Winding down the long, twisting road, I am driving to my new teaching assignment. I realize how fortunate I am to be able to “drive” into the village. In other Alaskan villages, teachers are flown in, dropped off, and left to fend: the only escape is a plane ride out.
My new town sits on the shore of Prince of Wales. It isn’t bad, as far as villages go: it’s clean, the houses are well constructed, and children play in the streets, their toys strewn about and shared by all. Teenagers riding small bikes they “borrowed” from the other end of town. Heads turn as my orange Honda slowly pulls in. I know I am observed. I locate the school and find the office. I introduced myself and am shown where my housing is located.
It is strange: to come to an area and start over. Here is the catch: You can’t assume anything. You are the stranger. The outsider. It doesn’t matter that you don’t want to be, it just is. Respect that. Respect your position. You are new. The students know it and have seen so many teachers come and go, they aren’t willing to invest in you quite yet. Your ability to succeed isn’t riding on immediate bonding.
You are a traveler: pack light. As an educator with plenty of credentials, you can only bring your passion, creativity and your ability to adapt quickly. It is enough. Most likely, the school will not have all the curriculum you need, or what they do have will be outdated. It probably won’t be a fit for your class. You quickly learn that the classes are so vast in levels, that you aren’t able to prepare just one objective per lesson.
Learn to teach concepts….broken down into cubes of ability. Watch out for incomprehension, that inevitable monster: he appears when you are driving your lesson home despite resistance. You will know he is present when the entire class doesn’t pick up their pencils, but simply stares, or folds their arms and puts their corporate heads down in silent protest of learning.
What is more important? Your lesson (damn it! Learn!) or teaching a step beyond where they are at. These kids are smart.; so smart. They can smell a fake a mile away. It makes you humble to set aside your lofty goals and see their path, and walk with them.
This is what takes up all your time. This is what will wake you up in the middle of the night. This is the monster that haunts you. How, how, how do you teach? It’s easy to photo copy sheets and work your way through the year. But how do you connect? You don’t want to be a slug (keeper of the worksheets), you want to build fires, ignite learning. And then the weather changes outside. Fall has come, cold and damp, wind storms slapping the windows, dark clouds. Game time. Allow life to teach you. Become aware. Welcome to teaching in rural Alaska.