Teachers daunted by small schools with big challenges

Posted: Tuesday, November 20, 2001

While teachers in larger schools long for smaller class size, it is not a panacea. Bush teachers say the vast array of material and tasks they must cover creates a huge workload -- even with fewer numbers of students.

Emilie Swenning, a mother of three students and the chief of the village of Nanwalek, sees the staff spread too thin at their school.

"I don't think it is fair to the teachers," she said.

"I think the big thing the borough needs to realize is teachers have to cover too many bases. ... I think they are doing the best they can."

The principal-teachers of Kenai Peninsula bush schools said the need to teach so many subjects on so many levels more than cancels out the time saved by small class sizes.

Wayne Young, principal-teacher at the Port Graham School has been teaching six class periods per day with students in grades five through 10. His wife teaches kindergarten through third grade and handles special education duties.

"I never use the same lesson plan from year to year," he said.

But the workload extends beyond conventional teaching duties. Teachers in bush schools must be jacks of all trades and handle an array of support tasks.

"You don't know if the toilets will keep flushing," Young said.

"These are stressful jobs."

He described how, in addition to his full teaching load, his duties include meeting with parents and itinerant specialists, recruiting staff, building maintenance and odd errands such as traveling to the central peninsula to buy supplies for the school carnival.

Last year, he served the food. This year, the school year began with unfilled vacancies for a cook, a janitor and three aides.

"It's just hard to find people in the village," he said.

Moreover, the teachers' jobs don't end when they walk out the school door. In such a tiny community, they are on-call all the time for families with questions or concerns.

"You really don't have a lot of private space," he said. "By the end of the week, you are just worn out."

Seeking the right teachers

A national study this year by Education Watch looked at score disparities between white and minority students. It concluded that performance gaps can be overcome if resources are directed to poor schools, and the most important resource is top-notch teachers.

Getting and keeping excellent teachers in the bush schools is a major frustration.

Principal-teachers cited getting more staff and reducing turnover as top priorities for better serving their students.

Nanwalek's principal-teacher Maurice Glenn has run the school for four years and taught there for five years in the early 1990s as well. The stability has allowed the staff and students to start raising performance. But that was not always the case.

"The constant turnover affects kids' education," he said.

Glenn described it as a major issue the state's education system must address to reach performance goals.

When he worked at the school from 1990 to 1994, it went through three principal-teachers, and in the 1997-98 school year, the administrator left in the middle of the year and all the teachers resigned.

Speaking from a parent's point of view, Swenning said she even home schooled her children for a while during the turbulence.

"It was ridiculous," she said.

Despite the importance of continuity, the Kenai district, like others, has difficulty recruiting and keeping teachers in the bush schools.

Young sees the number of applicants dropping as the national teacher shortage intensifies and Alaska's pay rates fall behind increases elsewhere.

"We have reached the point where we cannot compete with the Lower 48," he said.

Young would like to see Alaska make bush teachers state employees and offer them meaningful incentive packages so they can be sent where most needed.

The present system doesn't offer enough money and pits districts against each other, he said.

He is skeptical that encouraging Natives to become teachers and return to their home communities will cure the problem. He has met village Native teachers and often found them frustrated, too, he said.

"Most of them only lasted two years," he said.

"It is hard to implement change (even from within) where change is historically slow."

But sometimes teachers hired from elsewhere prove ill-suited for village life.

"The social isolation gets to staff," Young said.

Even enthusiastic educators may find themselves worn down by working in a community with no roads, no movies, no restaurants and only a handful of colleagues for support.

Young noted that it costs $94 round trip for the short flight across Kachemak Bay to Homer. It isn't worth it to go to town, he said.

Swenning has seen outsiders hopelessly out of place in her village. She recalled one couple from the East Coast.

"They were so desperate for entertainment they would fly over to Homer for a movie," she said.

Bush life presents other problems, too. She cited the community's emphasis on the traditional Orthodox Christmas and New Year celebrations. Held in January, they are out of sync with a traditional school calendar. The villagers know who does what over the holidays.

"If they need to spend Christmas with their families on the 25th, they need to find a job somewhere else," Swenning said. "(The teachers) need to be more involved in the community.

"It takes a while for the kids to get used to them."

Rick Matiya, the liaison for the small schools who works in the district's central office, has seen teachers' attitudes and preconceived agendas create their own problems in villages. For example, an avid sports hunter and fisher might offend neighbors relying on a subsistence lifestyle. Others might be intrusive about people's personal lives.

"People live there. They don't need a junior anthropologist," he said.

But Matiya sees the other side of the teachers' alienation, too. Villages need to find better ways to encourage teachers to come and stay, he said.

"That is something that needs to be addressed all over the state," he said.

"Do they make them welcome? Do they make them feel part of the community? I don't think they do."

Wednesday the series will conclude with a look at how families, the district and the state are reacting to problems in the bush schools.

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