe on the comfort of others. For example, I generally diffuse lavender and fir oil at bedtime. I could pack my diffuser and do the same thing at inservice (like I do in hotel rooms), but I don’t because somebody else in the room might not like it. Or it might irritate their eyes. Or they might be allergic. I just bring pillow spray and rollerball bottles of oil instead. The relaxing (to me) scents can be contained to my personal bubble.
Another example: jammies. Totally appropriate to change into pajamas or lounge wear in the evenings or after sessions are over. Less appropriate to wear completely sheer pajama bottoms in your coed sleeping room (true story, I witnessed it). Even less appropriate to change clothes and underwear in the middle of the classroom, leaving you completely nude in front of your coworkers (another true story, but I thankfully was not a first-person witness). That is not staff bonding. That is terrifying. And awkward.
2. Be strategic in room choice and air mattress location
We don’t always get a choice in sleeping rooms. Sometimes they’re assigned, and that’s okay. But, when there is a choice, I try to take advantage of it.
The ideal sleeping room has the following characteristics:
- far away from the playground (to avoid the noise of kids playing late at night because they have no school due to the inservice)
- not being used as a presentation/workshop room (to avoid having to pack up all of your things every morning and stack up your air mattresses to make way for the presentation/workshop attendees).
- close to the bathroom (or has a bathroom in it)
The ideal air mattress location in any room has the following characteristics:
- near a power outlet
- in a corner (so you have a few sides without people right next to you and you’re less likely to have people tripping over you)
- next to some sort of flat surface (counter, table, desk) on which to place your suitcase/backpack/laptop bag
- next to somebody you like a lot or who doesn’t snore (sometimes they’re the same person, sometimes not)
Another consideration: if you go to the bathroom a lot at night or stay up really late socializing or playing board games (*cough*Steve*cough*), consider claiming a spot close to the door. This reduces the chance of disrupting or tripping over someone in the wee hours of the night/morning.
3. Be prepared
There are just some things to expect when you get a lot of people in a small space, especially when sleeping is involved. People snore. Babies cry. People go to bed at different times. People wake up at the crack of dawn to drink coffee and…uh…I don’t really know what people do when they get up that early…but there’s probably some valid reasons. All of this is okay, even if I consider the early bird thing slightly questionable. 🙂
Bring whatever you need to deal with that kind of stuff. Earplugs are a good idea. So are noise cancelling headphones. I personally go with earbuds that plug into my phone or ipod (remember those?) with a white noise app.
Total #firstworldproblem, but power outlets are at a premium, so if you love devices bring something that will maximize access. I try to bring a powerstrip or extension cord, outlet and usb charger, double usb charger, and an extra long charging cable or two (they even make pretty ones!) so my phone can be by my head (NOT because I need to check my texts. I just have an obsessive need to know what time it is when I wake up in the middle of the night).
Note to readers: Try not to judge me. I love my laptop. And my kindle. And I need an ipod because I hate the fact that my iphone 7 doesn’t have a headphone jack. And the wireless noise-cancelling headphones are good for the plane and need to be charged too. And… never mind. Judge all you want. I’m an addict.
Medicine is also a good idea. There was a series of years when Steve got ridiculously sick every time we went to Unalakleet for inservice. I’ll spare you the details, but it usually involved something that rhymes with miarrhea. Since then, we arrive at inservice with a veritable pharmacy. Antacids, Immodium, DayQuil, NyQuil, ibuprofen, throat lozenges, non-habit forming (I swear) sleeping pills. If we don’t need it, someone else will.
4. Shower as few times as possible
This might sound like a bad tip for dealing with large crowds in a small area, although if you remember that I was “professionally raised” as a teacher in Shishmaref without running water, it might make more sense.
The showers at Unalakleet School are significantly less communal than they used to be. Gone are the days that I have to stand guard for a certain (former) math teacher from Koyuk to reduce her anxiety about someone seeing her naked (wow, two references to nudity in one post. Am I going to lose my PG rating?).
Now there are (blessedly) individual stalls with their own shower curtains. But there’s still a certain amount of awkwardness involved in changing, towel wrapping, etc. in the locker room. I don’t know what is says about me (is it only me?) that the situation invokes self-consciousness, but it does. (Sounds like a good conversation for my therapist…)
My usual plan is to shower the morning I leave for Unalakleet, the day I return from Unalakleet, and as few times as possible in between without being gross or smelly. People with less body image issues than me or who can take advantage of tip #6 might be able to shower more (assuming no water shortages).
5. Plan something for the evenings
The days are full, but there is generally a lot of down time in the evenings. Different organizations hold optional activities or trainings, ranging from BSEA pizza parties, art time, Zumba (not kidding), karaoke (still not kidding), and even an opera concert (I think that was a one-time thing, but still cool).
If none of the planned activities interest you, come up with something else to do. Steve packs as many board games as he can fit within his forty-pounds-on-the-district-plane limit. He spends his evenings convincing others that three hour board games with sixty page rule manuals are a worthwhile time investment (did that come across as judgey? I was going for objective…).
I like to go for walks with people I enjoy (weather permitting, as always in Alaska). I also use the kid free time to get projects done. I usually bring a list of goals to inservice that have nothing to do with inservice but are things I hope to accomplish in the evenings (helloooooooo report card comments!). Sometimes geeking out over edtech or social studies stuff with like-minded teachers is enough for me too.
6. Make friends
Scattered across our district in mostly isolated villages, teachers don’t often get loads of chances to interact with teacher from other sites. Inservice is a good time to have some conversations with different people than the ones you see all year long. I try to introduce myself to anyone I sit next to during a session or at a meal.
I also like to seek out other social studies teachers for some shop-talk. As the head of the social studies department at my school, I feel that’s really important. Oh wait. I AM the social studies department at my school (which is kind of cool because I only have to collaborate and coordinate with myself. Downside: I have no one else to blame for the gaps in my students’ social studies skills or knowledge). Still, connecting with other social studies teachers energizes me because I can benefit from their experience, expertise, and even failures (learning what not to do can be super valuable. Such as: do not offer your high school girls unlimited access to multiple colors of glitter when decorating sketchbooks. You’re all better off having read my failure. You’re welcome.).
Making friends can also have added benefits if they happen to live in Unalakleet. Steve and I have been offered spare bedrooms to sleep in during inservice. Those years rocked. Now, I imagine Unalakleet staff members are inundated with requests for spare bedrooms, so it’s my personal policy not to ask unless I’m super tight with someone.
Even if you aren’t invited or tight enough with someone to ask for a spare bedroom, there is one thing I am (usually) comfortable asking for: shower access. I have never been denied when asking a Unalakleet friend if I could shower at their house/apartment/duplex. I bring my own towel and toiletries. I have some privacy to deal with my body image issues and insecurities. The inhabitant of the house doesn’t have to feel obliged to feed me. It’s win-win (albeit a lopsided win in my favor, so more like WIN-win).
7. Be flexible
Remember in survival tip #5 when I said everything in Alaska is weather permitting? Weather can throw carefully designed plans in a tail spin.
So, when the presenter doesn’t arrive or the cheesecake is late or the travel changes AGAIN, I try to take a deep breath. I could get all mad about it (and sometimes I do), but it usually isn’t anybody’s fault. Just go with it.
I’ve also presented at these inservice meetings, and I’m presenting this week too. A ton of time and effort goes into the presentations, but remember that presenters are people too. They have lives and families and health issues and full time jobs on top of the presentation preparation. Take what they give you as a gift and do with it what you will.
Even more work goes into the coordination of everything: travel, food, agendas, cleaning, taking out the trash, refilling the snack bowls, securing door prizes, everything! The coordinators are people too, and planning for hundreds of people makes it impossible to make everybody happy all the time.
If something’s not working for me, I try to proactively fix it. If I don’t like the food, I walk to AC (grocery store) or the Igloo or Cool Beans or Peace on Earth (restaurants). If the bathroom is dirty, I use a different one and then tell somebody. If somebody is talking loudly in the hall at night, I shut the door to the room or ask them (nicely, I hope) to relocate.
8. Remember the parable of the driftwood
Tina Blythe (who I adore and admire and have had the privilege of learning from in person) tells a beautiful story of a lesson she learned as a young teacher. After attending what she considered a useless inservice, Blythe complained to a more experienced teacher about the waste of time. The experienced teacher replied that she had found her driftwood.
The teacher went on to explain to Blythe that when one goes beach combing, you don’t expect to bring back the whole beach. You bring back a piece of driftwood or a shell or a piece of sea glass that caught your eye. It’s beautiful or useful to you, and you put it in your pocket and return home.
Every inservice has something to offer. Even if the presenter is boring. Even if the training is repetitive. Even if it isn’t perfectly aligned with your classroom and your students. There are beautiful and useful things waiting to be discovered and crafted into something more.
So, I will endure the air mattresses (and hope for one that doesn’t leak), the waiting in line for institutionalized food, and the weather delays that keep me away from my children (both the ones in my family and in my classroom) longer than necessary. I will survive because I choose to believe in the value of what I might find on the metaphorical beach.