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Leading By Example, in the 21st Century...

Teaching and Learning on Alaska's North Slope

When I was young I used to dream of coming to Alaska, not to teach but to pursue a Jack London like dream of getting away from it all. Alaska was very appealing to me in terms of its natural beauty, rugged mountains, and a place where a person could go and manifest them.


But life happened and as I grew up in Minnesota my dreams got pushed aside in favor of more practical things. When I went to college, the dream was revived, and as I studied history and philosophy, the call of the wild started to gain traction.  When I completed my BA/ BS in 1997 I applied for my teaching certification in Minnesota and then Alaska. Getting an education provided me the means to travel to Alaska to teach.

On March 18, 2001 I left my home in Blackduck, MN to pursue my dream. I had the words of Steve Miller Band in my mind (I might get rich and I might get busted) but was very excited. Now, 14 years and 5 schools later, I am entering a new phase of my Alaskan Odyssey: I am about to start a new teaching assignment on the North Slope of Alaska. It is a dream come true, but I am still filled with fear and trembling at the thought that I am not sure of what may come of this. But I am confidant that I have been down similar roads before and I have a great many tools at my disposal.


The North Slope is like a new world: it is a bit farther north, gets a bit colder, has almost no trees, and has its own feel about it. It is located in Inupiat country with its hub being Barrow and its surrounding 8 villages. I will be teaching in the village of Atqasut, which is 60 miles south of Barrow on the Meade River.


I know my success will be up to me. I have the tools and experience to succeed in Atqasut; the key will be to listen to the better angels of my nature and focus on the right things.  It is easy to fall for the pitfalls such as local politics or the cynicism of apathy and past failures, but a person must find a way to rise above those challenges. The successful teacher on the North Slope know where they are, but also knows that time and energy are in limited supply and one must focus on the right things and avoid distractions.


It was very nice to have my mom and my sister Dorothy (and Taylor) come up for a visit.  In a practical sense it was good to see them, cherish the visit, and have the boys spend time with grandma, Tia, and consign Taylor. But it was more than that. For me, motivation and energy are everything. Their visit was the culmination of a summer that in which I was focused on time with Rafael and Sean, but also thinking ahead to traveling to Atqasut to teach. Their visit allowed me to relax and get my mind ready to leave. The memories that were created during their visit will last a lifetime and will help me stay motivated through the long, cold winters of the North's netherworld.


Now the Odyssey continues. A few more days before school starts on the 15th. I am ready and prepared, but have to hone my lessons and my approach to meet the needs of my students.  The key will be to keep it simple and focus on the needs of the students.  I can only do so much, but what I do needs to be culturally relevant and interesting.


My success or failure in Atqasut will depend on my ability to make connections to my students and motivate them to want to learn. I have to crafty interesting lessons and present them in way that allows student an "In". Again, I have experience in other Bush villages and with students who are less than motivated. The real key will be to remember to teach through culture, seek out local experts, and be patient with my new learners.


I will look to my family for motivation. To the degree that I know that Rafael and Sean are doing OK will be the degree that I can stay motivated. I will rely on thoughts of my mom and family in Minnesota for inspiration.  I will draw upon my upbringing, my education, my time in the Marines, my experience coaching wrestling at BCLB, and the trials and tribulations that have been my life. I am in a good position to make my dream a reality.


So now, I take this next step out onto the tundra of a new location and will embrace the students of Atqasut and their culture.  Through mutual respect, hard work, and hope in a better future, I start a new journey that will lead to a new and better place. Life is what happens while we are busy making other plans. (Lennon) and we had joy, we had fun, we had seasons in the sun (Jacks, 1974) and I am in a place I am supposed to be and will cherish the opportunity to share what I know.


It is truly an opportunity of a lifetime and a blessing.


Semper fi and semper Gumby.




PS- _ dedicate this school year to my parents: Brad and Shirl, who I think did the best they could with what they had and even though they fell short, instilled a sense of hard work and goodness in each of us. May we all listen to the better angels of our nature.

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Comment by Mark J Biberg on August 8, 2015 at 7:38pm

It seems the dreams of my childhood keep coming back to me........and it is up to me to take those dreams and use them for motivation. I have always had dream (and nightmares) and I think, what ever success I may have had, has been due to the fact that I have been able to believe in my dreams and downplay my nightmares. the lesson is that at any given time we can liberate ourselves from the lessor angels of our nature.

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