Right now, it is about 8pm on a Tuesday in May, Alaskan Time.
Now is the time of year that the sun stops going down, so it really only looks about 2pm. I can expect it will look like this until about 11pm tonight, which means it’s gonna be tough to fall asleep again with the sunlight peaking under our blackout curtains.
I am sitting on my couch, under the window, in my very first apartment, in a town of not-quite 6,000 people, in bush Alaska.
This Time Last Year…
I was graduating, for the third time in my life, this time with an M.A. in Teaching. I was leaving the structure of school for the first time since kindergarten, slowly packing up the bedroom I’d fallen asleep in for the last 23 years straight, and leaving the only house I’d ever lived in, to move across the continent to a town 400 air-miles away from the nearest Dunkin Donuts, that I had only learned the existence of 2 weeks prior.
Those are some balls.
Growing Up In Rhode Island
I remember the first time I ever had to seriously think about what I wanted to be when I grew up. It was for a sixth-grade math project, and I picked a fashion designer.
I have literally never liked fashion, but that’s what all the other girls had picked, so I figured, why not?
In high school, that was all anybody ever wanted to know. Everybody babbled like ducks about going to college. Motivational speakers were hired to give us sale pitches and hand out brochures in the school auditorium about how we would make $100,0000 per year by going to college for—whatever.
Naturally, I went to a state school right out of high school, and honestly, I wasn’t ready for it—nobody is. At 17, with the first freedom of not being faced with a detention for skipping class, I hardly ever went. I passed my classes by the skin of my teeth, did bare minimum work, and spent most of my days looking for ways to waste time.
In the spring of my sophomore year, I finally had to make a decision and declare my major.
I took my first creative writing class and it felt like home.
Suddenly, after years of feeling listless and unmotivated, I remembered that I loved to write poetry in middle school, that I had kept a handwritten diary all through high school, and that I honestly never hated the required reading for my English classes.
On top of that, I had an amazing professor. When Professor Danforth (author of the award-winning novel, The Miseducation of Cameron Post) told me that I had talent in writing, I felt like it could take me anywhere. In writing workshops, I felt confident in class for the first time in my life.
I felt like I belonged there—mixing words around like a jigsaw puzzle, staying up into the night thinking of the last line for my newest poem, feeling a little more complete every time I found the perfect way to write what swirled around in my head.
Of course, everyone asked,
“What the hell do you do with an English degree?”
In my senior year, I finally started thinking the same thing. I decided to add on a second major in Film Studies with the idea of screenwriting later on.
Again, it felt like home.
I could dissect a scene into 100 different themes and no one accused me of “overthinking it.” But, by the end of my second senior year, the thought of moving to California and presumably working as a waitress while under the financial pressure of waiting for my writing career to finally “take off” was scary as hell, and I knew I needed a more realistic and secure option.
It had always been a hobby of mine to map out these imaginary itineraries for places that I someday wanted to visit. One day, while doing my “fake research” on a travel blog, I found the option of teaching English as a second language in South Korea (EPIK).
I was sold. I could make money while traveling, and still, make my English degree look relevant! So, I enrolled in my college’s one-year intensive M.A.T. program immediately after graduating with my double B.A.
For that year, Matt and I spent our off-time driving around the backroads of our small hometown in Rhode Island, fantasizing about our future lives in South Korea—the apartment we would finally share, the food we would gag on, the weekend adventures we would have.
No More Korea…
But then Trump came along, and so did all the hyped-up missile threats.
Suddenly everyone who had said, “You’re gonna have an adventure in Korea,” was now saying, “You’re going to die in Korea.”
Again, I changed plans.
I knew I didn’t want to just settle down and teach somewhere in Massachusetts for 20 years (I wanted more adventure than that), plus most local entry-level jobs required an elusive “2-3 years of experience,” often in the form of subbing. No thanks.
Out Of Nowhere…
I found a job fair to go to in Boston (MERC) and took a day trip with one of my friends from the M.A.T. cohort.
I walked around the booths, talked to spokespeople representing organizations like Teach for America, VipKid, and private schools in China, but for some reason kept returning to check out the brochure for the LKSD district in rural Alaska.
The pictures showed skyscraper-high trees, endless stretches of fluffed white snow, the pink waves of the northern lights behind tall, resolute mountains.
Within two weeks of that job fair, I had a series of Skype-interviews and signed a contract to teach 2nd grade in Bethel, AK.
My family was thrilled I wasn’t going to die! They threw us a party, helped us load up the truck, and we headed off on a two-week road trip from Rhode Island to Anchorage.
North To The Future!
Being in the “bush,” Bethel is not connected to the road system so we had to barge over our truck and fly into town. When we first flew over Bethel, I thought we were just too far away to see the trees.
Turns out, there are no trees. This is the tundra.
We have some tall bushes and mountains that you can see in the distance on clear days (about a 2-day snowmobile ride away) but it’s defiantly not the “snowy, mountainous Alaska” I had pictured.
Being a tundra, the ground is constantly shifting as climate change further thaws the ground, meaning the houses need to be leveled almost yearly and the road will suddenly bottom-out your car after a rain.
It is cloudy every. Single. Day.
In the year we have been living here, I have seen the stars twice, never-mind the northern lights.
On The Plus Side…
Still, I don’t regret coming. While the cost of living is astronomical, I make $20,000 more than what I could expect teaching anywhere in the lower 48. Plus, with my boyfriend’s combined income from his job at the airport, we have paid off over $8,000 of debt in just the last 5 months while living very comfortably.
Ultimately, this is why I became a teacher.
I have a stable, contract-defined job to pay off my enormous student loans (oops!), all weekends and holidays off work, 2 months off in the summer, and the opportunity to travel while working.
While it’s a lot of work, it’s a pretty nice gig! And while I easily could have gone to Korea with just my B.A. in English/ Film Studies, I now feel like without my M.A. in Teaching, I would have crashed and burned.
What About You?
There is a reason people go to school for years to learn how to teach, and ignoring this fact for the sake of moving aboard is going to be a rude awakening.
Sure, it’s exciting as hell going through the application process, researching your new home-base, and saying goodbye to family. But, sooner or later you’re gonna end up in the front of a classroom with little more than a tour of the school and having the curriculum thrown in your lap.
After surviving graduate school, student teaching, and teaching ESL abroad in Ecuador, I realized that without my education and prior experience, I probably would have just quit Alaska halfway through.
Teaching is honestly like standing in front of a tennis ball launcher for 8 hours straight and needing to catch every single ball while trying to look like you know what you’re doing.
This is why I made a free online course about teaching abroad.
Made for fellow adventurers who are considering moving across the world to teach, it is a 7-day completely free email course on preparing for your first week in the classroom.
Covering everything from lesson planning to set up the room, it is not a vague, hyped-up pitch on getting a job abroad that leaves you hanging on your first day (like so many other courses are).
It is a step-by-step guide to handling the real-life responsibility of your very first teaching job abroad.