How to Be a Good Teacher in the Alaska Bush

I asked a bunch of my former students to tell me one thing that makes a good teacher in the Alaska Bush. They responded quickly and profoundly, and their thoughts can be instructive to teachers already in rural Alaska and those thinking about coming up. They gave me enough to fill three blog posts. This is Part 1.

 All of the respondents grew up in Shishmaref or Brevig Mission. They all had me as a teacher. Some still live in the village, others moved elsewhere. They all saw a lot of different teachers during their PK-12 years.

I combined their quotes and made them into subheadings. My own commentary is in-between. There are a lot of things that go into being a good teacher in the Alaska Bush, and there’s no way we could cover them all. Don’t think of this as a definitive list. Think of it as helpful thoughts from people who know.

Patience, while students test your willingness to learn more about them and their culture

Alaska Bush students have seen a lot of teachers come and go. Some leave after a year, some only make it to Christmas Break. The students aren’t impressed that you got on a plane and flew all the way up to their village, and it may take a while for them to warm up to you.

I was accustomed to being beloved by my student teaching students. I thought my students in Alaska would instantly love me. I was wrong. I was just another in a sea of endless white faces. And they tested me. Insulting my appearance, writing the word boring on the outside of my portable, and abruptly running out of class to play on the nearby playground kind of testing.

But I stayed around. I kept reaching out. I kept showing up at community events. I let my tongue trip over Inupiaq words. I didn’t stop trying. I didn’t tell myself that “these kids are just like that.” It would have been easy to throw my hands up in the air and convince myself there was nothing I could do. Some teachers do that. They get stuck and never get out of the pit of despair (“pit of despair” might be a little dramatic. I do that sometimes. Feel free to substitute: constant discouragement, hopelessness, or feeling powerless).

But as I kept at it, things got better. My students opened up more. They started telling me all about walrus hunting and egging. They taught me Inupiaq words. They talked to me about their families. They laughed with me. They were more responsive to my classroom activities. It didn’t happen the first week I was there. It didn’t happen the first month I was there. It happened over time

Fully embrace the people, the culture, and a new way of life in rural Alaska 

I might not have traveled to a different country to teach, but I entered a whole new world. Some of the biggest challenges and sweetest joys have come from learning about and integrating into Shishmaref and Brevig Mission. This topic could fill a hundred blog posts (or the book that I’m writing, hmmmmm…), but we’ll go for some key points here. 

Embrace the people

To embrace people you have to know them. To know them you have to interact with them on a meaningful level. You can start by saying hi and making small talk at the store and the post office. You can ask people their names and try to use them. You can go out of your way to sit by people who aren’t teachers at school and community events. You can build on those interactions and start to have conversations with people. Build on those conversations to develop relationships.

Do what you would do in any neighborhood you live in. Drop by to say hi and introduce yourself. Bring food over if there’s a celebration or a tragedy. Visit new babies. Our first year in Brevig Mission Steve and I went over to visit the new sister of a couple of our students. Their mom said it was the first time teachers had ever come by to see one of her babies. She welcomed the visit, and it was fun for us too.

I’ve seen a lot of teachers come and only interact with other teachers socially. They’re missing out on chances to enrich their lives and connect to the people of their community. Fight the instinct to stay where you’re comfortable and reach out.

Embrace the culture

Connecting with the people around you will lead you to opportunities to observe and participate in cultural activities. Jump on every chance you get! When I got invited to watch a couple of ladies cut seals, I was all over it. If someone offered to let us try seal or walrus, I was so there. When there was drumming and dancing, I joined in, even when I made mistakes.

Embracing the culture doesn’t just mean joining in on all of the postcard-worthy moments. It also means embracing the less visible worldview. New foods, new dancing, and new language were all obvious examples of cultural differences, but underneath was a current of deeper differences. Things like how corrections are offered and received, patterns of decision making, and ideas of justice and restitution.

Those kind of things can’t be easily captured and posted on Instagram. They’re things that require careful observation in multiple contexts. They require withholding judgment. They require keeping your mouth shut as you and admitting you may not know everything. You may not agree with what you see. You may not adopt the local worldview as your own, and that’s okay. Embracing the culture doesn’t necessarily require abandoning your own values, but, it does require accepting the reality of your new home and figuring out how to operate within it.

Embrace a new way of life

Four-wheelers instead of cars! Heart and tongue soup instead of McDonald’s! Freight planes instead of mail trucks! There are a million and one ways my Alaska Bush life is different from my previous life. While I was student teaching, I taught in skirt suits and nylons. Now I wear pants (always pants) and blouses and sometimes jeans. I used to own dozens of shoes, mostly with heels and wild embellishments. Now I own hiking boots, rubber boots, and winter boots rated to 40 below (full disclosure: I own more than boots. I also own a pair of athletic shoes that I wear when I Zumba and some slippers). I used to be concerned that my hats matched my gloves. Now I’m concerned that they keep me warm in a blizzard with gusts up to 50 miles an hour.

It’s not just my wardrobe. I’ve learned that there are lots of different ways to do things!

Birthday parties don’t have to be carefully orchestrated events. They can be making a flurry of desserts and inviting hordes of friends and family over that day. Dinner invitations don’t have to be formal and planned. They can be extended on the spot if someone stops by while you’re setting the table or finishing a pot of soup. Kids don’t have to follow a regimented schedule of lessons and practices and extracurricular activities. They can spend hours on their bikes and climbing around with sticks.

Accept that things are different and dive right in to experience it all. You might like it. I find it refreshing to leave the house without feeling like I need to wear makeup. I love that I can walk into almost anyone’s house unannounced. I enjoy talking with other women about different ways to prepare beluga. Sometimes I think that the people who knew me in my pre-Alaska days wouldn’t recognize me now. I’m okay with that. Teachers who come from outside will have plenty that sets them apart. Embracing a new way of life can help break down barriers and pave the way for rewarding connections.

Stay tuned for parts 2 and 3!

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