Kent City — Fifth-grade teacher Stephen Powers is used to being a fish out of water. A new teacher at Kent City Elementary, he’s also the only male on the teaching staff. And in his last teaching assignment, he was one of just a handful of non-Native American staff at Tikigaq School in Point Hope, Alaska.
Together with his wife, Jenni, Powers spent five years teaching at one of the northernmost public schools in the United States. The couple announced to family and friends at their wedding in June 2017 that they were moving to Point Hope (though he assures that close family was told about the move before the nuptial announcement).
Their jobs would take them to an isolated coastal community of 800-plus souls just above the Arctic Circle, reachable only by sea or air. The school was closed on Tuesday, Jan. 17 due to “dangerous wind chills,” according to its website, which projected Friday’s temperature as minus 9.
A Grand Rapids native and Grand Valley State University alum, Powers said that living outside West Michigan was important to him.
“There was an interest in being part of a culture unlike our own,” he said.
A Journey Northward
Point Hope is one of the oldest continuously occupied communities in North America. The Iñupiat community has lived there for centuries, giving Powers a chance to massively shift his approach to teaching from being at the center of a classroom to being a co-learner with his students.
“I can’t think of myself at the center (of the classroom) because this is a community that was far before me and will continue far after me,” he said. “So I can’t put myself in the forefront. I’m more of a passenger than the driver.”
In his Tikigaq classroom this meant using learning tools that made sense in that context. For example, when he didn’t have access to math kits and manipulatives for a unit on fractions, he worked with his Inupiaq dean of students to develop lessons that used examples from whaling.
“We ended up making it about the fractional share of the whale and who it goes to in the end. So this fraction goes to the crew that made the strike on the whale and this fraction goes to the men who aren’t able to be on a crew, and this fraction goes to the elders.”
The Great Journey to Kent City
As he prepared to start his year in Kent City, he tried to think about his new assignment from his newfound perspective living in a different culture.
“I had a background that was far different from the students I had in Point Hope, and I would (also) say I have a background far different from the students in Kent City.”
‘I can’t think of myself at the center (of the classroom) because this is a community that was far before me and will continue far after me. … I’m more of a passenger than the driver.’— fifth-grade teacher Stephen Powers
That’s why he hasn’t covered his classroom in pictures and items from his stint in Alaska like one might expect. Instead, he left his space mostly bare so that his new Kent City students could design the classroom environment together. He asks himself: “How can I facilitate what the students already know and what their interests are rather than (saying), ‘This is what it’s going to be because I’m the teacher and I said so’?”
Hunting Provides Common Ground
In Kent City, Powers is grateful for the teaching community he has with his fellow fifth-grade teachers, which is designed to provide consistency across each classroom in his grade level. And while he doesn’t make all of his lessons revolve around his time in the Arctic, he welcomes questions about his life there.
Some of the things they ask about? He’s had questions about the different foods he’s tried (walrus, caribou and whale meat), the amount of snow there was in Point Hope (enough to reach the top of his doorframe some days), and what it’s like to hunt in Alaska.
“Students do respect when you make connections,” he said. “I was never a hunter before and I wouldn’t say I’m not a hunter today, but I have students (in Kent City that) are really into hunting. Five years ago I would barely know a thing and now I have a little bit more knowledge.”
So when buck season came around in November, Powers was able to trade info with his fifth-graders on how hunting is done in Point Hope versus how it’s done in Michigan. He said someday he might do a lesson on harpoon hunting in the Arctic, but for now he’s happy to let his students ask questions on their own.
“(It) comes back to not wanting it to be all about me,” he said. “So if they’re interested I’ll let them ask questions, and if they’re not interested, we’ll move on and talk about something else.”