College of Education alumna's teaching role in Alaska anything but traditional

By Jim Carlson
January 25, 2016

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — From the outside looking in, Stephanie Gursky’s classroom appears to be like any other, complete with technology, whiteboards and bulletin boards designed with the affection that an elementary teacher typically displays to appeal to the youthful eyes that gaze at it.

But from the inside looking out, the picture that Gursky paints in the next thousand words is polar opposite from any traditional teaching setting you might envision — with polar being the overriding word.

Gursky, a 2014 curriculum and instruction graduate from Penn State’s College of Education, is employed by the Lower Kuskokwim School District in Napakiak, Alaska, which is about 400 miles west of Anchorage. Napakiak in the winter is a village that is accessible only by boat, plane or driving on a frozen river.

From Palmerton, Pennsylvania, in Carbon County, Gursky was hired in May 2014 before she even walked in Bryce Jordan Center commencement ceremonies. The Lower Kuskokwim School District attended the Penn State job fair two months earlier and Gursky signed up for an interview.

The initial interview went well, she said, as did a follow-up with an assistant superintendent.

When she spoke with her school’s principal, two questions in particular she probably never thought she’d have to ask were: “Will I have to chop my own wood to start a fire?’’ and “Will I have running water?’’

Gursky is not the only Nittany Lion teaching in the great state of Alaska. She knows of two other Penn Staters in her district — although one had to leave because of state certification problems — and seven others in the district are from Pennsylvania. School-district recruiters routinely come to Penn State and elsewhere in the state to attempt to attract teachers.

“My principal has said this more than once: ‘All great teachers I’ve seen are from Pennsylvania. We should only hire teachers from Pennsylvania; they know what they are doing,’’’ Gursky said.

The Lake and Peninsula School District, for example, in King Salmon, Alaska, has several Penn State graduates in its district, according to superintendent Ty Mase. Mase said his district has not recruited at Penn State in the past five or six years but requested to speak with College of Education officials about that when responding to an email about this story.

Mase’s district geographically is estimated to be about the size of West Virginia, and none of its school sites can be reached by roadway — all transportation is by boat or small planes. His district contains three national parks, two national wildlife refuges and a number of the state’s 12,000 rivers.

Once you locate Gursky’s village of Napakiak, there isn’t much else around. “I definitely am not in the traditional teaching role,’’ said Gursky, who came out of the Professional Development School (PDS) program involving the College of Education and State College Area School District.

“I can’t drive to Wal-Mart or go see a movie. My students come from rough family situations and sometimes don’t know if they will have a warm place to sleep at night. In Alaska, that is a very important part of their life because the temperatures are in the negatives for the majority of the winter.’’

Her students, she said, speak broken English, listing examples of them saying, “I go store,’’ instead of “I am going to the store,’’ and “Me see,’’ instead of “Let me see.’’ They also do not speak their own native language of Yupik fluently, she said.

“They are caught in between two languages that they can’t speak fluently,’’ Gursky said. “This makes teaching them to read and write very challenging. My school is a Title I school and every single student receives free breakfast and lunch every day.’’

Gursky has 18 second- and third-grade students in a school of 110 students that ranges from pre-K all the way to grade 12. That’s in a village of about 350 people. “Many of my students are low-achieving and come from broken households,’’ she said. “The village is ‘dry,’ which means alcohol cannot be purchased, sold or consumed. However, there is a very large problem with alcoholism. Many of my students have family members in their homes that drink into all hours of the night.’’

Gursky said sexual abuse also is a problem in the area. “The students go through so much at such a young age,’’ she said. “Depression and suicide are very real. I worked with a man last year who got drunk and killed himself. There aren’t many jobs available in the small village. Some parents work at the store, post office or the tribal office of the village.

“Many of them get assistance from the government. Many also live a subsistence lifestyle. They hunt or fish for their food and will stock up their freezer for the winter. Food is very expensive. A bag of potato chips is $10 and a gallon of milk (if you have access to it) is $9.’’

Travel can be a challenge, too. When an impending weather change threatened her Christmas journey to Pennsylvania in December, she left Napakiak on a 45-minute, uncovered snow machine jammed in with two other teachers and their luggage en route to an airport in Bethel. She was in her hometown of Palmerton within 12 hours; it took 28 hours to get back, and school was on a delayed start because many teachers had travel difficulties.

While she was on her holiday break, she got a call from her principal, who informed her that the roof had blown off her residence. But a maintenance man had repairs completed on her return.

The picture Gursky has painted isn’t meant to be one of gloom. “It’s a different way of life here,’’ she said, adding that many of her weekends are spent at student sport tournaments such as volleyball or basketball in order for the teachers to have something to do. “Some teachers will host a game night or movie night or invite others over for dinner,’’ she said.

“I usually spend much of my time on the weekend in the classroom. I will clean, organize, write lesson plans or just relax. I don’t have internet or cable television at my house, so I rely on the school for the Wi-Fi.

“(But) I’m glad that I took the opportunity to go outside of my comfort zone and challenge myself to become a better teacher. Immersing yourself in a new culture is rewarding. You see and understand so much more than if you were to only visit.

“I would encourage anyone who is a little adventurous and wants a new experience to give it a try. I will never regret taking an opportunity where I can grow professionally and personally.’’

That spirit was instilled at Penn State. “One thing that Penn State gave me the opportunity to do was to go outside of my comfort zone,’’ Gursky said. “I was able to take advantage of opportunities and try new things without the worry of being judged or failing. I was challenged at Penn State, and I will always appreciate that.

“I don’t believe you can grow without being challenged. The challenge was one of the best parts of PDS and Penn State. It helped make me the person and teacher I am today. I’m proud to be a Penn Stater. I couldn’t imagine attending college anywhere else and being as successful as I am today,’’ she said.

It was never an option at Penn State to quit or give up because of the academic workload, she said.

“I had to persevere through all the work, and that is what I need to do every single day as a teacher,’’ Gursky said. “The students count on me. For some students I am the only constant, positive thing in their life that they can depend on.

“To me, that’s very significant.’’

  • Gursky

    Stephanie Gursky, a 2014 Penn State College of Education graduate, leads an elementary class in Napakiak, Alaska.

    IMAGE: Penn State
Last Updated February 08, 2016