Adventurers, Nurturers, Skijorers: We Want You!

Yukon Flats School District is looking for a secondary teacher for Arctic Village next year. I am off to graduate school, so my position will be opening up.

UPDATE: As of 7/11/19, according to ATP, my position is still open at Arctic Village School, as is the K-4 position. Please feel free to apply here through ATP and to contact me directly if you have questions about the job or the community.

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We want you! And no, not at all in a creepy, axe-wielding way!

As you can imagine, I’m kind of invested in finding someone right for the job, so here’s my honest pitch:

It’s an impossible job, but it is worthwhile. Teaching here is grueling and wonderful and infuriating and heartbreaking.

Sometimes it is easy to get lost in frustration: there are administrative failures and cultural misunderstandings and frozen pipes galore. There are a million and one things that are out of our control.

Sometimes it is easy to get lost in the pleasure of exploring the wild, magnificent Arctic Refuge that abuts the village and to forget why we must come back to work on Monday mornings when the wolf tracks lead in some different direction around some other mountain and the sunset is creeping farther north every evening. 

But we do come back. The kids have an unbelievable amount of love to give and a tremendous need to see it returned.

If you think that kind of experience might be for you, read on.

I know I am not at all the same person that I was when I began.

 

What does the job actually entail?

Right now, I teach grades 4-12. My classes are Algebra Fundamentals, High School English, Reading, Elemiddle (4-7) Language Arts, Elemiddle Social Studies, Art, sometimes P.E., sometimes Keyboarding, sometimes Drama.

There are extras that aren’t technically part of the job. Geoff and I both run a detention/study hall for an hour after school gets out each day. One evening a week, I run a board game night. I used to open the school for sewing two additional nights a week.

All of that, more or less, is flexible.

Geoff also teaches 4-12, and we have divided it up by content area in the past. That could be done differently, depending on the skills and interests of the new teacher. Regardless of how the classes are split, you’ll be working closely with Geoff. Don’t be shy about shooting him an email if you’re interested in the job. The school’s contact info can be found on the district’s website.

Now, the job description probably says something vague like this: prepare and provide curriculum-aligned lessons for assigned grade levels and content areas.

The fact is, you will write a lot of curriculum. You will teach grade levels and content areas that you are probably not certified to teach. You will do a million things at once, and you will be derailed constantly, so don’t bother making rigid lesson plans.

The negotiated agreement says our work day is from 8-4, that we get regular prep time, and that we have sick days that we can use at our discretion.

If you’re only planning to work from 8-4, you’re probably not going to do right by the kids. The school has a unique place in the community and in the kids’ lives, and you will be a huge part of that. That doesn’t end at 4:00.

If you want to take a lot of sick days or be rigid about your prep time, you’re going to screw your colleagues over. There is no one else in town who can really cover your classes. Sometimes, there is no one else who can even supervise the kids.

Fair Warning:

The Obvious

This is the bush: Everything comes in on the plane. The small store stocks mostly non-perishable foods. Gas costs $10 a gallon.

 

This is the arctic: It gets really cold here. Make sure you have long johns.

 

The Less-Obvious

Water:

Water here comes from the river. It’s filtered and treated at the washateria, then pumped over to the school and the two teacher apartments. Every other building in town is dry, and people haul or pack water from the washateria’s outdoor spigot for home use.

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Most people in town use an outhouse or a honeybucket at home. The school and the teacher apartments have running water and flush toilets. For showers, adults go to the washateria. Students are allowed to shower at school in the afternoons. We provide towels.

The kids don’t have the best oral hygiene and hand-washing skills, and they could, arguably, benefit from more showers.

Geoff and I live in a dry cabin, and I find I prefer it. There’s something essentially cleaner about not having a bathroom at all.

The Vibe:

There are four teachers here: an elementary teacher, two secondary teachers, and a special education teacher, all from outside. Our classified staff is all local. Many of them are quite young and awesome. In the past, we have usually had a pretty genial work environment.

There is a lot of male energy at school right now. Mark and Geoff get along pretty well, most of the time, but adding another man to the mix might be tricky. We could really use a woman in my position, if only to provide an alternative role model for the kids. Besides, someone needs to keep a stash of pads in her desk to hand out in times of need.

At the very least, if you are a man and you want this job, please consider calling or emailing and setting up a time to chat with both Mark and Geoff so that you can get a feel for how you might fit into the testosterone dynamics.

Special Needs:

About half of our kids are in Special Education. Almost all of our kids are behind by one or more grade levels in reading and math. It’s a very challenging teaching situation.

Tribal Land and Law:

Arctic Village is located right on the boundary between ANWR and a huge chunk of private property owned by the Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government. Teachers live and work on tribal land by the forbearance of the tribal government. In many ways, we have a different set of rules and expectations from any other residents of the community.

Non-members cannot go out exploring (skiing, snowmachining, hiking etc.) on tribal land without a tribal member as a chaperone and/or permission from the council. It’s easy to get out and enjoy the wilderness in Arctic Refuge, but it’s important to know where the boundary lies.

Non-members are held to a different standard when it comes to adhering to the rules and laws that the council and tribal government have put in place. This is a dry village, but drinking is common. The rules are not enforced except when they are, and if someone in the community has an issue with a teacher, or with teachers in general, or with outsiders, it is easy for them to cause a lot of trouble for an outsider who doesn’t take care.

When you have guests, it’s important to notify the council that they will be arriving. Even following this guideline, my guests have experienced some harassment. It is never the most memorable part of their experience – Arctic is stunning, the kids are charming and sweet, and most people are warm and welcoming – but it is frustratingly consistent.

No one tells you these things. There isn’t a manual or a packet for incoming teachers. Coming from outside, I assumed that I was expected to do what my neighbors do: when in Rome, do as the Romans. That just isn’t the case here, and no one will tell you that straight-up from the get-go. I have learned how to behave by trial and error and observation.

Housing:

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There are two apartments in the old school building. The one-bedroom apartment will be occupied next year. It looks like the two-bedroom might become available, but if that happens, the district will be hiring an elementary teacher in addition to a secondary teacher to replace me. Unless they find a teaching couple or two teachers willing to be roommates, someone is going to have to live in a dry cabin.

Rent for the two-bedroom apartment is $1,150 a month including heat, water and electricity. It’s possible to leech off the school’s internet from there.

Rent for a cabin in town is about $400 a month, maybe less, but you’re responsible for all of your own utilities, chores and maintenance. It’s not easy, but I think it’s worth it.

Most of the homes in town are heated exclusively with wood. It is probably possible to buy your wood from some dudes in town who bring in money that way. It’s also probably possible to pay someone to pack your water, maybe even buck and split your firewood (high school kids are great candidates for this). With a snowmachine and a chainsaw, it’s feasible to do all of this yourself, although it does add an extra heap of chores.

Perks:

Here’s the moment you’ve all been waiting for. I’m going to gush for a little while.

Beauty and Adventure

Arctic is stunning. My pictures can’t do it justice. Photographers, artists and the daydreamy be warned: you may find it hard to focus on school.

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Not focusing on school.

I’ve gushed pretty endlessly about this aspect of Arctic and of Venetie for years now, so if you want to know more, just read some old posts (suggested tags: Chandalar, firewood, snowmachines). If you’re an adventurer, make friends with Geoff (hint: he likes disaster movies and talking about man toys like cordless heat guns).

The wilderness adventure potential of this place is unlimited. I’ve been looking for the limit for years now, and I haven’t found it yet.

 

People and Culture

Arctic kids are the sweetest kids I have ever worked with, anywhere, bar none. They will hug you and love you and want to visit with you all the time. They’re ridiculous. If you like kids, you will love them. If you don’t like kids, find a new profession.

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The adults in the community are, for the most part, equipped with awesome senses of humor. You won’t see much of them unless you get involved with community events or attend sewing night, but getting to know folks is well worth the effort.

The elders are incredible. They have memories of a time when the Gwich’in were still traveling seasonally and living a mainly subsistence lifestyle here. They can tell stories that make the hair on your neck stand up, and they have skills that are quickly becoming rare. It’s a pleasure to hear them speak to the kids.

If you’re into it and can find the time, there are opportunities to get familiar with Gwich’in culture. The kids have language instruction a few times a week, several people regularly attend sewing nights at the school and do traditional beadwork, and there are people in the community who are glad to teach others to cut caribou meat and ice fish. My classroom is fully stocked with literature by and about the Gwich’in people, and people in town are proud of their heritage.

This is a critical moment for the Gwich’in. Congress has mandated leasing for oil and gas development in the Arctic Refuge, and the leasing area is in a sensitive place for the Porcupine caribou herd. Many adults and elders in the community are active in opposing this development, and you will find that passions run deep on this issue.

You Can’t Beat the Food

Everyone in town goes bananas for blueberries in August. I believe one woman picked thirty gallons of blueberries last summer. Lingonberries, known around here as cranberries, are harvested a little later in the fall.

 

There is very little, in my opinion, that rivals the taste of fried caribou meat and lingonberry chutney.

Throughout the fall and spring, sometimes even through the winter, caribou are active in the area. Caribou meat is lean but tender, and very flavorful. If you are a hunter, as a resident of Arctic Village you are entitled to take ten caribou in season. If you are not a hunter, you will have the opportunity to buy or trade for meat.

 

 

In the spring, holes are drilled in the Chandalar where it bends just upriver from town. Everyone enjoys ice fishing as the days warm and lengthen. Sometimes we take the kids up on skis and spend the afternoon making too much noise on the ice. I’ve never had any luck, but I hear grayling is delicious.

Other locally available foods include waterfowl, moose, ptarmigan and rabbit.

Flexibility

 

I have a dog that will cry incessantly and eat my boots if he’s left alone. We’ve worked it out so that he can be in a kennel just outside my classroom window all day long, which seems to work for him.

When the weather’s nice, we often take the kids skiing. It doesn’t necessarily have to happen during their thirty-minute P.E. block: we are able to retool the schedule to work with whatever activities we have planned, even on fairly short notice.

When I wanted to do stained glass with the kids, we were able to order the supplies and build a class around it.

Our secretary has been bringing her baby to work since she was just a little smushy bitty thing. Now she’s three and sometimes appears in the classroom doorways, asking for her mommy, wearing nothing but a diaper. It’s charming.

There are advantages and disadvantages to living and working in the bush, but you can’t beat it for flexibility.

Compensation

The pay and benefits are decent (by lower-48 standards).

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We Want You:

If you have a sense of humor.

If you are someone who likes to play board games with kids.

If you have an imagination.

If you are interested in getting outside.

If you are someone who is willing to give others the benefit of the doubt.

If you can think on your feet.

Interested?

If you think you might be interested, get in touch. I can answer your questions frankly or put you in touch with the folks who can.

 

Occupational Hazards

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so much more than just the cold!

1. Parasitic Arthropods

Our cabin is currently sitting empty with the windows open. Last time I checked, the temperature upstairs was about -5. I never actually saw a bedbug, but I have a distinctive line of bites along my ribs.

Kids bring bedbugs to school, along with head-lice, pretty frequently. A few weeks ago, I had a kid raise his hand in the middle of read-aloud. I glared, and he put his hand down. A minute later he threw his hand up like Arnold Horshack and waved it in the air. All it took was a raised eyebrow and he burst:

“I found a zhii!”

That is one of my hundred or so Gwich’in words, so I did what most people would do if someone loudly announced that they’d just picked a louse out of their hair- what everyone else in the classroom did – and stared slack-jawed.

He looked back, totally ingenuous.

“Umm. Go to the office.” He left. I tried to play it cool and get back to read-aloud, but he came right back in.

“Um, where’s the office?”

“Katie! Go tell Katie!”

Katie’s our administrative aide and she’s worth her weight in gold. She quietly arranged a school-wide head check and called parents.

After a while my student came back into and helpfully notified us all that “nobody should sit there. [He had] dropped it.”

All that is just to say that parasitic arthropods are just part of classroom teaching. What are you going to do? It’s really a wonder we’ve never had bedbugs before.

We threw the mattress in the yard last week, and a day of forty-below took care of that. Freezing the house at a temperature of zero or below for a few days will kill any bugs or even eggs that are left inside. We had to move the canned goods and perishable food out of the place, but there are no pipes to freeze. It’s a perk of arctic living.

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ice on the windows so you know it’s cold: bedbugs begone!

2. Trauma

I realize I am just beginning to understand trauma: it’s the dread I feel with the coming of dividends and holidays – times of heavy partying; It’s the sick feeling I get when someone who doesn’t usually visit the school shows up in the middle of the day. So often those visits mean that someone – a student’s cousin or a parent – has died.

This fall, I taught for two hours with the knowledge that two of my students had lost a parent that morning. They had no clue, just went about business as usual. I held everyone in my classroom, escorted kids to the bathroom, made sure no one snuck a device under the table and got on social media. I tried to keep it light, have fun, not let on. It seemed to take years for the kids’ grandma to come and get them. That was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

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meanwhile, the sun is rising again, a little longer each day

By the time these kids hit middle school, they’ve seen far more tragedy than I saw in the twenty-five years of my life before Alaska. I have only been around for a few years, but already my gut is twisted with it all.

Trauma clouds the vision and tragedy is what happens when someone gets backed into a corner and can’t see a way out. Tragedy is what happened to both these boys, one of whom was my student. I try not to let myself dwell on it, but I have had a hard time letting it go.

3. Polar Bears

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This is Not a Polar Bear

Jim is my neighbor, the father of a whole pack of young Arctic Village girls. He came by the school to pick up his daughters and I got to hear this story firsthand while the girls got their winter gear on. I just about lost my cool when I heard about this: it was the same weekend I was out thinking I was so badass for patching up the Bravvie all alone in the wilderness. I would have felt a lot less badass if I’d known there was a polar bear prowling around the area.

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And after I fixed it, practically under the nose of a ravenous bear, my ride found the strength of ten Bravos, plus two! (this is how we haul school trash, these days)

**Polar bears aren’t really an occupational hazard. I don’t want to give anyone the wrong idea. This is just a ridiculously nifty story.

Field Repairs

It was twenty-below or so when we rode out from camp, and the ride was smooth. Geoff broke trail ahead of me, the Skandic plowing up a bank on either side of the trench it cleared in the tundra snow. The sun still hasn’t come up since November, but we’re getting alpenglow that creeps a little farther down the slopes each day, and the cold blue light that filters over the ridgeline to the south lasts a few hours. We headed north toward the mountains, breaking the trail that we hope will take us up toward the divide.

When we reached the river, I decided to take Daazhraii and turn back to camp. I didn’t want to push the dog too hard – large as he is, he swims in the mire of a fresh trail – or be out after full dark. It was only a few miles of backtracking, and Geoff planned to be right behind me after pushing the trail a few miles more across the Chandalar, so I wasn’t worried about riding alone.

I turned and took a long detour through the extra-thick buttercream tundra just to revel in the way the Bravo seems to lift up and ride on plane like a flat-bottomed skiff. The dog bounded behind, wallowing a little in the deep powder, but grinning and glad. It was just after that, maybe only two miles from camp, that my sno-go came to a halt, headlight dimming and then dying, the insulation of the engine’s roaring suddenly vanishing, so that I became, all at once, a part of the landscape rather than a traveler just moving through.

I tried to start the Bravo – no dice – then lifted the cowling. The spark plug boot had popped off, taking with it the little nut that screws onto the plug itself. It was wedged up inside the plastic cap that connects to the wire.

Shit.

No Geoff, so no tools.

Oops.

I know I should carry some basics, but I don’t. This situation is so improbable: Geoff is always with me, fully-loaded down with probably fifty pounds of good stainless steel, and, when he’s not, we carry a pair of UHF radios.

I pictured the second yellow hand-held, tucked under feet of snow blanketing the riverbank just south of Chandalar lake where we left it in an airhead moment on a packrafting adventure this summer.

Shit.

Dismounts are not elegant in full winter outerwear. I plunked into the deep snow beside the trail and opened the seat compartment of my Bravo: plastic bags, spare spark plugs, no tape, no tools at all, not even the scrench that had been in there for weeks. Definitely no needle-nosed pliers, which is what I really needed. What did I have? My emergency box, behind the seat, was full of dry clothes and firestarter. Not so useful. In my pockets I carried a lighter, some hand warmers, a headlamp and a knife. Bust.

I waded off through the deep snow to the lake’s edge where a few dead trees stood bare and raggedy. My feet were cold already, even in my bunny boots, and I needed to keep busy and warm if I was going to have to wait for Geoff to show up. I broke off low, dead branches and kicked down a few scraggly dry spruces. Winter outerwear is like chain mail: you can just throw yourself at a tree, or half-climb it and try to pull it down on top of you without worrying too much about taking a branch to the ribs in any serious way. The small branches burned quickly, so I had to keep at it. I hung my neckwarmer and hat by the fire to thaw out while I worked to gather more fuel. The moisture of your breath condenses on your outerwear in the cold, so you wind up with ice buildup, which eventually gets uncomfortable.

As I was dragging an armload of twigs back to my fire, something clicked in my brain: sparkplugs.  I hustled back to where the Bravo waited, open like a clamshell in the trail, and tried unscrewing the nut from one of my spare plugs so that I could use the plug itself as a tool to remove the jammed nut from the rubber boot. Gloves on, I couldn’t loosen it. I tried taking my glove off and got nothing but a cold-scalded hand for my trouble.

Frick.

I gave up and went back to trudging heavily through the sometimes thigh-deep snow on the perimeter of the lake, wishing for snowshoes and gathering fuel while I waited for Geoff to turn back around.

When I got cold, I’d squat in the snow by the fire, then get up again to gather more fuel when the fire burned too low.

For two hours, maybe, I fed the fire, waiting. He didn’t appear. I did jumping jacks and added a bit of wood.

Night began to fall from the north and there was no sign of a headlight in the distance, no whine of an engine.

In the near-dark, I reevaluated my assets. I thawed the ice out of the elastic band on my headlamp, thinking maybe I could use it to clamp the rubber spark-plug boot to the engine and hold the nut in place long enough to make the short ride back to camp. Failing that, I could start walking. It wasn’t far, but the trail still hadn’t set, so it would be slow, difficult going, like wading in the surf, and I didn’t want to have to come back for the Bravo later. I took the spare spark plug out of my pocket and heated it, too, thinking maybe if I warmed it up the nut would come loose.

Not wanting a tongue-to-the-flagpole incident, I waited until the spark plug was really warm before sticking it in my mouth, then gripped the nut between my back teeth. I turned, and it came loose.

Just like that, I was back in business.

I screwed the spare plug into the nut jammed in the cap, popped out the nut, returned it to its rightful bolt and fired up the bravo.

Just like that.

While the Bravo muttered and churred in the trail, warming up, I threw the last of my wood on the fire. I was hoping it would burn long enough for Geoff to see it and realize what I’d pulled off all on my own. Night came as I drove away, turning my head to watch the live blaze of my campfire recede into the darkness.

(Geoff arrived at camp thirty minutes after I did, rimed with frost. He’d broken trail almost to the mountains, maybe another ten miles, and gotten stuck for a while in overflow.)

It makes a difference

Fifty-five below is a lot colder than forty below. This morning, on the way to school, I could feel my nose prickling with frostbite needles, even through my neckwarmer.

The propane is still flowing, maybe because we have a mostly-full tank. The monitor is icing up, and Geoff’s talking about plugging in the heat tape to keep the fuel from jelling in the intake.

It’s been cold since Saturday. At camp, my keychain thermometer was bottomed out at -30. Geoff’s machine needs some repairs, so we left it beside the tent when we came back to town. Daazhraii lolloped ahead of the Bravo, perfectly easy in the frigid night, puffing clouds of breath that hung in the air behind him, obscuring the trail and dissolving the beam of the headlight. Out of this golden mist, pawprints materialized, helpfully tapping out a dotted line through the night. When we stopped to switch drivers or to warm our hands, Daazhraii would appear out of the darkness and lie in the snow beside us, grinning and burying his head in the drifts, eating snow.

I love how I can still be surprised by the way the cold changes the behavior of common elements, how it turns things around and makes the ordinary world extraordinary. It always surprises me, too, how real cold still frightens me. Walking to and from school at fifty-below, I get a chill behind my heart that has nothing to do with my core body temperature, and I’m very, very glad that my keys are there when I reach for them to open the door. Stepping in, the mist billows around my shoulders. We all make dramatic fog-machine entrances in times like this.