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Teacher in the tundra PDF Print E-mail
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Written by CAROL POMEDAY   
Wednesday, 09 June 2010 17:38

No, not that tundra. Tim Winker of rural Belgium teaches math far north of Green Bay in the truly frozen tundra of the Bering Strait School District, where many of his students are Eskimos and it’s a warm day in winter when the temperature gets above zero

When Tim Winker graduated from college last June with a master’s degree in education, he had trouble finding a teaching job, so he accepted the first one offered — a high school math position with the Bering Strait School District in St. Michael, Alaska.

“I had never been to Alaska and figured this was a good time to go,” he said.

Winker, 25, a 2004 graduate of Ozaukee High School who has a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, is spending the summer with his parents Holly and Tom at their Town of Belgium farm.

He will return in August to teach equations to students of the Yup’ik Eskimo tribe, who net salmon and hunt for caribou, moose and Beluga whales.

Winker, who wrestled in high school and at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, also coaches wrestling.

St. Michael is an isolated village of about 400 people in the tundra, where it rarely gets above zero in winter and the wind chill temperature can dip to minus-60 degrees.

The community is along the eastern coast of St. Michael Bay in the northwestern part of the state and has only one road, which leads to Stebbins, a village about the same size as St. Michael. Nome is on the other side of Norton Sound and accessible only by plane.

Winker’s school had 150 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, 98% of whom qualified for free or reduced-price meals. Eleven students graduated in May. One plans to attend college to be a pilot.

Higher education is rare, Winker said.

Few people have jobs, relying instead on welfare and oil company payments. The few jobs available are with the village government, school district or the one grocery store in town, he said.

“They don’t see the value of an education. There are no jobs, so you can’t say, ‘If you don’t get an education, you won’t get a good job,’” Winker said.

“I’m told the second year is easier. The students have more respect for you  because you came back.”

Fifteen of the 18 teachers are returning, but most will probably stay only two or three years, he said.

Several native women are paraprofessionals studying to be teachers.

“I think things will improve when that happens,” Winker said. “A native teacher understands the culture. I would always get, ‘You don’t understand our culture.’

“As a teacher, you always want to relate your subject to their interests. So, I relate math to fishing, hunting and survival. I believe school should be fun.”

To get to the remote area, Winker flew to Anchorage, hopped on a 20-seat plane for a 400-mile flight to Unakleet, then took a five-seater plane with two other passengers another 48 miles to St. Michael. The airstrip is two miles from the village.

Luckily, a returning teacher was on the plane and had arranged for her car to be at the airstrip. She gave Winker a ride to his new home —an apartment owned by the school district that he shared with another new teacher. Each paid $700 per month rent that included heat and utilities.

Next school year, Winker plans to live alone.

Houses are built on stilts to keep the heat from melting the permafrost and causing the foundation to sink, he said.

The area is more barren than he expected, Winker said.

“We’re in the permafrost and it’s all tundra,” he said. “When they said nothing grows here, they meant it. The only thing that grows is tall grass.

“When I left May 21, the ice was still out 1-1/2 miles from shore.”

Snowmobiles and four-wheel trucks are the main modes of transportation. Winker bought an old snowmobile that he will fix up when he returns in August.

Travel to the other 14 district schools, except Stebbins, is by airplane.

Winker said his wrestlers, who were in sixth through 12th grades, practiced hard, but competed in only one tournament and had only a few matches. High school wrestlers in other states often have 40 matches a year, he said.

Basketball is a more popular sport, Winker said. When the team played a championship game at another school, students and staff watched the game live on satellite TV.

Winker’s students also did well in the Native Youth Olympics. In one competition, they jumped and kicked a can hanging from the ceiling, then had to land on the leg that kicked. The winner kicked a target that was 121 inches off the ground.

St. Michael was a Russian trading post from 1837 to 1867. When the gold rush started in 1897, the U.S. military established a fort to serve as a gateway to the Yukon River. As many as 20,000 people lived in the boom town, where gold miners willingly spent their money.

It remained a key shipping port to the Alaskan interior until the Alaska railroad was built.

Since the oil pipeline was built, the town has received a portion of the profits. Each resident gets about $1,500 a year,  Winker said.

The town became dry in the 1980s in an attempt to stem rampant alcoholism, Winker said. No one is allowed to sell or possess alcohol in St. Michael.

Despite the ban, alcoholism is still a problem, he said. Some students have learning disabilities due to fetal alcohol syndrome.

Before he returned home, Winker met his parents in Anchorage and the three traveled through more populated areas of Alaska for a week.

Winker was paid $49,000 last year and will earn $51,000 next year. The good pay is an incentive to stay, he said.

“But living expenses are a lot higher,” he said. “A gallon of milk costs $12. Anything that is perishable or fresh is really expensive.”   




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