My Journey as a Teacher in an Alaskan Village: A Life Experience

My experience as a first-year teacher in an elementary school presented many challenges and learning opportunities that would jumpstart my professional career in education. I finally had my own classroom and could start as a teacher! To add to the mixed emotional rollercoaster of a first-year teacher, I moved 3,000 miles away from home. 

As a brand new teacher, I relocated 200 miles off the coast of Alaska and 10 miles from the International Date Line. I moved to a location without cars, roads, cellphones, and other familiar amenities. Gambell, Alaska, on St. Lawrence Island was composed of Siberian Yupik natives whose culture is very rich in traditional values and customs and is one of the most unique cultures in the U.S., if not the world.

The beginning of each new school year always presents new obstacles that teachers work through to provide the best learning experience. But a crucial component to presenting your best you is to reflect on the why behind what you do every day.

Here are some tips I learned along the way.

Do your homework about the region: It took extensive research and a little bit of a dive-right-in mentality to prepare me for my first teaching adventure. Upon landing on St. Lawrence Island, I was quickly greeted by a local native with a four-wheeler waiting to take me to teacher housing. My journey from the tarmac to teacher housing—only about 200 yards—included trekking over a whale rib cage, loose beach gravel, and small patches of very sparse vegetation known as tundra. Look into what to expect before you move for a teaching job, so no surprises come your way!

Embrace the unknown: I was very eager to utilize everything I had learned to make a powerful first impression on my students. The location of the job was not conducive to running to the local Office Depot or teacher supply store for bulletin board frames or new nametags to hang above cubbies or backpack holders.

We were confined to utilizing the resources we had, which was a good variety. You would be surprised how creative you can be with very few resources, even those requiring little to no funding. For tried and true examples, consider covering cereal boxes in construction paper and using them as folder holders for small-group organization, or laminating, or using box tape, over sentence strips for reusable nameplates or handwriting practice!

My classroom.

Learn the culture: I was able to quickly explore and observe the Siberian Yupik cultural customs. Understanding these cultural norms and differences allowed me to develop successful and positive relationships with the people of St. Lawrence Island. I would address my students by both their “English” names and Yupik names to bridge the cultural divide.

Students had both “English” names and Siberian Yupik names.

Know Your Audience: There is nothing more rewarding as an educator than observing students engaging with the lesson and content! As I would continue to prepare and deliver lessons, I was quickly able to identify my students’ abilities and learning styles. I worked to establish the routines of demonstrating or modeling, collaborating with peers, and individual exploration and reflection in everything we did, or the Gradual Release Model to learning.

Start by identifying the mindset of your students at the beginning of the year. This can be gauged through classroom collaboration surveys or one-on-one interviews. Are they coming in with a fixed mindset believing they cannot improve in a certain skill? Assessing this will help in the creation of an environment fostering a growth mindset through cooperative learning and a sense of community and belonging!

Move out of your comfort zone: Every Friday, school would release early, and everyone would gather in the gym for cultural drumming and dancing. This is a very essential staple in the Yupik culture representing appreciation for the land and the food it provides. Traditional dances are passed down from generation to generation. Children would watch their elders dance and drum and learn the practice. Teacher participation was encouraged. I was nervous at first to try something new for the fear of embarrassment, but I was very happy I did!

Traditional Siberian Yupik drumming and dancing.

Try new things: Transportation on the island was mainly by foot. My colleagues and I would walk through beach gravel to and from school each day, which was very refreshing and allowed me to enjoy the land, clear my mind, and engage in wonderful conversations—until the snow hit!

As a first-year teacher working in a remote location, I learned that the support of my colleagues, who in many cases were also novice teachers, was essential for a positive experience both personally and professionally. I also quickly learned that we could relate to one another, rely on each other’s expertise, and reflect on our overall experiences. Establish a group of professionals in the district or building, providing a platform for collegial support and varying levels of experience and expertise. Don’t be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone and elicit feedback to grow as a professional!

Embrace challenges: The weather on the island was often overcast and rainy, but that didn’t stand in the way of jumping at the opportunity for adventure. When the snow fell, it was often very windy, causing  “white-outs.” Visibility in a white-out is very low, and disorientation is common. Most mornings, my colleagues and I would walk to school in full parka and goggles and sometimes had our arms linked. A local man and I would travel during the weekends by Honda around the island to his “camp,” or cabin. Trail stakes would be set in the ground to guide and track our way in and out due to little to no visibility.

Adapting to the surroundings is a custom the Yupik culture has practiced for many, many years. As educators, it is instrumental to keep the overall mission, or the destination, at the forefront of everything. Barriers such as class size, lack of funding and resources, and a change in overall pedagogy always present themselves, causing us to lose focus—like in a white-out. But as we continue developing our voice—as not only first-year but also experienced teachers—and fine tune instructional routines and strategies, or “trail stakes,” we instill within our students the tools to learn how to be successful learners!

Build connections outside the classroom: It was common practice to engage and interact with our students outside of school hours. They enjoyed showing off their homes and exploring the land together. The island was flat; however, there was a mountain or peak that served as a popular gathering spot called “Sivuqaq.” The top of Sivuqaq provided the best view of the village, and the Bering Sea and I welcomed the opportunity to join my students for a hikerain or snow!

From engaging in the community, I learned that taking a vested interest in my students’ lives outside the classroom fostered a successful learning environment conducive to student success. Consider embracing the interests of your class, and use those interests as a relationship builder.

Foster community: The community created within a classroom is essential for growth and fostering relationships. Creating a safe space for learning and working is at the foundation of educating. Everyone in a classroom community plays a role, and it won’t work unless every link in the chain is strong.

R-E-L-A-X: I learned that with all the preparation and extra time spent on ensuring that my instruction and lesson are “top-notch,” I am not able to be at my best as an educator unless I take the time to enjoy my surroundings. From the beginning of the year to the end, the amount of growth I observed in my students exponentially highlighted the why behind why teachers teach.

Whether you teach in the local school district where you grew up or travel 3,000 miles away from home to a rural village, teaching is a life experience that leaves lasting imprints on young minds as well as our own.

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Blog contributor Tyler Schlagenhauf is now an HMH service professional services consultant for the Big West region. Learn more about HMH's Professional Services to help your school or district achieve its goals with a person-to-person approach centered around student outcomes.