We Alaskans

I swore I'd never teach again. Then I broke my vow.

DILLINGHAM — Twenty years of grading high school English papers, planning lessons, maintaining discipline and untangling bureaucratic red tape — all within the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District — was enough. Although I still loved my students, by the time I retired in 2008, I was ready to go. I was burned out, overweight and feeling old.

And as I left, I swore that I would never become a substitute teacher. I was leaving my classroom; I had no plans to tend to someone else's.

Despite my pronouncement, I applied for and received a Lifetime Teaching Certificate that would allow me to sub in Alaska at a certified rate for the rest of my life. Just in case. After all, I reasoned, one should never be too quick to say "never."

For 7 1/2 years, I kept my no-subbing word. Then late last December, I succumbed.

Sweet-talked by an affable, ebullient principal, and understanding the difficulty of finding qualified subs in a remote community, I committed to an eight-week stint at Dillingham Middle School, filling in for a sixth-grade English teacher scheduled for maternity leave, starting in mid-January.

Moments after I agreed to take the job, I questioned my own sanity.

I had last subbed in the spring of 1988, months before landing my first teaching gig at Soldotna High School. I had last worked with middle school students in the spring of 1986, filling in for nine weeks for a seventh-grade English teacher on educational leave. And this time I was replacing a popular 2014 BP Teacher of Excellence.

Saved by some 12-year-olds

There are two kinds of subbing: short term and long term. Short-term subs fill in for a day or two, follow instructions left behind by the regular teacher, and leave behind a stack of papers for someone else to grade. Long-term subs agree to an extended period of service, usually a few weeks to few months; while they often follow a general plan from the regular teacher, they make more decisions — which lessons to teach, when and how, for instance — and they do the grading.

In my case, my eight weeks also involved parent-teacher conferences and a slew of unfamiliar technology.

Smart Boards were beginning to appear as I retired. Although I had used one a time or two, their intricacies were foreign to me — as were the student iPads, the grading and attendance programs, and the half-dozen apps that students would be using (almost by second nature) during my tenure. My learning curve was steep. More than once, a sympathetic 11- or 12-year-old came to my rescue.

Also rescuing me on numerous occasions were other faculty and staff — counselors who provided backstories and sound advice, the head secretary who patiently made sure I signed the correct paperwork and instructors who enlightened me on proper procedure, demonstrated how to un-jam the office copier and encouraged me when I appeared over my head.

Before the opening bell on my first full day, I flashed upon my first day as a student-teacher at Soldotna High 30 years earlier, when I was informed by a indignant front-row junior, frustrated to see me in command, rather than the well-liked veteran I was replacing: "I didn't sign up for YOU."

This time — even though students frequently asked me when their real teacher was coming back — my time in Dillingham Middle School went smoothly. And I have no regrets about breaking my vow, in spite of some clear reminders of what drove me to retirement in the first place.

Accustomed to dealing with students in their last years of high school, I struggled early to produce lessons for much younger pupils. One lesson in figurative language ended with students staring blankly, puzzled by an assignment I thought they would find "fun."

I also struggled because I had stepped into the middle of the academic year and didn't know the students. As one particularly helpful colleague informed me, about the time I would finally know these students well and find my stride in teaching them, it would be time for me to go.

She was right.

In the end, I hope I taught the sixth-grade class (28 strong) a few things of value, but I know for certain that I learned much. As with my tenure as a clerk in the Dillingham Post Office, my time as a sub taught me volumes about the community in which I live.

On a surface level, I learned that in the Dillingham City School District, salmon is part of the lunch menu every Friday. I learned that, although football may be king in Southcentral Alaska, basketball and wrestling are kings in the Bush. I learned that Beaver Roundup is more fun when I know more of the families involved, and that student participation in Native Youth Olympics is highly esteemed and a legitimate excuse to miss a few days of school.

And I also learned that — after years of central Kenai Peninsula mascots mostly named for Lower 48 influences (Panthers, Stars, Bulldogs and Kardinals) — I appreciate the greater Alaska authenticity of many Bush mascots: Wolverines, Eagles, Huskies, Lynx, Malemutes and Aklaqs (brown bears).

More importantly, I was reminded of the interconnectedness of small, remote communities — how many brothers and sisters and cousins inhabit the same school or hail from the same neighborhoods. I saw that my students, while outwardly directed by the Internet and other modern conveniences, are also inwardly directed by family ties, fishing and traditional ways of living.

Love of learning intact

Despite the occasional frustrations with course content, unsubmitted schoolwork or fidgety, overly talkative pre-teens, I think I'll reflect fondly on my time spent with the students themselves. They're a good bunch, kids who still like to learn, are still inquisitive and love to have fun.

During my 20 years in Kenai Peninsula classrooms, I taught about 2,000 students, attended 40 parent-teacher conferences (plus more in-service days and faculty meetings than I care to contemplate), read John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" and William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" at least 40 times each, attended 20 commencement ceremonies, taught at least 15 different courses and lived the equivalent of a decade and a half of my life in Room B213 of Skyview High School.

Some of that experience prepared me for eight weeks at Dillingham Middle School. Some did not.

Teaching may involve planning, but much of it is instinctive, done on the fly or by the seat of one's pants. Teaching Dillingham's sixth-graders was every bit of that, both exhilarating and exhausting.

It was fun, but I'm ready for retirement.

Clark Fair, a Kenai Peninsula resident for more than 50 years, is a lifetime Alaskan now living in Dillingham.