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 Kivalina, AK

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  • 2019-03-05
  • Anna Loria

A Day in the Life of a Teacher in Alaska

Kyle Russell '18 has launched his teaching career above the Arctic Circle, where he's embracing the quirks of an Alaskan lifestyle from morning to night.

These days, everyday life for Kyle Russell '18 involves bush airplanes, blow torches, and night masks.

After graduating from Hilton High School and student teaching in East Irondequoit Middle School, Russell aspired to pursue a teaching career in one of those districts. Ironically, his student-teaching experience guided him to a different opportunity nearly 3,500 miles away.

"My student-teaching supervisor finds and recruits teachers to work for schools in the Northwest Arctic Borough School District," said Russell, who earned a bachelor's degree in biology and teacher certification from The College at Brockport after transferring from Monroe Community College. "I am lucky enough to be one of them."

Since January, Russell has been teaching general science to middle and high school students in a small coastal Alaskan village called Kivalina, located above the Arctic Circle.

"Kivalina had been built up by rocks. It used to be located further down shore, but due to the ever-rising sea level, the village had to move everything north and start from scratch," Russell explained. "In 2015, the known location of Kivalina was said to be under water. In preparation for this, the village has started building a new road that will take Kivalina six miles inland."

A typical day for Russell in Alaska:

6:45 am: Wake up (three hours before the winter sunrise)

"During the first few weeks, it was hard for me to get out of bed and head off to school when it was dark until 10 am," said Russell. "Now that spring is coming, our first sign of light is at 8:30 am, and we don’t get darkness until 8 pm."

7:30 am: Walk to the island's only school

"The only way to reach Kivalina is by bush planes. We get around by snowmobile, ATV, and walking," said Russell. "The island is big enough for an air strip, teacher housing, village housing, a village store, a post office, and the school."

7:45 am: Use a blow torch to unlock his classroom, a pod next to the school

"Due to the lack of space and large number of students, my classroom is former teacher housing turned into a makeshift classroom. After really cold (–30 without wind chill), snowy, and windy (60+ mph) days, the lock freezes up, so I use a blow torch to thaw it," said Russell. He has to perform the same technique at his Alaskan home, and he's found that placing a sock over the inside door handle helps do the trick. "I also spend some time in the morning removing snow from the doorway. Since there isn’t a grounds crew that comes around, we are responsible for removing snow and ice."

8–8:55 am: Utilize his designated planning period

9 am – 1 pm: Teach grades 6–12

"Since I am the only science teacher, I teach three different science classes. The subjects I teach are high school physical science, three sections of middle school science, one section of high school health, and one section of middle school reading intervention," said Russell. His classroom is complete with a Smart Board, stove, fridge, and built-in bathroom.

Alaska classroom

1–1:30 pm: Lunch break

1:30–4 pm: Finish teaching, participate in teacher meetings, and prep for the next day

4–9 pm: Settle down in his "dwelling"

"My living space is very small compared to other teaching housing, since I'm the newest teacher. I refer to the shack as my dwelling," said Russell. "In order to keep the cold out, we have two doors and windows that don't open. As you walk in, there is a small kitchen/dining room all built into one. I have a small table and one chair where I eat and work and the smallest bathroom I have ever seen! In my bedroom, I have a twin bed, a school desk, a three-drawer dresser, and a lot of shelves that act as my closet."

Alaska dwelling

6 pm: Call his family back in New York, who will be sleeping soon in the Eastern time zone

"Since New York is four hours ahead of me, I can’t call past 6 pm my time, or I would be waking them up," said Russell.

9 pm: Head to bed

"I typically go to bed around 9, since I get up early, and there isn’t a lot of light at night during the winter months," said Russell. "The 10 teachers I work with tell me it’s hard to teach in April since everyone is up all night enjoying the 24 hours of sun. In my welcome package, they gave me a night mask to make it look like it’s dark."

Some days are even more unconventional. Russell said his most unique experience so far has been chaperoning the high school men's basketball team during a trip to a game in the city of Buckland, AK — which involved a bush plane flight, a six-day stay that was intended to be three (a result of poor weather conditions that delayed their flight home), sleeping on the floor of a school library, and eating caribou soup made by local villagers.

While Russell has "enjoyed every minute" of his time in Kivalina, he plans to return to New York after his school year ends in May, in order to reunite with his family and friends and begin working toward a master's degree.

"I wake up every day feeling happy and excited to go to work, no matter what gets thrown at me. At times, I step back and look at my students and appreciate how much fun they're having. I haven’t stopped smiling since I’ve been up here," said Russell. "This has inspired me to go back home and tell other teachers that these jobs are available. Not once in my college career did I think I would ever end up teaching science in Alaska."

Last Updated 7/1/20

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