Students in the University of Alaska Southeast master's degree program in teaching learned it can take 90 minutes to drive a rough 40-mile road in the Bush - and that's a luxury.
Some of the 17 students who recently completed a two-week rural practicum in Bush villages traveled by dog sled, "sno-go" (the universal Bush term for snowmachines), four-wheelers and small planes.
Practicum refers to on-the-job experience. Another 17 graduate students in the master of arts in teaching program will visit rural villages later this year.
"Typically students at UAS mainly think about getting jobs in Juneau," said Scott Christian, who worked on the federal grant that funded the rural trips this year and last year. "This really has generated a lot of interest in teaching in rural communities. It gets rid of a lot of stereotypes."
Alaska, like the rest of the country, has faced teacher shortages in fields such as secondary science and math and special education. But Alaska also suffers from a high rate of teacher turnover in rural schools. And the state produces only about 30 percent of its teachers, according to a study for the state released in December.
The bigger school districts, such as Juneau and Anchorage, usually turn over 6 percent to 14 percent of their teaching staff a year, which is the national average, the study said. But small rural districts lose on average a quarter to a third of their teachers every year. Sometimes every teacher leaves.
During times of teacher shortages, teachers have more of choice of where to work, said Kevin O'Connor, who oversees the Alaska Teacher Placement, a job clearinghouse at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
"They can go to school districts in California and make $45,000 and have comforts or they can go to Alaska and make $35,000 and not have the same amenities," he said.
That puts a premium on in-state efforts to recruit teachers for the Bush. Six of last year's master of arts in teaching students who visited rural villages for the practicum took a job in one this year, said Nancy DeCherney, program coordinator for the UAS Professional Education Center.
After they returned from the visits, this year's graduate students spoke of a different kind of satisfaction from teaching in the Bush than material amenities.
"No malls, doctors, street signs. Cold. The dogs don't even wear collars," said Rhett Buchanan, 30. He visited Scammon Bay, a community of about 490 people, mostly Yupik Eskimos, in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta with another student for their practicum.
On the other hand, "from the moment we got off the plane, everyone just smiled, for no apparent reason," Buchanan told the graduate students at a presentation Wednesday at the Bill Ray Center downtown.
Just going to the post office created a little parade of children, and the visitors from Juneau were invited to go sledding after school. Sledding is big in Scammon Bay.
Melissa Lamb had no experience of the Bush until she visited Nuiqsut, a village of about 445 people, nearly all Inupiat Eskimos, near Prudhoe Bay. She had heard of rural hardships such as alcohol abuse and estrangement between schools and communities.
"In terms of the children and my response from teachers, it was wonderful," Lamb said in an interview. "We were very embraced. People wanted to talk to us and we wanted to talk to them."
Lamb and fellow graduate student Elizabeth Kent participated in Eskimo dances, ate whale and learned that it can be stir-fried or eaten with A-1 sauce.
Geoff Bechtol, 26, who completed a master's degree in teaching at UAS last year, now works in a 17-student school in Akhiok, an Alutiiq community of about 50 people on the southern coast of Kodiak Island. The Washington state native teaches history, science, art and phys ed to kindergartners through high school seniors.
He knew from his practicum last year in Chiniak on Kodiak Island that a teacher in small community is a lot of different things and is always on duty.
"You provide entertainment," he said. "You're with the kids many hours of the day. Oftentimes they come over to your house. ... It's like a 24-hour job."
Bush teachers have to expect to be someone who is more than a provider of academic content. They have to be close to the families, he said.
"You got to be diplomatic. You should like to hunt, not be afraid of dead animals hanging from porches," he said. "You have to be more willing to learn."
Teaching jobs in the Bush attract young, relatively new teachers, said UAS associate professor of education Mary-Claire Tarlow. But after a couple of years the teachers want a new experience, or they want to meet a partner or have a different social life, she said.
Young teachers from the Lower 48 look at teaching in rural Alaska as a Peace Corps-type of adventure for themselves, Tarlow said.
"They're not prepared to really invest in the community," she said.
The practicum gives students a taste, at least, of rural life in Alaska.
"A lot of teachers are from the Lower 48 and they have no concept when you say 'rural' what that means in terms of isolation," said Kent, who visited Nuiqsut.
"I think an experience like this gives someone a perspective so at least you're not going to be a person who gets off a plane and gets on the next plane out," she said.
Besides holding the practicum, the master of arts in teaching program at UAS includes a course in multicultural education. And throughout the one-year program students learn how important it is to consider the whole child in order to engage them.
"Children aren't isolated entities," Tarlow said. "They are a part of families, are a part of a community. If you want to reach a child, to have them learning, you have to reach that child's perspective.
"The more the teacher understands and interacts with the family and the community, they're kind of entering the world of the child."
Eric Fry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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