Monthly Archives: December 2014

It seems hard to believe it, but today marks the end of my first semester teaching in the tundra. Four months ago, it felt like this day was ages away; now, it feels as if the time has passed in the blink of an eye.

I think back to the first day of school, when all I knew about my kids were their names and a few basic facts gleaned from the computer files and my fellow teachers. I remember the first week of school, when I realized just how far behind they are, not only academically, but also socially and emotionally. Their reading skills, as measured in words read correctly per minute (WCPM), registered in the 30th percentile for all third graders in the US. For the most part, they could add with regrouping, but none of them could subtract with regrouping. More than a few of them refused to come up to the front of the room for anything, and getting most of them to speak up enough to be heard in the classroom was a good trick. If they decided that they didn’t like something, whether it was a direction I’d given or the way a classmate treated them, they would put their heads down on their desk, stick their fingers in their ears, and refuse to do much of anything; some of them were known to literally curl up in a ball under their desk. Eventually, they’d unclench, but good luck getting anything out of them about what had happened.

Four months later, it’s a joy to realize how much they’ve grown. All of them have made progress with their reading, to the point that several of them are actually, finally, considered to be on grade level. Everyone can now add and subtract with regrouping, and also work their way through the multiplication tables up to 12. They’ve also started to learn division. While their number skills aren’t the best, I feel good because they are learning different problem-solving strategies that can be applied to a variety of mathematics.

But more than their academic growth, I am most pleased by the growth I’ve seen in them as people. Now, rather than act as described above, if one of my students is having a tough time, they are more often than not willing to communicate with me. It’s not always talking; sometimes, they are better able to signal to me with body language than words. But they communicate with me, and as a result I can help them help themselves. Somehow, in all of the craziness of the past four months, I’ve shown them that they can trust me.

The best example of this trust came today, in the form of the annual Christmas assembly. Every year, each elementary class puts together a song, poem, or such to perform for fellow students and community members. My kids are obsessed with Disney’s “Frozen”, and when I suggested that we sing “Let It Go” there were cheers. After two weeks of rehearsal, today eighteen of my nineteen students stood up in front of all of those people and sang along, while the nineteenth kid used my iPad to record the whole thing. One-hundred percent participation. Success.

A couple weeks ago, I had a meeting with my mentor, Jeannie. We talked about school stuff, and then she asked me how I was doing. Her concern was that I might be coming up on something called the “first year slump”, the point in the year when, according to research, first year teachers feel the most disillusioned, homesick, pick an adjective that means unhappy and you get the idea.

At the time, I kind of scoffed at the idea. Sure, I was a bit stressed out, but that was understandable. I’d just found out that a friend was terminally ill, and a couple of my students were having a rough time of things.

Now, having had time to think about it, I realize that Jeannie is right. I don’t know that I’d go so far as to say that I’m disillusioned, but I definitely am seeing things a bit more clearly now when it comes to my chosen profession, especially when teaching in a place like this.

For example, I have three “challenges” in my classroom. If you’re a teacher, you know what I’m talking about: The child who, no matter what you do, can’t seem to get their act together. The one who if they aren’t there your day is suddenly ten times easier. The one who sets the bar for all future challenges. That child.

My three challenges this year are Calvin, Stephanie, and Brandon. Of those three, I’ve made decent progress with Calvin and Stephanie, through a combination of extra positive attention, communication with parents, being firm, and being consistent.

Then there’s Brandon. I just cannot get a handle on this kid. I’m not some teaching savant, with all of the answers. Heck, this is the first time I’ve had a classroom of my own from the beginning of the school year. But believe me when I say that, were this a school in the Lower 48, or even some place like Anchorage, Brandon would NOT be in my classroom. Even if he’d started the year there, by now he would be in a separate space, with a teacher trained in working with students who have behavior issues. But because of where this school is, we don’t have those kinds of resources. As a matter of fact, we don’t even have a solid behavior management framework for the school. So Brandon and I are the guinea pigs for something that’s barely past the idea stage, a referral process that will hopefully get Brandon the assistance that he needs without too much more stress on my part.

The above is just one incidence of how different teaching is here as opposed to a school in the Lower 48. Getting needed resources is also a challenge, as everything must be shipped in or out, typically by plane. That includes teachers! I went to Anchorage this past weekend, to spend the Thanksgiving holiday with a friend. I was supposed to return to Nunap on Sunday, getting back in time to finish planning for the first few days of the week. Instead, as the plane descended into the Hub, I realized that that might not happen. Not only was it snowing steadily, the clouds hung so low in the sky that visibility was pretty poor, at least at the altitude of the little bush planes. Sure enough, when Cole called the airline we had planned on flying with, we were told that there was a “weather hold” on all flights. There was a possible window in a couple of hours, but the guy wasn’t optimistic about the chances of us getting out. In the end, we and several other teachers wound up spending the night at the house of Nelson and Dare, who used to teach in Nunap but now work in the Hub.

I’m not sorry that I took the trip to Anchorage; I desperately needed to get away from the village for a bit. Yet I think in some ways it made the occasional twinges of homesickness more potent. While Anchorage isn’t all that large a city, especially compared to where I grew up, it still feels more like home than I think the village ever will. I loved having places to go and things to do that didn’t involve the school in some way. David, my friend, and I went for a drive down the Seward Highway, saw the LEGO exhibit at the Anchorage Museum, went to the movies, went shopping, ate out, ate in, and just hung out.

But it did feel strange to not spend Thanksgiving with my family. With the exception of the marching band trip my sophomore year of high school, I’ve always been with at least my parents on that holiday. When I was younger, the long weekend brought a drive either to Aunt S’s or Aunt Lil’s place to spend the holiday with some of Mom’s family. When I got to college, Thanksgiving dinners began to be held at my grandparents’ place. The last two Thanksgivings, I had to work in the mornings, because animals need cared for regardless of holidays. This year, I didn’t have to work, but I couldn’t help thinking how, if I’d been home, I’d have spent the day with my parents, helping to get things ready for dinner that night. I would’ve likely been the one to clean the bathrooms, and had to help move furniture around so that the vacuum cleaner could reach all of the nooks and crannies. Once the grandparents arrived, I would have been tasked with keeping them occupied while Mom and Dad put the finishing touches on things. Instead, I could only call everyone on the phone and chat for a few minutes before wishing them a “Happy Thanksgiving” and hanging up.

So yes, I’m a bit stressed out, and yes, I’m homesick. The good news is that I have a pretty decent support network around me in the form of my fellow teachers and Jeannie. I can even reach out to my other friends and family via the wonders of modern technology. Hopefully, with their help I can get through this slump and get back to being the best teacher I can be.