Being An Alaska Bush Teacher Is…

Being an Alaska Bush Teacher Is...

I've been reflecting about what it means to be an Alaska Bush Teacher.

I've only been at it for thirteen years.  And I've only worked in two villages in the same region.  I fully recognize that the experience may be different across the state (which is more than twice the size of Texas, by the way) or even across the staff at my very own school.

I've come up with a collection of anecdotal statements that capture what being an Alaska Bush Teacher is to me.  Some of it's good.  Some of it's bad.  Some of it's funny.  But, it's all part of the experience.

Being an Alaska Bush Teacher Is...

-Being confided in by students and asked advice about everything from birth control to long-distance relationships to weight loss to medication and doing my best to point them in the direction of good resources.

-Taking measurements to help students get the right size Prom dress.

-Frantically making alterations on the aforementioned Prom dress when it turns out the measurements were a little bit off.

-Being a neighbor and a teacher and a community member and an adopted relative all at the same time.

-Knowing so much about my students' personal business that my heart breaks.

-Having my personal life be an open book.

-Being asked, in the middle of class, intensely personal questions and trying to see this as a sign of curiosity/care/concern.

  • (Actual examples from this school year alone: How old are you? How much do you weigh?  Why can't you make a baby?)

-Being publicly asked similar questions by adults in the community (Are you pregnant?  Are you gaining weight?) and realizing it's just a cultural difference in privacy expectations/norms.

-Repeatedly explaining the difference between a Muslim and a Mormon and why referring to me as one is accurate and referring to me as the other is not.

-Witnessing profound transformations as my students grow up (for better and for worse).

-Feeling responsible for introducing my students to the whole world.

-Feeling overwhelmed by learning about the Inupiaq world.

-Feeling proud as I watch students label all fifty states, state capitals, and list the names of fifty U.S. senators and the states they represent, while thinking with satisfaction, "I did that."  Similarly, hearing a student guess Seattle and Africa when prompted to name a specific state and knowing I have to take responsibility for that too...

-Unlearning things I thought were absolute.

-Watching my students and former students have babies and loving them like they're my own grandchildren.

-Experiencing the largeness of heart offered by so many families that have treated me and Steve and our children so well.

-Constantly learning.

-Mourning my students and former students at their funerals.

-Trying to train my tongue to make Inupiaq sounds.

-Accepting my cultural and linguistic deficits.  (I apologized for my naluagmiu (white person) accent during our last staff meeting when we practiced Inupiaq words, and my kind Inupiaq colleagues said, "You are naluagmiu!  It's okay!")

  • Note to readers: the "g" in naluagmiu should have a dot over it.  I just haven't figured out how to integrate the Inupiaq font (yup, that's a thing) with my blog.  Also, the spelling is based on the North Slope dialect spelling in section 1.1 of this Inupiaq Dictionary.  I don't know the local spelling of the word, but people in Brevig Mission pronounce it "nulamiu."
  • Additional note to readers: naluagmiu/nulamiu is not considered offensive in Brevig Mission.

-Dealing with kumuks (lice) and bedbugs (no local Inupiaq word for bedbugs because they're a relatively new addition to life in Brevig Mission) in my own home.  And surviving.  And having local women come over to help us deal with it.

-Thinking I'm communicating clearly with my students and coworkers, congratulating myself on my excellent communication skills, and watching chaos unfold as I realize my directions were definitely NOT understood or communicated clearly.

-Re-evaluating manners and customs I assumed were universal (spoiler alert: they're not!).

-Having the same students year after year after year.  Getting know their likes, dislikes, moods, love languages, preferences, weaknesses, strengths, senses of humor, etc. in a way that wouldn't be possible with class periods of forty kids each, one year at a time.

-Not having to learn anybody's name at the beginning of the year.

-Regular (and sometimes incessant) knocks on the door followed by little voices asking "Can I visit?"

-Being asked "How come you always wear color contacts?" and having to explain that my eyes are just blue.

-Watching people (sometimes former students) that I know have amazing characteristics and capabilities make poor and dangerous decisions, suffer the consequences, and loving them anyway.

-Using an Inupiaq word wrong and having the entire class laugh.  For an excessively long time.  And bring it up repeatedly for years.

-Trying to keep up with some basic NBA stats in an attempt to impress my basketball-obsessed students and being embarrassed/humbled when I refer to LeBron James as James LeBron...

-Seeing the shock and disbelief on my students' faces when I make a three pointer.

-Feeling honored at being given an Inupiaq name while simultaneously terrified at pronouncing it wrong because a slight variation changes the meaning from "happy" to "I have to pee."

-Not being initially trusted because people are accustomed to teachers coming and going, coming and going.

-Crying at home every night for the first three months as I failed miserably at trying to force everything I thought my students "should" do.

-Abandoning my "shoulds" and meeting my students where they are with what they need.

-Teaching multiple subjects to a span of grade and reading levels (helloooooo differentiation) without a prep period during the student contact day.

-Coming back from an extended sick leave to cards and letters of love and concern from my students and colleagues.

-Treasuring every thank you.

-Being taken target shooting because people in town couldn't believe I hadn't touched a gun since first grade when our next door neighbor helped be shoot at a pheasant target.

-Feeling embarrassed that I can't drive a snow machine or four-wheeler as well as the average ten year-old.

-Looking at all of the substitutes in the school one day and realizing they were all my students at one point in time.

-Teaching subjects I'm not even moderately proficient in because the kids need the credits.  My family still thinks it's hilarious that I taught a PE class because I've had a lifetime of incoordination and physical awkwardness (although I always tried really hard).

-Teaching an art class in a carpeted room.  Without a sink.

-Coaching a sport with zero knowledge and/or skills about said sport and still having a good experience.  (I literally had never been cross-country skiing when I coached it.)

Being an Alaska Bush Teacher is the hardest thing I've ever done.  It's not a life I ever imagined for myself, but it's the life I've chosen.  And it feels pretty good.


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