by Maureen Benoit
Kipnuk is a special place to live. This small village of about 700 people on the southwest coast of Alaska is located on tundra with access to major waterways like the Kuskokwim River, the Kuguklik River, and 4 miles from the Bering Sea.
Kipnuk is in an extremely remote area accessible only by plane. We have no road system to connect us to any other village or city. In the winter, we use snowmobiles to travel up river once things have frozen enough. We have no roads in the village, and all of our transportation around the village and surrounding areas is on foot, by boat, four-wheeler, or snow machine.
I work for the Lower Kuskokwim School District, which is the largest rural school district in the state and our area spans a distance about the size of the state of West Virginia. I teach in a dual language kindergarten classroom at Chief Paul Memorial School and am the English teacher in the class, and my co-teacher teaches Social Studies and Science in the native language of Yugtun. I have 20 students in my classroom this year, one of the largest classes that has ever come into our school. We have just over 200 students total in our school.
There are many challenges for the families and children here. Many of my children have a parent or caregiver who has been affected by a drug or alcohol addiction, and there is little access to contraceptives. Generally speaking, education is not highly valued partly because of the traditions that the Yup’ik people value (hunting, fishing, and subsistence lifestyle) as well as a history of oppression by missionaries and religious groups who removed children from their homes and families and forced the Yup’ik people to live in a westernized lifestyle under threat of death, injury, or arrest. Coupled with a tuberculosis outbreak that wiped out a significant portion of the Yup’ik population and the introduction of alcohol and drugs by missionaries, there can at times be very little trust and respect given to teachers, who are outsiders, by students and their families. Because of all these complex factors, some of our students and families can be challenging to work with and help, and as a result educators are always attending new trainings and trying to involve ourselves in the community to learn how to serve them better, and to deepen our relationships with the land and people. Many of our students just need to know that someone loves and cares about them, while also being firm and showing them how to set and stick to boundaries.
I am passionate about providing resources for my classroom and encouraging my students to develop a love of learning while connecting their heritage and language into everything we do. Many of them do not have access to things like books, pencils, workbooks, internet/computers/ipads at home. We use what we can, and try to take as many field trips to the tundra as possible. Right now, I am working with another teacher in the school who is developing our first Yupik life skills class to help connect the children to their heritage through traditional activities and crafts such as qaspeq making, preparing native foods, and participating in subsistence activities like berry picking.
I chose to pursue my degree in education at Goddard because I was interested in having a non-traditional learning experience on my own terms, where I could experiment with topics that I otherwise would have been glossing over in a traditional college.
Many of the skills I learned at Goddard from my advisors and peers are still things I use today in my teaching practices; non-violent communication, restorative practices, mindfulness and meditation, and incorporating activities and learning styles of diverse and multicultural students.
Goddard prepared me well in handling communication between myself and families about the classroom, and the importance of involving families in decision making and instructional activities, as well as using the experiences and traditions people have to build meaningful learning experiences.
Goddard’s Education Program is extremely unique in how it allows students to build their program based on their interests, whether they are going for a structured degree and certification or non-certification.
My time at Goddard helped me to find myself, and discover the type of teacher I am and can be.
Maureen Benoit is a Goddard graduate from the MA in Education program.
If you’re ready to answer the call to education, find out more about Goddard’s BA and MA degrees in Education. The low-residency programs offer students a path towards gaining teaching or student counseling certification along with a degree while still working in your community. Begin your journey today at https://www.goddard.edu/academics/bachelor-arts-education/