Prospective teachers get taste of Bush life

Posted: Tuesday, February 25, 2003

JUNEAU (AP) -- The University of Alaska Southeast is sending prospective teachers to the Bush to get a taste of what it's really like to live and teach in rural Alaska. And some of them are deciding it's a life that's rewarding.

Geoff Bechtol, 26, participated in the two-week program last year. Now he's teaching in a 17-student school in Akhiok, an Alutiiq community of about 50 people on the southern coast of Kodiak Island.

His visit last year to Chiniak, also on Kodiak Island, brought home the reality that a teacher in the Bush plays a unique role.

''You're with the kids many hours of the day,'' he said. ''Oftentimes they come over to your house. ... It's like a 24-hour job.''

Bechtol, originally from Washington state, now teaches history, science, art and physical education to kindergartners through high school seniors. He says it takes people skills and adaptation to thrive.

''You've 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.''

This year's graduate students also spoke of the experience they gained in their two-week visits.

''No malls, doctors, street signs. Cold. The dogs don't even wear collars,'' said Rhett Buchanan, 30. He visited Scammon Bay, a mostly Yupik community of about 500 in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

On the other hand, ''from the moment we got off the plane, everyone just smiled, for no apparent reason,'' Buchanan said.

Melissa Lamb had had no experience in rural Alaska until she visited Nuiqsut, an Inupiat village near Prudhoe Bay.

''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.

''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.

''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.

Lamb and Kent were among 17 students who recently completed a two-week rural program sponsored by the Juneau branch of the state university system. Later this year, 17 more graduate students in the master of arts in teaching program will visit rural villages.

''Students at UAS mainly think about getting jobs in Juneau,'' said Scott Christian, who worked on the federal grant that paid for the rural trips this year and last. ''This really has generated a lot of interest in teaching in rural communities. It gets rid of a lot of stereotypes.''

Alaska's rural schools have a high rate of teacher turnover. 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, lose 6 percent to 14 percent of their teaching staffs each year, which is in line with national figures, 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 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 took a job in the Bush this year, said Nancy DeCherney, program coordinator for the UAS Professional Education Center.

Teaching jobs in the Bush tend to attract young, relatively new teachers, said Mary-Claire Tarlow, an associate professor of education at UAS. 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, Tarlow said.

''They're not prepared to really invest in the community,'' she said.

The Bush visit gives students a taste of rural life in Alaska.

The one-year master of arts in teaching program at UAS also includes a course in multicultural education. Students also learn how important it is to consider the whole child and their environment.

''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.''

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