New Culture, New Connections
In 1993 I accepted my first teaching assignment – secondary math and science in Koyuk, Alaska. Koyuk is a remote Inupiat Eskimo village of about 350 people, located on the Iditarod Trail, about 130 miles due east of Nome and about the same distance below the Arctic Circle. With only sixteen students in the high school, I taught much more than math and science, and I was the coach of multiple sports and student council advisor. I quickly learned how important it was to create cultural connections in the classroom.
Having been raised in the suburbs of Chicago, almost everything in “the bush” was different – the landscape, the population size, the climate, lack of running water, the food, the culture, academics, and life ambitions. It was a lot to absorb for a 22-year-old and my first years I learned considerably more than my students probably did. I was fortunate to have several veteran Koyuk teachers to mentor me in the customs, culture, and characters of that particular community.
My role in the community was that of “teacher”. I was tasked with advancing the students as far as I could, even though the need for a traditional education seemed unimportant to many. With the intimate setting of a small community, I had to work with my students and their families in a very personal level, communicating in their ways and understanding their needs as best I could. Culture was everything. If I could not connect to them, I would not get very far.
Obstacles to Connections
The challenge to connect is not unique to rural Alaska. Teachers in almost every classroom across the country encounter a variety of cultures in their classrooms. I only had a handful of students of predominately one population group. How does a teacher that sees 150 students a day of multiple cultural groups leverage the power of one’s identity?