Kaity Sparks, who will be teaching seventh and eighth grade English at St. James Middle/Senior High School this year, embodies the notion that a school district sometimes needs to search far and wide for the best candidate--Sparks spent the last three years teaching in Alaska!
Sparks was born and raised in Prineville, Ore, a town “similar to St. James” that in recent years has grown into a suburb of Bend, Ore., and she double-majored in English literature and education at Oregon State University in Corvallis. Following graduation, she went to a job fair, noticed myriad openings in Alaska, and--by nature an adventurer--Sparks, who has the phrases “Know thyself” and “There’s more to life than just being alive” tattooed in Latin on her arm and an owl her Alaskan students named Henry on her leg, thought, “How often can you say you worked in a town without roads?”
So began her tenure in Kotlik, Alaska--a small isolated village of 600 catering mostly to the native Yupik peoples-- located due south across a bay from Nome. Everything, from food to mail, flew in and out of the village.
“Mail takes forever, and food is so expensive,” she said. Food also is quick to run out, and ice cream is available only in winter, lest it melt in transit.
There is virtually no business, other than two grocery stores--one on each end of the town--and a post office, she said. Nearly all the citizens are natives, with the few white people all being teachers.
Though the native peoples believe it’s important to have a school, and “they appreciate you’re there teaching,” there is also resistance to Western education, Sparks said. Some feel those at the school “are trying to kill their culture” by teaching Western ways, and there’s simply an assumption that whites are racist against the natives.
It’s a place of little employment opportunities and extreme poverty--”nobody is rich”--with the citizens hunting for their food, she said. In summer, it’s fish, birds are hunted in spring, seals are on the docket in fall, and moose are in the crosshairs in winter--whales are also a catch during migration season, and beavers are trapped when possible.
(For those interested, moose “is fantastic, really lean,” while seal “is oily and not very good,” Sparks said. Boiled whale blubber “is like eating a bouncy ball,” but whale steaks “are really good.”)
Because it’s a hunting culture, there was a natural inclination to protect “a single white female” like Sparks, she said. This led to generosity--”people were always bringing me food, like moose legs”--but it also could be tiresome, because “they’re always trying to fix you up.”
Sparks said she “really enjoyed” the native dances, however. Like the pow-wows she grew up attending, “it’s fun to watch, and the kids get really into it, explaining the stories to you.”
Contrary to popular belief, Alaska--at least the central western location Sparks was in--doesn’t receive much snow. “We had maybe a foot of snow last year,” although it does rain frequently.
It’s also not much colder than Minnesota, although there’s no humidity, and the thermometer rarely breaks 60, even in the summer, she said. Of course, Sparks spent her summers home in Oregon with family, or, traveling, like backpacking through Europe.
Because going anywhere outside the village required flying--and expensive flying, at that--Sparks flew in at the start of the school year, flew home for Christmas, flew back after, and then didn’t leave again until summer, she said. “I lived 26 steps from school, but it’s two planes and a cab ride just to get to a hospital.”
“I missed my family, and just being able to go out, to movies or to dinners,” Sparks said. “Everything is so costly.”
One aspect of Alaska most are aware of concerns the white nights of summer and near 24-hour darkness in winter, and Sparks said it’s a major adjustment. In winter, the sun is out only from 10 or 11 a.m. until 3 p.m., and in summer, there’s only a few hours of darkness.
The near-constant light is tough on a teacher, “because kids don’t want to go to bed,” she said. With “kids who already don’t want to be there, them being tired on top of it” becomes a tremendous struggle for attention.
Indeed, since most students will never leave that town, and there are very few opportunities there, many students have a “Why do I need a diploma?” attitude, Sparks said. Truancy is rampant, with numerous students showing up only once every 10 days--”you only get dropped after missing 10 consecutive days.”
Often, students are reading several levels below their actual grade, the teen pregnancy rate is startling high, marijuana is popular, and domestic violence is unfortunately prevalent. As someone who can’t help but grow close to her students, “it can be very discouraging.”
“You can only see your students get beat on so much,” Sparks said. “Some of them are so smart, it’s so sad.”
Knowing what she does now, Sparks said she would still teach in Alaska, but she would not have stayed the third year. “The last year was rough, but I didn’t want to leave my kids--you get attached.”
Through it all, she at least had her trusty chocolate lab, Mia, who came into her care following her freshman year of college. Mia made the trip from Oregon to Alaska, and she’s also come to St. James, as Sparks and her pet moved into a home here in July.
On one hand, the paucity of activity in Kotlik was beneficial for Sparks, because she could devote all her time to work. “There’s not much else to do.”
She did numerous after-school activities, like coaching cheerleading and advising student council, to occupy herself and to keep her students busy, she said. And, of course, “I read a ton of books.”
With a mother as a teacher, Sparks “was a very early reader” who “always had a book” and was “in my little space,” she said. With books, “you get to be somewhere else and be somebody else.”
“You can’t do anything if you can’t read,” Sparks said. “Even if you don’t love reading, I always tell my students, ‘everyone can find at least one book they love.’”
She loves expressing that passion for reading to her students. Growing up, “my favorite part of the year was always helping my mom set up her classroom.”
Sparks is also looking forward to teaching only two grades in St. James as opposed to the entire English department in Alaska, said Karla Beck, the building’s principal. “She is anxious to dig deeper in the middle school curriculum and content.”
While in St. James, Sparks plans to pursue a master’s in English literature from Minnesota State University-Mankato, with a focus on reading. “We need better reading curriculum everywhere.”
Also in her future is a trip to Costa Rica to see the rain forest and her favorite animal, the three-toed sloth. “They barely move, algae grow on them, their babies cling to them--they’re so adorable!”
(The sloth is the world's slowest mammal, according to National Geographic. However, the algae that grows on them gives sloths a greenish tint that is useful camouflage in the trees of its Central and South American rain forest home--three-toed sloths “also have an advantage that few other mammals possess,” an “extra neck vertebrae that allows them to turn their heads some 270 degrees.”)
Costa Rica wouldn’t be her first international traveling experience; she’s been to Norway multiple times, and she backpacked through Europe, solo, hitting eight countries, from Ireland to Norway. “The Cliffs of Moher in Ireland are beautiful, I’d spend more time in Ireland if I ever went back.”
She also loved London, and England as a whole, especially seeing homes of famed writers, but had an “odd” experience in the Netherlands. Departing her bus, she was unable to locate her hostel, which led to her wandering around Amsterdam’s infamous Red Light district.
Sparks was impressed with Beck and the teachers she spoke with during her interview process, who were all “smart, welcoming, and asked good questions,” and she’s encouraged by the ongoing building renovations. “The school is great [...] I did my research.”
Beck said, “Sparks will bring energy to our staff, something interview teams are always looking for during the interview process.”
“She has worked in a non-traditional setting and with various students and abilities,” and “that experience will translate well into working in our multi-cultural and multi-economic demographics,” Beck added. “Having taught in a more isolated location in Alaska, Sparks is accustomed to being in a small school where teachers wear various hats and have to take on responsibilities beyond the classroom.”
Ryan Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @randerson_ryan