Sunlight

One of the first things that you notice when you first get to Alaska is the daylight. In August, the days are still long and the sunrises and sunsets are unlike anything you've seen before. I love how the light gets during those times of the day. I've seen some of the most amazing sunsets since living here. When the school year started, I would walk to school in the morning and it was light out. That changed throughout the year, so that I was walking to school in the dark for several months. This fact was made a little more obvious to me one day when doing calendar with my kids. One part of calendar is talking about what the weather is like for the day. Trouble is, my calendar time is at 9 a.m. This was a good time in the beginning of the year. But for a while, it didn't work out so well because it was dark at 9 a.m. So it didn't do much good to ask if it was cloudy or sunny, because the sun hadn't come up yet.
Now that it is April, I've been walking to school and it is just beginning to get light. It's nice to be able to see in the morning and to have it light for a long time after school hours. I'm looking forward to the spring when there is enough light to get out and enjoy the outdoors. For several months, I didn't want to do much because of the dark. I'd get home from school and it would feel real late because the sun went down so early. In this part of Alaska though, it doesn't get dark for months at a time. I remember when I first moved here, my cousin asked if the sun came up at all. I had to laugh. There are so many misconceptions about what life in Alaska is really like. The truth of the matter is this, the shortest day is in December, and we will get about 5 to 6 hours of daylight. The longest day is in the summer and we might get over 20 hours of daylight. But the part that I really like is the twilight. The time around the sunrises and sunsets is great.







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Transportation

When I accepted the position in Bethel, one of the first things that I thought about was the type of transportation that I would need. So I called some friends who lived in Bethel or had recently lived here. Before moving here, I spent time in smaller villages on the Bering Sea. While there, I rode 4-wheelers around a lot. Actually, most people there simply called a 4-wheeler a Honda, the two were synonymous. Having only been to Bethel briefly before moving here, I asked if I should get a Honda before getting here. I was advised not to. This surprised me. I already had adventurous visions of riding to work and back on a beat up 4-wheeler. Because of the layout of the town, cars were more advised. I wasn't prepared to barge my car out here, knowing that village life is rough on vehicles. After a few more conversations, I learned that many people walk or bike wherever they need to go. I chose to go the walking route. When thinking about what to do for transportation, it is important again to consider how long that walk is going to be to the important places around town. I have a mile and a half walk to school every morning. Its about a half mile to the store or the post office.
For those days that I don't feel like walking, there is a plethora of cabs in town that are quick to pick you up with a phone call and pick up address. The cabs come in handy for those cold mornings when walking over a mile in -30 weather doesn't sound that fun.
For the more exciting methods of transportation, you can own a boat or snow machine (also known as a snowgo). Boats come in handy when traveling in the summer and fall to pick berries or find that great fishing hole. Sadly, I didn't get out in a boat too much last fall, but hope to get more time in on the river this summer. But a snow machine was a non-negotiable necessity for me. I wanted to be able to travel to nearby villages and get out hunting during my time outside of the classroom. Owning a reliable rig has made life enjoyable. I've been able to see some incredible country and make friends and family jealous with some of the adventures I've been able to have as a result.
For those looking at moving to Bethel or other villages, I'd suggest talking to people about what they think is a necessity. I've been happy to walk wherever I've needed to get to around town and wouldn't suggest that a car is an important purchase during your first year here. A 4-wheeler might not be a bad way to go for getting out a bit when the ground is solid enough. But a snow machine... that has made my weekends a lot better.

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Statewide Mentor

When I started the school year off, I was amazed at all the help and support I had in the classroom. The district had coaches available to come in to the classroom and help out. I also had a mentor from the Statewide Mentor Program. She has been a blessing to have as a resource this year. About once a month, she comes to the school and spends a day or two on site helping out with anything that I might need. Usually, I don't feel like I utilize her help to the full potential. The way that it has played out this year is that she has been a great sounding board for me and helps direct my thinking. When I ramble on about the things that I want to see happen in my class or the goals that I have, she makes sense of it and gives a bit of direction and next steps for me to pursue.
I know that other first year teachers have found their mentor to be a life saver. They come into the classroom and are willing to help out in any way. Sometimes that means making copies, or working one on one with students, or doing testing and assessments. Other times, the help that is appreciated most is some food from the road system, a bag of chocolate, or a sympathetic ear.
The mentors work all over the state with teachers in their first and second years. They have worked as teachers for many years and are there to help out. Some of my friends had a challenging time with their mentor at first because they thought that having one meant that they were going to be observed and evaluated once a month. That can feel a bit stressful. But their position is non-evaluative, which is great. I don't have to worry if my lesson doesn't go according to plan. They don't always work out the way that they should. But I feel comfortable having my mentor in my classroom because I know that she is supportive and encouraging. She may have suggestions for how to make things better, but never makes me feel bad about how things are going.
One way that this has played itself out this year was during her first few visits. I knew going in to the year that classroom management was an area that I wanted to work on. I like keeping things positive and upbeat in my class, and it is a fine line between having fun with the students and loosing control of the classroom. She helped me to identify areas where I could provide more structure and gave suggestions for a behavior plan of sorts that might work with a couple of my students. They were a lively bunch at the beginning, and I wasn't sure that I'd make it to the end of the year without a few grey hairs or having it fall out. But the suggestions helped out immensely and there is now order in Mr. Brad's Kindergarten.
I'm thankful for the listening ear and kind support that I have received over the course of the year.

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Housing

Taking the teaching position in Bethel forced a change in my life that I was not looking forward to. Housing. See, before I moved here, I lived in my own house. I had space and my own things. Moving here is expensive and usually limited to what you can mail in a box. It has taken some getting used to. Finding a good place to live takes some shopping around. I knew it would be expensive, but was still surprised when I got here.
There are several things to take in to account when finding a place. How close is it to school? How close to the store? How close to the post office? What is included in rent? Heat (fuel oil)? Electric? Internet? Cable? Water, is it delivered? How often? Finding a place usually necessitates finding a roommate or two as well. In my case, I have 5 roommates. We all share a house in Bethel.
I would like to share a couple of experiences that I have had this year because of the house I live in. Something that I didn't have to worry about in Palmer was the delivery of fuel oil. My house was heated by natural gas which just came to my house and for which I was billed monthly. This was familiar. Here, we have to keep an eye on the tank outside the house that holds our heating oil. If it runs out, we don't get charged a fee on our monthly statement, our house just simply stops being warm. This is not a fun experience when the temperature is around zero. This year we discovered that we ran out of fuel hours before many of us were scheduled to leave for a long weekend. We had to scramble and find a place that would deliver heating oil that night. Once that was done, we figured that we were in the clear. Wrong. Apparently, the boiler heating system that we have in the house is not a fan of running out of fuel. It didn't want to start up again. After spending time trying to fix it ourselves, we realized that a call to a professional was in order. Again, this is not something that I thought would happen considering what I have been used to with any of the homes that I have lived in during my life.
Another memorable experience happened during one weekend when the temperature outside was the lowest that I have ever experienced. The windchill temperature outside was -52. The wind was howling. Fortunately for us, it was blowing straight at our door. This wouldn't be an issue except for the fact that our door is drafty and there are water pipes in the wall right inside the door. When I woke up one morning, the water wasn't working. This had happened before, so I checked the usual suspects. I discovered that the pipe into our water tank wasn't frozen. Also, there was water in the tank, so that wasn't the problem either. Water was working in the rest of the house, just not the kitchen. I couldn't figure it out. Why was the kitchen sink the only one that didn't work? Then I traced the pipes and realized that they ran right next to the door. That was it! The pipes were frozen in the wall. Next dilemma, how do you thaw pipes that are in the wall? I tried getting at them any way that I could. I opened drawers and searched for a way to get them warm. Nothing seemed to work. By that night, we still didn't have running water and I had one last attempt before I gave up and called a professional. I took a space heater and placed it by the door on high. I also filled in any of the gaps around the door that I could and tried to get that room as warm as possible. I let things go overnight and hoped that it would be fixed when I woke up. The next morning when I woke up, I walked to the kitchen to fill up the coffee pot. I turned on the faucet like normal to get ready for my morning coffee ritual and almost didn't realize in my pre-coffee haze that we had water! It was a wonderful feeling to know that it was -50 outside, but I was still going to have my hot coffee that morning.

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Welcome to Bethel

"So, where are you from?"
This has to be the most common question that I heard during my first week in Bethel. It seems that in Alaska, more than other places I have lived, people are interested to know where you are from. But this is a question with some hidden motives. Depending on how you answer, some of the seasoned teachers may think that you are up to the challenge of living here or decide quickly that you'll be in for a rude awakening.
During my first week, I chose to claim Palmer, Alaska as home. Its not a false statement. I'd lived there for 5 years prior to moving to Bethel. Because of my time in the state and through visiting several villages in the Norton Sound region, I was fully aware of what I was getting myself into when I stepped of the plane in Bethel. It was interesting to see people's response when I told them where I was from. The most common follow up question was, "Why did you leave there to come here?" I've learned since then that many teachers view the Anchorage and Mat-Su valley as more desired areas to be located at. I understand why they would think that. The mountains there are amazing, there is an abundance of outdoor activities that a motivated person could spend time exploring. And not to mention, there is a Cost-Co there. Whats not to love, right?
Well, my reason for choosing to come to Bethel is an interesting story. I did not ever plan on teaching here. Quite frankly, the idea of living on the tundra was not very appealing. I would rather have lived in a smaller village on the coast. But I got a phone call late in the summer asking if I'd be interested in working with primary students in Bethel. After several conversations with different teachers and the site administrator, I decided to accept the position. The only problem was that I'd only have two weeks before I needed to be on site for first year teacher orientation. Two weeks. That is not a lot of time to get things in order. I had a lot to consider and plan for in that short time frame. I have a house in Palmer that I needed to figure out what I wanted to do with. I had to give my notice to the school that I would have been working at during the upcoming school year. I had a car to try and sell. Friends to visit. Mountains to climb. Trips to take.
It was a lot to try and cram in to such a short time. But it also didn't help me prepare very well for getting to Bethel. The most obvious problem that I had when I left Anchorage was that I didn't know where I was going to be sleeping that night. I was pretty sure that I'd be put up in a hotel for the first few days, but after that, I hoped that something would come up.
The orientation was a packed first several days. Because of the schedule that was planned, I didn't get a chance to do much networking and searching for a place to live. As a result, the last day of training came, and again I didn't know where I was going to sleep that night. Fortunately there was a district office employee who connected me with a teacher at the high school who might have an extra room. As a reminder, I own a house in Palmer and had grown used to my own space and having my own things. When I got to the house where I would be staying for the immediate future, I learned that there were 5 other first year teachers living there. Because of the size of the house, it wasn't a bad looking deal, just a full house. I was not very excited to be living in such a setting. But got to know some of the teachers in the house and decided that I could make it work this year.
I've been very thankful how everything has worked out since that first week here. When I think about the friends that I met and the first few mini adventures, it reminds me of camp as a kid. The people that I sat next to during orientation have become good friends that I have spent holidays with, visited with on weekends, sat in airports with, and snowmachined or walked to see.
The people here as much as anything else make it a wonderful place to be. Building relationships with people have been an experience that I value and would not trade for the comforts of road system living. I've been able to spend time with such a variety of people: new teachers, seasoned teachers, district office employees, community members. Because of these people, Bethel has become home for me.
Now, when people ask where I am from, I'm happy to say Bethel.

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Purpose

I've recently been reflecting on my time in Bethel this school year and thought I'd share some of the experiences I've had up to this point. The stories and thoughts that will follow may not always follow an accurate timeline, but will highlight some of the major experiences I've had both professionally and personally. I hope that what I share will help some understand the perspective of life off the road system in Alaska and give a sense of what it is like for me to teach in such a setting. The stories are told from my perspective, knowing that others have had very different experiences and different stories that I can learn from as well.

Enjoy!

Before I get started with my ramblings on life and school, I thought I'd tell a little bit about myself and how I came to find myself in Bethel and teaching kindergarten.
I moved to Alaska 5 years ago from Wisconsin. Since then, I've realized that there are a lot of Alaska residents who are transplants from Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan. It has been fun to meet people who are familiar with the area where I grew up. But when I moved up, I lived in the Mat-Su Valley. That is a growing community about 45 minutes north of Anchorage. It is gorgeous! When I think of postcard Alaska, there are several places in the Valley that I would think of that way. The mountains, rivers, and lakes are amazing.
While I lived in Palmer, I started subbing for the school district as a starter job to help me during my transition. What started as a temporary job ended up taking up much of my first year in Alaska. I enjoyed subbing. It gave me a chance to see a lot of classrooms. I worked with a variety of students and teachers. Special ed is an area that requires a lot of support and thus a lot of sub jobs. Because of relationships that I built, I eventually found myself a job at an elementary school working in an intensive primary classroom. I loved it. And it solidified the idea that I had about going back to school.
I worked for the school for two years. During that time, I attended Alaska Pacific University and got my teacher certification. Then I went to the teacher job fair in Anchorage and met some people from Lower Kuskokwim School District. After my interview, I didn't hear anything for several months. Then in the middle of July I got a phone call. I was offered a position in Bethel working in a kindergarten classroom. Since I had been working in primary classrooms for the last two years, I thought that this was the perfect opportunity to transition into a teacher position.
So far, my initial excitement about the position has not wore off. I still enjoy what I do. Life in Bethel can be interesting at times, but I don't regret moving off the road system and setting out of the adventure that this year has been.

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