2020 education graduate finds 'amazing' experience teaching in Alaska

Jim Carlson
January 26, 2021

It happened so fast and she ended up so far away but, so far, the first teaching job for 2020 College of Education graduate Anais Biesecker has been so good.

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College of Education graduate Anais Biesecker found her first classroom and teaching job in Barrow, Alaska, a town also known as Utqiagvik, the northernmost town in the United States.

IMAGE: Provided

A secondary education social studies major with a minor in history, Biesecker started job-hunting last spring and found that teaching jobs weren’t quite as prevalent as usual because of the havoc wreaked by COVID-19 in schools nationwide.

Her student teaching supervisor, Al D’Ambrosia, an instructor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction field experiences, mentioned that people were finding jobs in Alaska. “So, I decided to take a look and see what was out there,” Biesecker said. 

Eighteen days after scanning the Alaska Teacher Placement website, Biesecker was in Utqiaġvik, Alaska, nearly 3,500 miles away from her McSherrystown home in Adams County. 

“I read the listing and thought, why not. They probably weren't going to contact me and at least I could say that I had tried. But they did, the next day, too,” Biesecker said. “I applied on a Friday and had the job by Sunday afternoon. It was surreal. I then had about 18 days to get everything together from the day I found out to the day I left for Alaska.”

Utqiaġvik, like just about any other locale in the world, wasn’t immune from coronavirus and virtual learning had been implemented. But Biesecker had navigated that style of teaching when her student teaching experience at Tyrone Area Middle School was switched to remote learning from in-person instruction in early March. 

“I couldn't be more grateful for my mentor teacher and [College of Education] supervisors who did so much to help me during this time, to help me get where I am now,” she said. “I can't say this is the ideal first year of teaching I imagined but it is definitely a story I'll be able to tell down the road.

“I am teaching virtually in a way no one a year ago could have imagined. But it is so worth it. Seeing those ‘a-ha moments’ in your students, even over Zoom, is my favorite part of teaching. I am so glad to have chosen to become a teacher.”

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The high school in Barrow, Alaska, a town also known as Utqiagvik, is Anais Biesecker's place of employment.

IMAGE: Provided

The town of Utqiaġvik also is known as Barrow and Biesecker teaches at Barrow High School. She taught two sections of Alaska Studies and U.S. Government in the first quarter and North Slope Government and North Slope History the second quarter. There are 300 students at the high school and she teaches about 22% of them each quarter.

“So, three-quarters of the classes are Alaska specific,” she explained. “In those three classes we do teach about the Iñupiat, the Native Alaskan people from this area. Overall, it has been quite interesting and different so far, but I have enjoyed being able to learn all about my new home. Plus, the best way to learn something new is to teach it.”

First, Biesecker had to learn how to get to Utqiaġvik. Because of the pandemic, the number of available flights decreased, and it took her 24 hours to get from Washington, D.C., to Seattle; Seattle to Anchorage; and Anchorage to Utqiaġvik. 

She did return to southern Pennsylvania for a holiday break from Dec. 12-Jan. 5. “The first two weeks of school after the holiday break (were) taught through distance learning,” Biesecker said. “This was to try and quell the spread of the virus after break, while also allowing people to take the necessary time to quarantine after as well.”

The next major adjustment was to the lack of sunshine and the overall climate. The town is surrounded on three sides by the Arctic Ocean, anything above zero in the winter is a heat wave (although only about 38 inches of snow falls per year), wind speeds between 12 and 14 mph are a daily staple and there is virtually no sunshine from Nov. 18-Jan. 23.

Other than that … paradise.

“I have definitely had to invest in some good winter gear. I have a whole bag of hats, gloves and scarves by my door so I don't forget them when I leave,” Biesecker said.

“It has taken a bit to get used to but it really isn't as bad as you think. As long as you take a good amount of Vitamin D supplements, you really don't feel the effects too much. It mostly just makes getting out of bed a bit harder in the morning, as it feels like you are just waking up by accident in the middle of the night.”

The town has a population of just under 4,500 and parents of Biesecker’s students are employed by the borough, the school district or the oil industry, in that order, she said.

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Anais Biesecker's classroom in Barrow, Alaska, has been mostly empty during the school year because of COVID-19 concerns.

IMAGE: Provided

Decent salaries are of paramount importance when you examine prices of groceries; Biesecker estimated that items are about 40% to 60% more expensive, basically because of a sometimes-sluggish supply chain to Utqiaġvik, which is the northernmost town in the United States.

She offered these examples:

·      12 pack soda: $15.99;

·      Jug of orange juice: $9;

·      72 pack of brand-name laundry pods: $40.19;

·      Dozen eggs: $4;

·      Loaf of bread: $9;

·      Bottled ice coffee: $4;

·      Brand-name ice cream (when it’s in stock): $9 per pint.

“I have to say, you get kind of used to the prices; I don't really notice it as much,” Biesecker said.

Many of her students work, as well, whether it’s in local grocery stores or fast-food restaurants. As for extra-curriculars, there are sports for the students, but …

“With the pandemic, and our school being completely distanced since the very beginning, the only sport that was available this fall was cross country, which completed a few virtual meets during its season,” Biesecker said. “There are normally other sports and programs that occur; they have just been put on pause for this year. 

“That requires flying the whole team to and from the school they are visiting, since there are no real roads connecting us to the rest of Alaska. This means that just one game takes about three days, including travel time. The most popular sport here is basketball, but we do have other sports like volleyball and football.”

Academically, North Slope High School is a 1:1 device school. “Each student has a Macbook Air,” Biesecker said. “This is quite convenient and has made distance learning a bit easier.” Internet at the school is functional; internet at her home is “meh,” as she described it.

Her descriptions of her new living area are just that — descriptions; there are no complaints.

“I am quite pleased with my site choice for my first teaching position,” she said. “It allowed me to firmly step into adulthood, in a way I probably would not have done if I had gotten a job near or in my home state of Pennsylvania. I love it in Alaska. The people are kind and it's beautiful here. 

“I live a five-minute walk to the beach, where you can find the most interesting looking rocks. I am in a privileged position to have a job I truly enjoy during this very turbulent time. I have very little to complain about, and for that I am grateful.”

Better yet, she would recommend that others follow her northward.

“Overall, I would say that anyone thinking of applying to a job in Alaska should take that leap and do it,” Biesecker said. “You do get a bit homesick sometimes, but it's an amazing experience nonetheless. 

“I have been able to grow as an individual and an educator so much during this time. To me, it has been worth it. I can see myself staying up here for quite a while.”

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Last Updated January 27, 2021