On bush teachers and their habits…

Unfortunately to what is probably the majority of the readers of this blog, this post is going to be spent telling you a little bit about your typical bush teacher. I know, I know… hardly an exciting topic, but if you talk to any teacher from the lower-48 or “Alaska”, you probably don’t have the image quite right.

I mean… I have a classroom and all; in fact, there is a whiteboard, overhead projector, document camera, projector, 5 workstations and a cart of laptops scattered around my room. This is in addition to the desks, chairs and the normal teaching accoutrements. You would almost think it was a normal school until you noticed the satellite dish on the roof (run copper hundreds of miles across the tundra?) and the backup generator out back so we can hold classes when the town’s diesel power plant is down.

You won’t find me (most days) greeting the kids at the door in a shirt and tie though. I mean, yeah, somedays I do; usually around the beginning of the month (when they pay me) or if i start to run out of clean clothes. Instead, I’ll probably be wearing a polo shirt and khakis… blue jeans if it’s Friday, if it fits the shirt better or if I’m not going to have time after work to change before hunting.

The methods differ quite a bit from the schools I grew up in. There’s a closer bond between teacher and student – one that might be considered improper elsewhere, but is only natural when you’re stuck in an isolated and remote village with few trips in or out. While I’m not to the point where I allow students to come visit me in my house, many of the other teachers do. With only 230 people in the town, you’re limiting your social circle by automatically excluding 50 of them. And to be honest, I’m told that several of them are very good hunting guides.

Our methods aren’t mainstream teaching, that’s for sure. I’ve a bookshelf full of math texts, which I barely use. I had to scrounge for a history text to reference. I struggle to make connections with students of a different culture – many of whom have never been farther away from the village than their snowmachine could carry them. Let’s just say that I frequently have to be inventive with my metaphors. But, I teach in a school without grades and my classes are supposedly grouped together by ability levels based on no end of standards that are plugged into a tracking system that tells me what my students should know and be able to do. Whether that’s true or not varies by the day and how distracted my students are by the hunting opportunities available just outside the school walls.

Anyways, there’s a taste of bush teaching. The hours are crazier than teachers usually put in, the preps are wide and varied (I teach 6 different classes across three broad content areas), the kids are unique, the hunting is fantastic and the experiences last a lifetime.

“No, man. Alaska, Alaska.”

I wrote this for BSSD’s StraitTalk Blog but also wanted to post it here.

Six months ago, if you’d ask me what I’d be doing at the beginning of August, I would not have had an answer for you. Certainly I would not have imagined the truth. Well, that is not quite the truth… I have always dreamed of at least visiting Alaska, but if I had said I would be living here, it would have been with a jocular smile on my face. It would have been the type of smile that said, “Just kidding; I’ll probably be living in the rat race like everyone else, trying to eek out a living and pay off student loans.”

Now though, well, here I am, smiling at the memory of stepping into the Detroit airport at 5:30am on the 29th of July to board the first of four flights that would take me to my new home. Quickly covering the distance between Detroit and Las Vegas (an area I had spent 45 days earlier in the summer exploring), a short layover put me on the plane to Anchorage. Two-hundred and fifty pages later, the clouds broke and the awe-inspiring sight of the Chugach Mountains became visible through my window. Thankfully, I was met at the airport by a group of Bering Strait School District (BSSD) veterans and new teachers who were participating in this year’s Welcome Wagon event, designed to help new BSSD teachers make the transition through Anchorage and prepare for their new life away on America’s last frontier.

Two days, a cancelled flight and a side trip to Whittier later, I found myself on my third flight, bound for Unalakleet, knowing that I would be in my new home before nightfall (I beat sunset by a good six hours, arriving in Shaktoolik around 6pm.) A short layover, a trip to meet a fantastic group of people at the District Office, and a serendipitous run-in later, I boarded the smallest plane I’ve ever been on for a 15 minute flight along the shore of Norton Sound.

In what seemed like the blink of an eye, I was back on the ground, being greeted by the few teachers at my site who hadn’t been on the plane with me. You know what though? It’s felt like home since my feet hit the dirt and still, almost three weeks later, it still does. And you know what? I’m having a wonderful time in “Alaska, Alaska.”


Back to the basics

There’s a couple of really nice things about living in the Bush that you really can’t appreciate unless you’re here. So many of the things that are taken for granted in modern society simply don’t exist here or are too expensive to justify getting them. Take bread for example. You can get bread; there’s a Wonderbread bakery in Anchorage that ships out to the Bush. However, it’s so expensive that it makes far more sense to bake your own.

So, that’s what I’ve started doing. Last night (far too late at night as it turns out), I started making my first batch of bread. A simple little white bread, nothing too special, but it turned out pretty well.

But… why is this actually one of the nice things about living in the Bush? Because it makes you truly appreciate it. Sure, it’s a hassle, but it tastes so much better than something you go pick up at the store. Life is simpler in the Bush, and while it’s sometimes more work, it’s a simpler lifestyle in so many ways; it agrees with me, it’s so much more peaceful here than anywhere else I’ve been.

Baking bread

Back to Shaktoolik for a few days, now I’m leaving again

Training went really well, I understand how the model works and how to integrate it into my classroom much better now. More than anything else, the idea is that you plan your lessons to meet the standards instead of shoehorning the standards in after you’ve planned the lesson. It improves your ability to make sure that what’s being taught is actually important and gives a clearer purpose for your teaching. This isn’t revolutionary, it’s simply implementing ideas that have been there for a while. A lot of the BSSD gear (shirts, mugs, whatever) has the motto: “Making Best Practices Common Practice.” They take it quite seriously too; nothing that we implement district wide is done without a research base; they’re not doing things off the cuff, but as history has shown, the district is willing to make drastic changes if they’re needed.

Now that I’ve driven off everyone that isn’t a teacher (oh, and my mom, because she’ll read whatever I type up) let’s get to the more exciting parts of my adventure, eh?

There’s a lot of stuff I’ve seen here that has really surprised me, but few things have really flown me for a loop so far. I mean, sure headless, dead walruses show up on the beach, you run into trash displaying a multitude of Asian languages, there’s the occasional seal skeleton… and you know all the fishing spots by the large number of gutted fish laying on the river bottoms nearby. Oh, and kids drive ATVs while sitting on their mother’s lap… many of them get their first guns around age 3 and I’ve run into a couple 16 year old boys who captain their own boats and hire on crew. (They’re paid $0.80/lb for the salmon they catch in their nets.)

However, I frequently do catch myself saying, “Only in the bush…” quite often, about little things really. I guess you just have to take a lot of the bigger changes whole, not trying to digest them and compare them. For example, today the school secretary, Agnes, brought in a list of phone students’ names along with their parents names, home phone numbers and VHF frequencies. Only in the bush.

We’ve been having a couple power outages in the past few days. That’s been a blast; no one seems to know how to turn on the school’s generator, not even the school district’s electrician. Since you really can’t find this out anywhere, most bush villages are powered by large diesel generators. Unalakleet has one (though I haven’t found it yet) and Shaktoolik does too. It’s, uhm… quite interesting to look at:


Work has been going pretty well, I think I won’t have too much difficulty getting along with the staff. The tech work has been keeping me pretty busy, but I’m just about done and I’ve been able to get some planning in. I need to do a lot more before school starts though. Tomorrow I’m heading back to Unalakleet, I’ve got a technology training session to go to (something to do with video…) and then I’ll have training in our reading program on Thursday and Friday. Friday night will see me back in Shaktoolik (we’re scheduled to fly on the district’s plane, which I’m really excited about) for a long Saturday meeting and I’ll spend Sunday and Monday getting ready for Tuesday, the first day of school.

I’ll leave you with some pictures though, and I might even caption some of them.

The Shaktoolik school; my apartment is on the second floor, on the north side (you’re looking at the south and east sides of the building).

A dead walrus that floated up and landed on the beach near Unalakleet. The heads are taken for the ivory.

I took sunrise walks every morning of training with a friend I met, it was early but it sure was beautiful.


I guess you have to be a photographer to appreciate this photo.

Getting Settled in and Training

I know, I know… I should be updating more. I’ve got pictures of the village and my apartment, but I haven’t had time to process them yet. I’ll work on it when I get back from training on Friday night and try to get them up.

It’s been fun to get out and about in the village. I’ve got a Post Office box now and I went fishing on my first full day in the village.

Silver Salmon

One stop along the river

Not bad for just casting the line in the water and reeling it back in. I also received most of my food just before I got on the plane for training in Unalakleet, which is where I am now. It’s been fun, I met a lot of cool people and I’m learning a lot, the whole instructional model and how it actually works is making a lot more sense now.

Well, I’m gonna go check out what’s going on with dinner. I promise I’ll put up a bunch of pictures on Friday.