Making a Home on the Alaskan North Slope: Our Fourth IAART Podcast

November 23, 2020 |

Welcome to our fourth episode of the I Am a Rural Teacher Podcast! This week we're talking with Patti and Rod Lloyd, teachers on the North Slope of Alaska in Atqasuk. You can listen to the podcast here, or read the story below.

In this episode, we are going about as rural as rural gets in the United States. To the North Slope of Alaska.

While stories of 24 hour darkness, 10 dollar gallons of milk, and towns with no roads out are always popular when talking about far northern Alaska, there is so much more to these places.

The village of Atqasuk (AHT-ka-suk) is home to about 250 residents. Bright colored houses line the dirt streets, to offset the flat, dark landscapes of winter. The village sits on the Meade River, so fishing is big here. Caribou is a main source of protein. With many families practicing traditional subsistence based life styles to get a majority of their food.

And schools are the center of these communities. They are usually the biggest buildings in town, and the most maintained. Not only classes, but weddings and funerals, potlucks and other gatherings are all held here.

Patti and Rod Lloyd moved to Alaska when their last kid went away to college. They were in Idaho then and itching for a change. After 10 years of teaching, in nearby Utqiavik (OO-Key-Ah-Vik), they made the move down to Atqasuk.

For most of us, people who live in the lower 48 states, Alaska is truly the “Last Frontier.” It represents adventure, grit, survival... getting away from it all. And that promise of a wild life hooks many people, including young teachers.

It’s a great story to tell your friends back home, right? That time you lived in rural Alaska for a year or two. But that's not so great for the kids or the community you leave behind.

"We don't have enough teachers. Right now, we have a shortage of teachers. That's why we're hiring. Like Rod said, we used to only talk to Master Teachers. Twenty years ago, they only used to talk to masters teachers. Now we can't hire enough teachers," says Patti Lloyd.

Nowadays, to fill those spots, many of the mostly white teachers that come to Alaska are first or second year teachers, coming from one of the most social times in their lives, those college years, into these quiet, remote villages. I mean, there's no bars or malls or coffee shops in many of these towns. And the shock of that, sends many back down south after a school year.

"So they come out here really expecting to come out for the adventure and they find out the adventure burns out pretty quick when it's 40 below and it's dark all the time," says Rod.

“To be truthful, we've had time where one of our class had four teachers in a year”

Patti and Rod know that they were lucky, they had each other. They traveled as a package deal of teachers, bringing in their own support system. They also recognize that in schools with chronic staffing shortages, it isn't the best environment for mentoring, especially if this is one of your first teacher jobs.

"You don't even have someone at your own grade level. You're teaching two grade levels and you don't even have another, like me, K-1 teacher to talk to that's not in your village nor anything close. And our schedules don't allow us a lot of time to work together, because we take so much time for school," says Rod.

The village of Atqasuk.

That's not to say there are not tons of committed teachers all across the state, but in these remote villages, teacher turnover is a huge issue.

Patti and Rod say a big part of that might be how much these imported teachers invest in the place they are teaching. In their 24 years teaching in Northern Alaska and 13 specifically in Atqasuk, the Lloyd’s have seen a lot of teachers come through their schools.

"We call them triangle teachers. They go from school to the post office, to the store, if you've got it, and then home. I guess that's more of a square, but some of them never go to a potluck. Some of them never go to-," Rod says.

"Well, and I think that's what that's why they're unhappy is because they don't ever want to they don't join in," Patti chimes in.

"Yeah, some just go to the school, post office, home, school..." Rod finishes.

Turnover is hard in any school, but especially in these smaller schools. And we’re not talking one or two teachers leaving, sometimes entire buildings are upended each year.

"To be truthful, we've had times where one of our class had four teachers in a year," Rod says.

"In one year!" Patti exclaims.

"Because they'll leave and we'll get some long-term sub in and they've got to leave," Rod says.

"We've had six high school teachers in one year, in one year," Patti finishes.

The kids build up a tolerance to not open up to these teachers since they know they most likely won't be around next year. And it can really get difficult when these traveling teachers talk about how excited they are to go home for Christmas or leave for the summer - ultimately what they are saying is “I can't wait to leave this place”. And that can be difficult for kids to grasp, and it affects the way they look at their home, as well as future teachers.

"The kids really get apathetic towards people they see every year because you know, they come in and they're always enthusiastic. They want to do this, they want to go there. And the kids have all seen that. 'Yeah. You say this now, but you won't be here next year.' You're going to get me excited about going to college. And you're not going to be here to help me next year, or I can't really talk to you much because you don't know me, you don't know anything about me, so you can't even really talk to me at my level."

Building that trust between teacher and students is especially difficult when your students have created walls to protect themselves from trusting teachers.

If you don't invest in getting to know your students and the culture that make them who they are, they won't invest in you as their teacher. Patti and Rod say the third year teaching in a village is usually when they see teachers really settle into their own.

"It takes that third year where they finally stay, it gets like, you know, you gotta keep coming back and they know whether you care or not. Or if you honor what they honor. They know, boy, once you're in their heart though, you're in their heart and they love you," says Rod.

Patti and Rod don't leave for Christmas anymore. It's their way of showing their students and the community that this is our home too. We’re here for you. Really here for you.

“They know, boy, once you're in their heart though, you're in their heart and they love you.”

Now, the elephant in the room here is that Patti & Rod are white teachers, teaching in a native Iñupiat (iin-YOU-pee-aht) village. Most of the teachers imported from the lower 48 are white. I asked why they don't see more Native teachers coming back to teach in their communities. Rod believes it's because now, teaching is one of the lowest paid gigs in the area. The North Slope is home to the largest oil field in North America - Prudhoe (prude-oh) Bay. People can go there and make twice as much as they would being a teacher.

But Patti says it's something they are trying to work on. She sits on the board of Iḷisaġvik (IL-LEE-SAH-VIK) College - the only tribal college in Alaska. They're working on getting a 4 year teaching degree going up there. Right now they only offer certificates and associates in indigenous education.

"That's my aim. My aim is to get born and raised teachers. That is so my, so my aim, because then they'll stay, they will grow. They're born here, they're raised here and they're educated here and they'll go to college at Iḷisaġvik and they'll become teachers here! That is so my dream, that is so my dream, and I so want that!" Patti says exuberantly.

Again, for the teachers they do get from all over the country, they say the key is taking the time to invest and learn about the culture around them, in order to be the best teacher you can be in that place.

"I think, the culture shock you expect is not the culture shock you find, because this culture anyway, and I believe a lot of the Alaska native cultures, because we have friends that teach all over, are the same way. They’re really willing to, to bend over backwards to make you feel welcome. But in turn, we need to be better about looking for those nuances," Rod explains.

"And listening," Patti adds.

"And be a listener," Rod agrees.

    “I think the culture shock you expect is not the culture shock you find, because this culture anyway, and I believe a lot of the Alaska native cultures are the same way. They’re really willing to, to bend over backwards to make you feel welcome. But in turn, we need to be better about looking for those nuances and listening.”

    As an outside teacher coming into any rural community, it's essential to tailor your curriculum to your place, not just continue to teach what you know.

    "You know, I talked with a lady one time taught for a couple of years and her big thing was Johnny Appleseed. I don't know why, she was, the kids got to know the story of Johnny Appleseed and we'd make applesauce and stuff.

    And our kids didn't really care. Johnny Appleseed. They don't really care. And so people bring their expectations from other places and expect it to be as important to them. Like what Thanksgiving is and what a feast is and how it's done is, is different here. There’s a different cultural way that its done," says Rod.

    Rod Lloyd during the school fishing unit.

    These days, Patti and Rod are taking kids out fishing, something they would do with family either way. They're cutting fish, they learn to count on tiny caribou figurines, instead of the little dinosaurs they brought up when they first started teaching. They've developed math lessons around making knives.

    "Well, in an area like this, it's hard not to be placed-based, and teach kids. Because it's on their mind. We buy a curriculum like every other district. But if we start talking about, we read a story earlier about a farm. Now do our kids need to know about a farm? They sure do. Because some of their food comes from a farm, but they've got no real background knowledge other than what they've seen on TV.

    So we've got to relate what a farm might be to maybe what a reindeer herder might do. So you got to know enough about place-based that you can make those connections for kids when there's no real natural connection. So up here, it can't be something you want to do, it's gotta be something you have to do. Place-based education to get to the kids and the kids enjoy it. And once you start getting into the culture a bit, the kids will teach you. Because they've got it."

    Rod says lessons like these help students to know that school and outside aren't separate.

    “Well, in an area like this, it's hard not to be placed based, and teach kids. Because it's on their mind.”

    Now you might not think that Covid-19 could hit a place as far out as this, but it has.

    Patti and Rod say nothing stands up to what Covid-19 has done to their teaching plans. I mean this is a place where school happens until its 55 degrees below zero. But now they're splitting kids up to come to school every other day, sending home more homework than in class work, and battling living in a place so rural that that the best internet is… at the school. But in a weird way, they are just like any other school in America right now.

    Listening to Patti and Rod talk about the place they live and the job they love is such a joy. The passion they have for Atqusak is palpable and rubs off on you.

    It can no doubt be a difficult place to live at times. But that seems to be what makes it all the more special.

    The 'I Am a Rural Teacher' Podcast is part of a national advocacy campaign from the Rural Schools Collaborative and is in partnership with the National Rural Education Association and the Community Foundation of the Ozarks. The project is supported by The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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