Retirement didn't work for her

Chris Walker finds new career mentoring rural Alaska teachers

Thirty-two years of teaching seemed like a long stretch to Chris Walker. Time to try something new? She pulled the plug on her teaching career and looked forward to retirement.

"I was happy. I decided to do all those activities I'd put on hold but had never had time to do. Here I go," she thought.

That lasted a relatively short time.

"I volunteered at the Palmer Library and for Girl Scouts and my church boards. I tried gardening; my back didn't like that and talked back. I tried yoga and discovered that takes coordination; I was too clumsy."

When one of her former teaching colleagues approached her about the Alaska Statewide Mentor Project, Chris was ready to listen.

"He knew I'd been a teacher in the Yukon Flats School District back in the 1970s, and that I'd worked in both gifted and special education. He thought I might be interested in the mentor project, working in schools across the state. 'You should know about this,' he told me. He was so right. I was so ready!"

That was a year and a half ago. Chris checked out the Alaska Statewide Mentor Project website, and read how the program had turned many of Alaska's small village schools around.

"With a mentor for the new teachers in the villages, many schools had begun to make adequate yearly progress, reflected in their testing. That was a surprise to me, and I wanted to learn more."

Chris applied for the program was accepted, and turned in her gardening tools and her yoga shoes. At age 62, she admits she's more than eager for new adventures and new learning.

She's replaced those tools from her attempt at retirement with her sleeping bag, fanny pack, and a lot of airplane tickets.

"I'm still going strong," she admits, "and I sleep very well, mostly on the floors of village schools. I'm out in the villages about four of seven days each week. And I confess, I sleep especially well on my breaks back at home in Palmer."

Chris explains the vision and mission of the Alaska Statewide Mentor Project (ASMP).

"The vision of ASMP is that 'every student in Alaska has the benefit of a great teacher'. The mission is to 'give new teachers the support they need to succeed'.

She comments that it is difficult enough for first- and second-year teachers to get their feet on the ground when they first enter the classroom. That becomes even more difficult when compounded with the isolation, language and cultural differences experienced in Alaska's remote schools, most often located off the road system.

In commending the program, Carol Comeau, former superintendent of the Anchorage School District, states, "There is no harder work in the world than being a teacher, particularly at the beginning of their professional career."

Across the country, 50 percent of U.S. teachers leave the profession within the first five years. That poor retention rate can be much more acute in the Bush. Comeau's comment attests to the positive differences having a mentor can make.

Chris relates how she tries to make that difference become real as a mentor in the villages.

"I have some advantage when I first come into some of the villages," she states. "I had learned some Gwitch'en when I was in Fort Yukon long ago. Some people remember me by getting out old yearbooks. I play the bagpipes and that brings back memories for some. 'I know who you are!' one man in Fort Yukon told me. 'You played the bagpipes on the Yukon River!' That gives me a good entry point."

In the classroom, Chris doesn't focus on telling teachers how or what to teach, she explains. She uses modeling, reflective conversation, and leads them through the process of induction.

"Conversations are held weekly with the teachers through face-to-face classroom visits, emails, Skype and phone calls. The plan is to visit these Early Career Teachers (ECTs) monthly, weather permitting."

Getting weathered in can often be a part of her job.

Since most of these teachers find themselves in a new culture, along with the remote area, "helping them adjust to these differences is as important as my role as a mentor for teaching skills," Chris says. "I encourage them to incorporate elements of the local culture into their classroom programs."

She explains, "I might tell them what I notice in the village – 'I saw this, I wonder about this. Can you tell me about that?' I might say I've seen lots of fish, and ask them if they get to go fishing. Their involvement is very individual. I might ask them if they've considered volunteering for the fire department, or coaching a team, or working with a club, going to potlatches and dances, inviting elders into their classroom, looking at the village crafts and carvings."

These conversations are focused on helping the new teacher discover ways to avoid being the outsider, to fit in, without instructing them on what to do.

"If they are lonely, obviously their teaching is impacted as is their relationship with the people in the village. I want to be an ear for them, a peer, someone who will listen to them."

One of her favorite mentoring experiences for Chris, using what she has seen in the village, occurred in Savoonga this past Christmas.

"The whaling crews had gotten a bowhead whale, the first of the season – great excitement! Along with the other teachers and villagers, I watched a two-boat crew guide in the whale to the shore."

She marveled at the cooperation between the two crews and a crew on the shore, and would use this as a proud example of cooperation, sharing and skill in the classroom.

"For the rest of my stay, I was told how lucky I was to be there to witness the 'Christmas Whale' being brought to the village and shared."

Currently Chris is working with 17 first- and second-year teachers in Kivalina, Noorvik, Buckland, Savoonga, Shishmaref, Fort Yukon and Beaver. Each village is very different, even in their food desires, and there are many foods that are difficult to get in the Bush.

"I often bring fresh fruit for the teachers. When I go to Beaver and Noorvik, I know they will be happy if I bring pizzas – Kivalina, too. I bring soups, cheeses, salads, fancy breads to Savoonga. Buckland likes veggies, and one teacher is especially happy if I bring Chinese food."

Is she glad she found new adventures and a new profession after her professed retirement?

"Oh, gosh yes!" comes the easy answer. "I like seeing new things, traveling to remote places, meeting different people from different backgrounds and cultures, even the different languages I sometimes try to speak."

And then there is the happiness of helping new teachers in their new surroundings.

"My job as a mentor has increased my joy in the teaching profession by watching the next generation of teachers progress. Helping them improve in their profession, adjust to their new communities, and seeing their own increasing joy has been a wonderful gift for me.

"No, I wasn't ready to retire. I catch myself always thinking 'next year' – what will I accomplish next year through my mentoring."

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