Teaching In Bush Alaska: How It Will Make You A Badass

When I first walked into the school, I was pleasantly surprised.

It was not the dirty, poorly-equipped bush school I had expected. The building had newly carpeted floors throughout, fresh paint, a SmartBoard in every classroom, a fully stocked teacher workroom (something East Coast teachers only dream about!) and even a break room with free coffee.

It was a real school! Now, where was my classroom…?


In a trailer.

Ah, that’s more like it.

Welcome To Your New SchoolThe challenge of teaching in rural bush Alaska

In my K-2 school, the second-grade teachers have the privilege of teaching in 50-year-old outpost “portables” on an unsheltered boardwalk that connects to the newly-carpeted and freshly-painted main building.

Having that separation and access to fresh air is honestly a great idea for schools in, I don’t know, Florida? But we are not in Florida—we are in ALASKA, and, let me tell you, walking in -20 degrees everyday to the cafeteria for lunchtime gets old, fast.

On one hand, I do like the privacy and the lack of hallway disruptions. Also, the distance from administration means I get a lot of freedom in the classroom. On the other hand, when I need help, there’s no one there.

Alaska Compared To The Lower 48?

My portable has a coatroom, 2 private bathrooms, and is honestly a very nice size. I have a SmartBoard, 2 student desktops and 3 student laptops, and the financial funding of basically anything else I want.

In most other US schools, if you want a colorful bulletin boarder, new pens, or even art supplies, you can expect to have to pay for that yourself.

In the bush, our schools get tons of funding. We have an entire teacher workroom stocked with colored paper, glue sticks, and even a custom book-binder.

If that’s not enough, there’s a school Amazon credit card that you can shop for anything else you need (as long as it ships to our remote area). In my first year, I have spent over $3,000 on my classroom, and none of that has come out of my own pocket! In the lower 48 (especially Rhode Island) that is unbelievable.

On top of that, being a title 1 school (low-income), we also receive funding to provide many no-cost services for students.

All students are entitled to free breakfast, free lunch, and free transportation. The school also has a stock pile of school supplies, backpacks, and winter clothes to give out when needed.

The Catch… 

While that’s all fantastic, there’s a catch.

Teaching in the bush will no-doubt push you to the extreme, but not for the reasons you might think…

Yes, you might have to ride a snowmobile to work.

Yes, you might be teaching in a multi-grade classroom. 

Yes, you might have recess duty in -20 degrees (seriously, that’s the actual cut-off).

But that’s actually not the hard part.

In bush communities, you’ll find exorbitant levels of poverty. And with high rates of poverty, you’ll also find high rates of alcoholism, drug abuse, and domestic violence.

As a teacher, this translates into extreme behavior problems, large percentages of students with developmental delays such as fetal alcohol syndrome, and trauma or even PTSD from abuse and neglect.

I’ve had students spit at me, throw things at me, swear at me, flip me off, run out of the classroom, slam the door in my face—and I teach second grade.

About 30% of my class has some degree of fetal alcohol syndrome or other developmental delay. This means that they will lack the ability to make connections and will often act out instead of learning to cope.

For example, if a math problem is too hard, instead of thinking, “Ok, I can do this, I need to ask for help or look for an example,” they will just shut down—slam their book on the desk, hide under the table, or literally just run out of the classroom.

While my class is technically a “SPED-inclusion” classroom, it goes without saying or credit around here—they all are.

My Crazy Stories About Teaching In Alaska

I’ve had a student show up with bruises and then get taken away by social workers. I’ve had a student tell me that the night before, his mom was beat up by her boyfriend and was in the hospital, and that the dad waves a gun around every time he’s drunk or mad.

Of course, I’ve reported these instances to the Office of Child Services multiple times. Most of the time though, OCS is so backed up, nothing gets done.

In the last two weeks, I’ve had 2 students get suspended for kneeing another in the anus and then giving him a swirly in the urinal. Then, while in the office already getting suspended, they prank called 911—twice. After 10 days of being suspended, one punched someone else in the throat on his second day back to school and was suspended again.

I have had to teach in the dark after my portable lost power, walk the kids to the main building in -20 degree winds to use the bathroom when the water pipes froze, and chase stray dogs off the classroom porch after it attacked my students.

In the break room, we talk about the bodies of frozen drunks that have washed up in the river, the latest scarlet fever or tuberculosis scare, and compare who has the worst bite marks—I am not even joking.

Last year, one of my coworkers who teaches first grade had a student who smoked cigarettes. One day he came to school with his eyebrows burned off and black soot caked around his mouth—he had been huffing and something went wrong. His mother had then shaved off the remainder of his eyebrows—you could still see the bloody razor cuts of the buzzer on his second-degree burns.

A few weeks ago was an elder teacher’s birthday. We gathered in the gymnasium for an honorary piano recital. While her class was singing a beautiful song for her, one of the intensive needs students ran up and started trying to bite the ankles of the pianist. She kept on playing, the kids kept on singing, and the audience just watched as the aides tried to pry the shrieking child off the floor in the middle of the performance.

At my work and Matt’s work, we have both experienced a staff death—both from heart attack. When you go shopping here, the fresh refrigerated food and produce costs so much to fly in that many people will just forgo it in lieu of ramen noodles and energy drinks.

Wow, Was I Wrong

For my last 2 years of college, I imagined that right now I would be living in South Korea—teaching eager, chubby-faced students and sharing the workload with a co-teacher.

But, when I found this job through a job fair in Boston, I couldn’t refuse the opportunity to make over $58,000 salary as a first-year teacher (that’s more than $20,000 over what I could expect in Rhode Island!).

I was told my students would be very traditional—Yup’ik-speaking, quiet mannerisms, close to their elders. I now see that as unabashed stereotyping, even racism, from the recruiting office, not to mention unrealistic.

Life In Bethel, AK

The challenge of teaching in rural bush Alaska

Despite it’s “wild west” feel, Bethel, the biggest bush town (around 5,000 people) and a commercial hub for the other villages, actually has many first-world “luxuries.”

It has a very nice gym and public pool (sauna-culture is big out here), a movie theater with 2 showing screens, almost 15 miles of paved roads, and a full-size supermarket with a Red Box!

In the outer villages, the communities are little more than a single dirt path for 4-wheelers and a few shack-like houses, with the only modernized building being the school and a shared apartment for its imported teachers.

On top of that, if you teach in a village, you can expect to also be the basketball coach, cook, janitor, art teacher, and perhaps even the designated emtpy-er of the “honey buckets” (for schools that don’t have pluming…).

Needless to say, there’s a lot of stress and struggle associated with this job.

I Did It!

Many times it feels like a battle just to complete basic things like get your mail delivered or deposit a check at the single ATM in town (they lock the doors after 5pm to keep drunks from sleeping inside).

However, looking back at the year, seeing what I have put up with, over-come, and survived, I can’t help but feel like a bad-ass. A lot of people don’t last the year.

In fact, around Christmas time you will see a lot of village teachers with their bags at the airport— throwing the contract out the window and going home mid-year.

The turnover rate in these schools is around 50% even though the school district is paying through the nose to get people to stay. On a positive note, that mean’s there’s no “pink slip epidemic” and you’d have to try really, really hard to get fired.

Teaching in a remote location, abroad or otherwise, is the ultimate challenge. If you think you can handle it, check out my free 7-day course on what you need to know about working as a teacher abroad, or my free 5-day email challenge walking you through the twists and turns of the application process.

Free Course!

– Kenz

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