Tales of a First-Year Teacher in Alaska: A Bird’s Eye View

A 2017 graduate of the College of Education, Michelle Fedran made an unusual choice for her first teaching position: she moved to a remote part of Alaska to begin her career. Reflecting upon the changes that have occurred in her life since last May, Michelle shared some of her story. This is the first of her three-part series on The Marquette Educator.

view from bush plane

view from the bush plane

By Michelle Fedran

When I first heard about this job opportunity, I knew it would be the experience of a lifetime not only from the location and cultural aspects of the position, but also from the personal adjustment I would have to make for myself. As I slowly learned more details about this opportunity, I went from a state of wonder to a fit of laughter. Sure, Alaska has always been on my list of places to travel to, but I never would have imagined throwing myself into rural Alaska to live and begin my career three months after graduation. Going from being one of the quietest girls in class since kindergarten, never winning that Presidential participation award in gym for completing 10 full push-ups, forcing myself not to cry as my parents dropped me off at my freshman dorm room even though they lived a short 20-minute drive away, I thought there was no way I would be able to survive so far away by myself. Now, I’m a five-plane ride, 24+ hour, six-hour layover (if we land in Seattle) trip away from my family. To make it even more challenging, I now live in a village that I’m sure most people never heard of: Tununak, Alaska.

Thinking back to where this started, I never would have been introduced to this job opportunity had it not been for my fellow Golden Eagle friend Danny Smith who already worked for the Lower Kukokwim school district in Alaska. Once he and I began talking about my potentially seeking a job with the district, he eventually became my go-to person for questions. I picked his brain, and he did a wonderful job of preparing me for what I was about to experience. Honestly speaking, if it weren’t for him, my expectations probably would have been silly and slightly embarrassing. For example, a lot of my friends joked that I would be living in an igloo. My expectations weren’t as silly as that; however, they may have been involved riding with sled dogs across the tundra. For those curious, I’ve only used snow machines or hondas (not the car, what they call ATVs) when there is no snow.

igloo

Coming into this, I expected to change some of my simple living habits. I remember my friend telling me one of the scariest moments is when the bush plane first drops you off in the village and leaves, and you realize you are stuck there until another bush plane comes back out for you — weather permitting. Going from the luxury of hopping into a car and going anywhere I wanted, you can probably imagine this was a bit soul-gripping realization and something hard to swallow. In addition to accepting the fact that my traveling relied heavily on nature and was not up to me, I had to be prepared to live conservatively. I would no longer be able to drive to Target 10 minutes away from where I lived to pick up shampoo or crackers. Where I live in the village, there are two small stores we can go to should we need anything. However, it comes at a high price – $18 for a case of soda, $8 for lunch cheese…  Our other option is purchasing from Amazon or waiting until we fly into Bethel, the closest main city, to do our shopping. Still, things are pretty pricey there as well and even flying to Bethel would cost me $400 round-trip. As you can imagine, most of the time I find myself making a lot of purchases on Amazon seeing that is usually the cheapest option. And as funny as it is, even though Amazon prime promises 2-3 day shipping, I’m lucky if I get my package within a month of my order placement date. To sum it up: changed expectations and simple living is key out here. Knowing and being well aware of this while preparing for my move, I understood it was crucial for me to pack necessities I would need right away upon arrival.

In terms of my first-year teaching in general, I expected it to be difficult no matter where I went. I actually felt this job opportunity was quite similar to my experience at Marquette given the vast differences there were. For example, in Milwaukee, I was placed in schools with a number of bilingual students who primarily spoke Spanish and English. Up here, I work with Alaskan Natives immersed in the Yup’ik culture. The two languages spoken here are English and Yugtun. The school where I work is a dual-language school in which my students learn different subjects in either English or Yugtun. My students learn Math and English Language Arts with me in English, then they learn Social Studies, Science, and Yugtun Language Arts in Yugtun with my partner teacher, who is an Alaskan Native. I felt my experiences at Marquette helped prepare me to have the mindset of working with bilingual students and what to be mindful of when working with these students. The biggest thing I can say is time and patience are two important skills I believe every teacher should adopt no matter with whom you work.

rock formationWhen it comes to thinking of what I have learned so far, the list is LONG.  I was able to learn so many things not only with the general work of being a teacher, but I was also able to learn more about the culture here. It truly is a unique experience I’m forever grateful for. Looking at the teaching side of things some advice I would give all new teachers is that some days will be rough, but you need to brush the dirt off and keep pushing forward. With this, I encourage new teachers to take advantage of all resources, whether that would be supplies, coworkers, or anything thrown at you. It is important to have an open mind and use every moment as a learning experience. I constantly find myself making daily adjustments on Mondays to improve the flow of things on Tuesdays and the cycle sometimes repeats itself throughout the week. Overall, a lot of my first year felt more like an exploration, and from this year alone I have learned so much that I plan to do differently next year. It’s so easy to get down on yourself, and this is something I have experienced my first-year; you need to remind yourself that you are also still learning (even though yes, you have graduated college and you have a fancy paper to show it). Mentors I have worked with each shared the same piece of advice that I know will stick with me: “if ever in your teaching career should you feel that you are done learning from others, then it is time to leave the profession.” As a student we were learning, as a teacher we are now teaching AND learning. You never stop learning and should never cut yourself off from learning – especially when it comes to improvements you can make in your own practice. So, use what is around you and never be afraid to ask for help! In your classroom, you may be “king” or “queen” but in the school and district, you’re a team player. Teamwork and support are huge pieces that I see in what makes a school successful, and I’m grateful to be working in a school with a staff that demonstrates those qualities.

 

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