The Unalaska City School District opened its doors to students once again this month. And along with new mask-wearing, social distancing, and hand-washing measures, the district has welcomed six new teachers.
When I visited his classroom last week, Dan Smith, the new junior high English teacher in Unalaska recited what sounded like a short poem. "Pedaling makes wheels and mind turn," he said. He was reading a six-word memoir he had written for his students. It was an assignment he started last week, and one he said he hopes will help students get comfortable with writing by focusing on something they know well: themselves.
"We were talking about how if I'm biking, it's not just my wheels turning, but sometimes that helps me think too, so my mind is also turning," explained Smith. "And then I was encouraging them to do that for themselves—to tell me something about you, but go a little deeper too, but you only have six words to do it. That's the challenge."
In Smith's six words, he cleverly connects his hobbies and his profession. He's an avid biker and outdoorsman, but as an English teacher, it's no surprise that he also has a passion for the written word.
"I've always had an interest in English," said Smith. "I've always been a writer and a reader. But writing was kind of what steered my passion towards English. I studied English in college, and since then, I've always worked around education. I worked in an outdoor science school in California. I worked in the Anchorage School District as a paraprofessional. And so it just seemed more and more natural to head towards being a certified teacher."
This is Smith's second year as a certified teacher. Last school year he and his wife Teresa Worthy—who is also a new teacher in Unalaska—taught in Teller, which is a remote coastal village about 70 miles northwest of Nome.
Last year, he was enrolled in a University of Alaska Southeast master's program to get his teaching credentials while he was teaching in Teller. And he said despite his recent training, planning and starting this school year has been a unique challenge for him.
"You have to think of everything in a different way," said Smith. "So much of my time in grad school was getting students to talk to each other, [to do] group work—like social learning—things like that. And now we have to keep students six feet apart from each other at all times. And even just having conversations is tough."
But Smith said the teachers in the district are stepping up to the challenge, and he appreciates their willingness to collaborate and work together to provide students with an engaging but safe learning environment. Overall, Smith said he is happy to be in Unalaska as he learns how to teach during a pandemic.
"I feel like it's a really good spot to grow as a teacher, it was another main motivation in [moving] here," said Smith. "I felt like it was a school, a community where I can really come into my own [in] teaching. I think as an English teacher here, there's a lot of freedom to try different things, kind of find my niche, find what works, and what doesn't—what I like, what I don't like."
Originally hailing from Michigan, Smith said he imagines he will miss the distinct changing of seasons and the drastic shifts of colors in the trees. And while he is enjoying biking around the island, he said it will be tough missing out on the biking he did last year in Teller, across cliffs and over sea ice. For now, though, Smith said he's content and that Unalaska's got everything he needs—from its welcoming community to its miles of tundra, perfect for exploring.