Friday, September 7, 2012

The New Story

For all of you who don’t already know, I have made quite a change and it’s more than just the title of this blog. I have moved from Alaska to Abu Dhabi. Why? Well, here it is. Teaching in an Alaskan village is hard. Don’t ever let anyone tell you differently. It was more challenging, but also more rewarding, than most teaching assignments in the Lower 48. However, there are times when the challenges outweigh the rewards. I had one of those days in October. I came home frustrated and convinced that Starbucks was a viable career move. My roommate thought I was being a bit hasty and suggested a change of scenery for the next year. She suggested I apply with TeachAway, a hiring firm placing Western teachers all over the globe. In November, I completed a prescreening interview for multiple areas. Apparently, they found me sufficient and passed on my information to several representatives. I heard nothing and assumed nobody wanted to hire me. I had several other irons in the fire: Anchorage, Ohio, the Virgin Islands (my mom’s top pick!), and the Gulf Coast. However, in February, I got a call asking me to come to Seattle for a job fair that weekend. I declined as I had other obligations, and instead arranged a Skype interview with a school in Abu Dhabi. Now, in all honesty, I had no idea where Abu Dhabi was outside of it being somewhere in the Middle East. The most information I had about it came from the movie Sex and the City 2 which wasn’t even filmed in Abu Dhabi! When I was offered a position, I researched the area, called friends and family for input, and thought A LOT about it. In the end, I accepted the position of Lead English Teacher at a selective private academy. You might wonder what in the world would lead a smart, young American woman to give up all the glamour of Eek, Alaska, to move to one of the hottest places on Earth! For me there were several reasons. First, it was a step up on the career ladder. It would have taken me a lot longer to become lead teacher of a department back in the states (I guess technically I was the lead teacher in Eek, but I was the ONLY English teacher so it wasn’t quite the same). Secondly, I’ve never lived in a huge city. The biggest town I’ve lived in was Tiffin, Ohio. I wanted to give city life a try and see how it suited me. Finally, this is an area the is becoming a major player on the world stage and it’s exciting to be a part of it! So, on August 22 I took my two suitcases packed with clothes, shoes, and supplies to the Canton-Akron airport and flew from there to Chicago to Frankfurt, Germany, and into Abu Dhabi.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Trash Can Incident

First of all, I'm sorry for being absent for, evidently, 8 months!

You may be asking yourself, what was a big enough incident that would encourage to come back to blogging? The answer? A trash can. For two years, my roommate and I have been using a kitty litter bucket as a trash can. A few weeks ago, I went to Anchorage for a workshop. My roomie and I decided I needed to pick up a trash can. Like many things up here, it was more of an adventure than it should have been.

It started out that I trekked in about a foot of snow from my hotel in Midtown Anchorage to Fred Meyer; it was about two blocks. I picked up supplies: pasta, honey, nail polish remover (with acetone which is unavailable in my neck of the woods), and coffee among other things. Then, I went to the trash can section and found a very nice 13 gallon kitchen trash can for only $15.99 which is half the price of the ones in Bethel.

After I paid for my goods, I tried to call a cab. No luck. Finally, I stopped at the customer service desk and asked for a cab. Evidently, the cab company I called was too busy. I went outside to wait for the cab. I started unloading my groceries and packing them inside the trash can. People walked by me looking at me oddly. I couldn't figure out why. Then, it occurred to me, that in Anchorage people don't often have the need to pack groceries in a trash can. Finally, the cab arrived and I went back to the hotel.

I checked out of the hotel and headed to the airport. I then had to figure out how to carry/pull my suitcase and the trash can and my carry-on. I ended up balancing the trash can on top of my suitcase and rolling both of them.

I walked up to the check-in counter for Alaska Airlines. Unlike at Fred Meyer, nobody looked at me funny for having a trash can filled with groceries. That's probably because Alaska Airlines checks in bush residents all the time who would travel with their food from Anchorage to their village. However, I had to identify it. I had to write "Schalk, Teacher Housing, Eek, AK 99578" on the side.

By the time I reached Bethel and got my trash can back, it was covered in much more tape and had been inspected by TSA.

Despite the trouble and hassle, my roomie and I are happy that we have a normal sized trash can in our apartment. And, more importantly, there will forever be a trash can in Apartment 2B that has my name plastered on the side.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Benefit of a Small School

As I’m writing this I’ve just left a site inservice. Here in Eek we have several days of site or district wide inservices. We spent much of the afternoon discussing our at-risk students and how we as a staff can help them. The students ranged in ages across the school. This brings me to my topic for today- the benefit of small schools.

I taught for five years at a traditional middle school in Ohio. We had grades 6-8 with about 500 students. Now, at Eek School, we have grades K-12 with about 85 students. I’m responsible for 31 students in grades 7-12. I grew up in a small school, but it was mammoth compared to this school. I thought when I first came here that this must be extremely annoying for the students and the staff. For instance, if Bobby is being a brat one day, then, in Ohio, I only had to have him in class for 50 minutes. Here, I also have him for 50 minutes, but I teach that group 2-3 times a day for different classes. While the above situation can be true, the benefits of a small school far outweigh the negative.

My first success story is that of Billy (obviously not his real name). Billy has been academically unsuccessful for years. As a staff, we thought maybe he would do better with a smaller class size. Keep in mind that our classes only have about 12-15 students in general. So, Billy’s schedule has been switched to be with a teacher and only one other student or no other students for most of the day. His academic tasks and social behavior have completely changed for the better. Some of you who are not involved in education might wonder why this was such a big achievement. I mean we simply did what was best for the student, right? But, in most schools, moving a student’s schedule is a huge issue due to staffing problems. Why could we do this? Because we have a small school, and we’re able to move schedules without disrupting a lot of people’s schedules.

Teachers know almost every student in K-12 by his/her first name. In fact, we often sub for one another in order to let people go to the health clinic, chaperone athletic teams, and help out where needed.

Students also benefit from having a small school. If a kindergarten student is misbehaving or crying, one of the most effective strategies is to call the high school room (me) and ask for the student’s older sibling to come help. Imagine the embarrassment if instead of the principal coming, it was your older brother! This is a strategy we generally only have to employ once or twice.

Small schools are something that we don’t see much in the Lower 48. However, it’s something that perhaps we need to think more about. What exactly are we getting from these 1,000+ student schools? At what point does the value of a child’s education outweigh that of the taxpayers’ protestations?

Monday, December 20, 2010

The 12 Travel Troubles of Erin Schalk

I’m always so excited to be coming home that I often forget how much trouble traveling can be. Although I’ve done the cross country trek half a dozen times now, this trip was the worst. Read on for my take on a classic Christmas song.

The 12 Travel Troubles of Erin Schalk

1- Crazy Cat Lady. I decided not to bring Portia home this time. The trip is hard on her, and it would be super expensive. So, I decided to board her in Anchorage. She’s staying at a place with a lady who refers to herself as The Crazy Cat Lady. I met her in baggage claim in the Anchorage airport. She gave me a clipboard with four pages of paperwork. When I finished filling it out, I took it to her and she had covered Portia in cat nip. It was quite a site.

2- Delayed Flights. The charter we had scheduled was supposed to come in at 5:00 Friday. However, I got a call saying the weather might go down and we should come earlier. After much rearranging, we managed to arrange to come in at 3:00 to Bethel. I called the charter office and they said they’d come as soon as they could. They came at 4:45. Seriously? We were supposed to leave at 5:00. Oh well. The second time was in Bethel. I was suppose to leave at 2:30 PM and the flight was cancelled due to weather.

3- Times I went through security. Twice in Bethel, once in Anchorage. There were no full body scanners thankfully.

4- bags I schlepped back and forth from the Bethel airport. One was checked, two carry-ons, and a cat.

5- Weather changes that affected flights. Two times in Eek and three times in Bethel. The fog would go up and down and up and down. Very frustrating.

6- Boarding Passes. Between the number of flights and the Bethel trip being cancelled then rebooked, then seats changed, I ended up with six passes.

7- Times at the baggage office in the Cleveland airport. In Bethel, I asked for my bag to go through Cleveland. However, the agent there coded it wrong. Instead of being on my United flight with me, it went on a Continental flight to Cleveland. So, of course, it wasn’t there when I was. After going back and forth between the two offices it finally got figured out where my bag was and who was responsible for getting it to me. Let me just say that United does not top my list of great airlines to travel. But, I got my bag, so it all turned out ok.

8- flights I’m associated with. 1 Grant Aviation from Eek to Bethel. Three Alaska Airlines flights, two from Bethel to Anchorage and one from Anchorage to Chicago. One US Airways flight from Chicago to Columbus. One United flight from Chicago to Cleveland (the one I was actually on). Two Continental flights (one that my bag was supposed to be on and the one my bag was actually on).

9- Amount of money I paid in Chicago O’Hare airport for a cup of coffee and an apple.

10- Amount of dollars I paid for lunch for my brother and I at Taco Bell. My first meal back in Ohio.

11- Calls or texts to my mom telling her of flight situations.

12- Drinks. Number of drinks I consumed between leaving Eek and arriving in Uhrichsville.

Although there were a few bumps in the road, I am so happy to be home and see my family.

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 3, 2010

You Know You're A Teacher in Bush Alaska. . .

I'd like to thank all of my friends who contributed to this. It was hilarious to compile, and I'm sure there will be many more. Enjoy!

You know you're a teacher in bush Alaska when. . .

1. Your boss comes in wearing a hair net and carrying pancake syrup and asks if you have any more syrup at your house because the school ran out.
2. A student calls you an hour before school to ask if she can come in to shower.
3. A student leaves a bloody caribou head on your porch, and you take it as a compliment.
4. Everyone you know is waiting for the mail plane to see what Netflixs came in.
5. You go to the post office and the clerk gives you the mail for all of your friends along with yours.
6. You go to the store to get bread, eggs and butter and they don't have any.
7. The pilot puts 3 quarts of oil in the plane and says, "Hurry up, let's go"
8. When landing at a village airstrip, you look out the side window straight down the runway,
9. A snow machine is to ride on, not to make snow with
10. A line from a student’s poem reads, “I ride my mother. . .” and it means he gave her a ride to work
11. A drop in the bucket has a whole other meaning
12. You sit around in a hot box naked with a bunch of women you barely know and think, “This is great!”
13. You wish the temperature would just drop to 0, snow a few feet, freeze everything, and be done with it already!
14. Pizza has a $30 delivery fee
15. 6 weeks is reasonable delivery time for UPS and FedEx
16. You see a student walking on the school’s playground carrying a rifle and you’re not worried, but say “Good Hunting!”
17. Although you live by Alaska Standard Time your cable is mixture of Eastern Standard Time and Pacific Time
18. A gallon of water is twice as expensive as a gallon of gas
19. A date includes going to the jail as an important landmark
20. Your school e-mail list includes guns for sale
21. The best entertainment in town is a band called the Squeeky Eeks
22. There are more dogs in the village than people, but only one cat
23. And finally, you know you’re a teacher in Bush Alaska when you have to ask the clerk to go behind the counter for mouthwash!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Big Weekend That Wasn't

Well, I suppose it's official that the holidays are upon us. But, up here, it still seems like a distant dream. Corny, but true. I had intended to go to Homer, Alaska, with my friend Segue. She and I had made plane reservations to go to Homer on Thursday evening. We were spending Thanksgiving proper in Anchorage, eating at a nice restaurant, staying in a nice hotel, and seeing a movie. Then, we were on to Homer to walk in snowshoes, go to a spa, see another movie, eat out, and, of course, drink a beer.

Then, the Monday before Thanksgiving came and Segue called me with bad news. The river was thawing. You see, Segue lives in Oscarville, which is so small it doesn't have an airport or roads connecting it to anywhere else. During the warm months, she can get places by boating on the Kuskokwim River. In the winter, they can snowmachine over the land to Bethel or, when it's frozen enough, snowmachine or drive vehicles on the river into Bethel. However, for about 3 weeks in the fall and 3 weeks in the spring, she's stuck. The river is too icy for boats and not icy enough for snowmachines.

The land was frozen enough for snowmachines about 2 weeks ago. Then, we had four days of above freezing temperatures. This is bad. Both the river and the land were not frozen enough to get out. Segue was stuck in Oscarville.

Now, I had three options:
A. go to Homer alone
B. find someone else to go to Homer
C. stay in Eek, cancel all reservations, and eat the deposit money

I chose C. Frankly, if I couldn't go with Segue, I didn't want to go. Luckily, I got 100% full refunds on everything from the hotels to the plane reservations. So, my bank account was happy.

The holiday here was quiet. We had another teacher from Quingahak (the next village over) come and visit with her brother and two friends. There were eleven of us at dinner. The highlight of Thanksgiving was the wolf/dog.

Dirk had come over for breakfast from his man cave when we all decided to watch a movie. So, I put on my knee high boots over my pajama pants and slung on my North Face fleece and walked with Dirk to his house. As we came back with classics like "Pulp Fiction" and "The Abyss", I said to Dirk, "Who's the weirdo with gun walking behind the housing?"

"It's Brett (our new principal), " he answered.

"What's he doing?"

"Feeding his dogs (side note- my new principal has a dog team the he mushes)," Dirk said like I was an idiot.

"With a gun?" I answered. So, Dirk and I stood in the now freezing temperatures and watched Brett walk out to his dog team with a gun. That's when we saw a black shape running around the dump which is behind our housing unit.

"Is that a wolf?" I asked. Little did I know that that would be the question of the day. Dirk and I stood and watched for while before we went back to my apartment and told the others. So, for a while, like half an hour, seven of us stood at my windows drinking coffee and watching my principal hunt this animal.

We still aren't sure if it was a wolf or a dog. Nobody can decide. One of our Board of Education members shot it, but it ran off and we haven't seen it since.

For the record, my principal maintains he was not hunting dogs.

That was the high point of an otherwise lovely, but laze break. I didn't fight nay Black Friday crowds, I didn't have to drive to anyone's house which are all good things. So, overall, it was a good weekend.

Sunday, October 10, 2010


Yesterday I was sitting at work thinking that it was about time I post again, but yet nothing blog worthy had happened. So, I was wracking my brain trying to think of something when my phone rang. A fellow teacher, Loni, who is a Native Alaskan called me and asked me and my roommate to come steam with her. I immediately accepted and came home to ask my roomie.

Let me explain what a steam is. In many villages here in bush Alaska, including Eek, msot of the village houses don't have indoor plumbing and running water. So, the villagers do what they've been doing for years and years- steam bathing. Outside of the house is a small building made of plywood with two rooms. The first room with the outer door is the "cool room". There is a door in the "cool room" that leads to the inner room or the "steam room". Inside the steam room, there's a cast iron stove on which you put rocks.

To start the steam, you light a fire in the stove. Then, you let the water in the basin attached to the stove boil. When the water is boiling, it's time to start the bath.

My roommate, Traci, and I walked over to Loni's house and stepped into the cool room. Loni was already in the steam room. Traci and I stripped down to nothing and joined Loni in the steam room. The room was pretty warm, but not too bad. That was about to change. Loni poured the water on top of the rocks and let the heat roll over us. It was easily the most intense heat I have ever experienced. In fact, I had to wet my hair because if it were dry it would get so hot that it would burn my scalp! Also, I had to breathe through my nose or else my gums burned. Traci and I found the yoga pose, child's pose, to be helpful For those of you who don't know yoga, child's pose is when you sit back on your knees and bend over with your forehead on the floor. When you're crouched over like that the heat goes on your back which is less sensitive than say a woman's bare chest.

After we poured the water on the stones a few times we went back to the cool room to cool off and drink water. We sat on towels in the cool room and talked. This is a traditional time for women to socialize without men being near. It is customary to only steam with people of the same gender.

Once we had repeated the process of steaming and cooling off a few times, we started the bath part. Each of us had a small basin of water. We took out shampoo, conditioner and soap into the steam room. We washed like normal by dipping wash cloths and our hair into the basin and rinsing. When you finish, you just dump your water near the edge of steam room and let it run outside. You finish the steam bath by sitting in the cool room and drying off.

After the steam bath, I was completely relaxed and my muscles felt like jelly. Traci has had neck surgery and said that it made her tense neck muscles feel amazing. It was time consuming, about two hours, but totally worth it. It was just one more experience that I will never forget.