Teachers headed to the Northwest Arctic Borough School District spent some time learning Inupiaq language, crafts and culture at a traditional fish camp this summer in preparation for their new jobs.
The camp is one of two in the state that’s are part of an effort to improve cultural understanding among incoming teachers and to help with teacher retention. And it seems to be working.
Most of the new teachers have never gutted a fish, gone tundra trekking or used a honey bucket. Sitting on the corner of his tent platform, wearing his new rubber boots, Kevin Foster says he was not expecting the region where he’ll soon be teaching to be so soggy or remote.
“When I came out here I kinda thought that it would be like cabins,” Foster said. “And I kinda thought that it would be like paved like walkways and it was just, no this is a whole new terrain.”
The camp sits along the sloping bank of the Kobuk River, about eight miles upriver from Kiana. There’s no electricity or running water and only form of communication and sometimes entertainment is a VHF radio in the cookhouse.
There’s also a fish drying rack and half a dozen wooden platforms topped with tents. It’s about 30 miles north of the Arctic Circle and thousands of miles from the cities and suburbs of the Lower 48 where most of the dozen or so early career teachers studied. Foster grew up in a mostly black neighborhood on the south side of Chicago and went to college in Iowa. Local kids taught him some Inupiaq.
The 24-year-old will soon teach preschool in the tiny village of Shungnak. Alaska has long counted on a steady stream of eager graduates to fill the state’s most remote teaching positions. But the teacher turnover rate in some villages as high as 30 to 50 percent. The Alaska Humanities Forum, along with tribal groups and school districts, is trying to improve that rate through the 10-day Cultural Immersion program. Elizabeth Yandl, is another incoming teacher from Seattle:
“You know, they tell you before you come here that the mosquitoes are awful and that they’re worse than you imagine,” Yandl said. “And I was imagining pretty bad, but the reality is still shocking.”
Yandl will teach middle school and high school language arts in the hub community of Kotzebue. She sits around a table, sewing with kids and elders.
Yandl says meeting local residents made her feel more prepared for her new job.
“I’m so grateful for this experience just to help me become comfortable with Alaska and to really realize that this was the right decision for me and that this really is the place for me to be right now,” Yandl said.
Victoria Morris helps coordinate daily activities at the camp and leads the hands-on portion of a college course the teachers are enrolled in. As part of the course she teaches them the values of local residents.
“Our traditions, our values, our subsistence lifestyle,” Morris said. “I’m also introducing them to what life like living in the village in a rural, isolated area, exposing them to the cost of living up here.”
The program doesn’t sugarcoat the challenges of living in the bush; teachers go grocery shopping to get familiar with high prices and visit with State Troopers to learn about law enforcement issues such as alcoholism and sexual assault. But they’re also introduced to the positives, like the opportunity to build a strong sense of community and to learn live off of the land.
Nina Kemppel is the CEO of the Alaska Humanities Forum, which funds the program. She’s spending a few days at the camp with the new teachers. The overarching goal of the program, she says, is to improve education in rural districts.
“The rationale behind this program is that if we can keep teachers in the schools longer, especially new teachers, new to Alaska, in schools longer, teaching for 3 to 4 years, we actually increase student achievement through that,” Kemppel said.
Kemppel says they’re already seeing results. Tracy Bell was in the first group of teachers who went through the training last summer. She came back. The course helped her make the transition from living in Lansing, Michigan, she says, to life in village of Selawik. She says it gave her an idea of what to expect.
“Just to be open-minded to the culture; I mean, there’s so many people that come in and I think they expect it to be different, a lot like the Lower 48 and it’s not,” Bell said. “Just to be open to all the changes and to be flexible; just to realize that you know we’re outsiders coming in.”
That’s something the camp seemed to drive home for Foster as well. He says he believes what he learned through the program will help him relate to his students.
“This is what they do for their summer; they go fishing and get fish and they save it up for the year. Like, just talking about this experience, like, ‘What’d you do for the summer? Oh yeah, I did that too!,’” Foster said.
That’s just the kind of thing that organizers of the program are hoping for.
The Humanities forum says around 90 percent of the teachers who participated in the program last year returned to teach in rural Alaska a second year.
Organizers hope that the program may become a model for districts across the state.