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Sunday, June 30, 2013

Bush Teaching 101: Communication and Culture


Every time we come into contact with another human being, we run the risk of saying or implying something we don’t mean.

Even using numerous words and complex sentences, we can still change the meanings of what we say with inflection and sarcasm.

‘Slippage’ is the term used for the meanings sometimes “lost in translation”
Figure 1 below introduces the idea of the The Iceberg Principle. This simple concept outlines that which humans share in typical conversation and interaction as being above the surface of the figurative water. The lens through which we see the world, or culture, lies beneath. 

FIGURE 1 (original image)

Food for thought: How do doctor's and lawyer's deal with slippage?

Think of all the jargon, or industry specific language, thrown around by lawyers. Consider the innocents imprisoned and guilty freed due to loopholes in the law. I often consider the doctors who, with considerable knowledge of anatomy and body systems save millions of lives every year. The ability to convey the importance of medical procedures, healthy lifestyle, or legal representation is the key to their success. Teaching in the bush is a similar scenario. 

Teaching & Slippage

In every relationship there is communication and in every communication there is slippage. We cannot possibly express our thoughts in the manner in which they appear within our imagination with 100% accuracy, regardless of the language we speak. The most educated man or woman, speaking with the richest vocabulary will at times find themselves at a loss to explain thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Couple that with the simple fact that we all have a different schema, varied levels of English language vocabulary, and dramatically different definitions for many words and we find ourselves misunderstood often even among friends. 

In every instance of slippage someone will suffer. Those requesting something will be disappointed, those demanding services will be angered, and those seeking affirmation will be upset. In some cases those in authority will punish, harm, or react negatively do to slippage.

Police with suspects. Officer arrests an innocent foreigner due to a lack of English language skills when questioned in the events surrounding a nearby crime. 
Judge with accused. The judge, asking incriminating questions receives an unknowingly affirmative answer from the foreigner mentioned above and sentences them to jail time. 
Employee with Employer. Manager asks employee to work on Holy Day and employee lacks ability to express why they cannot be at work that day. The manager may fire a high quality employee over simple misunderstanding. 

Teachers with students will be the focus of this discussion, of course, so I will delve a bit deeper in the cultural nuances of Yup'ik cultures and the bush in general. The bottom line is that schools, teachers, and all individuals associated there with are perceived to be in power. School districts are generally the largest employers of bush communities.

The superintendents employ sometimes hundreds of local persons. Principals of the school hire and fire more people in the village than the store, the tribal office, and the city combined. Being the largest, safest, and often the most aesthetically pleasing building in the community, there are often wakes, gatherings, and events happening there daily. Who will be asked for permission to use this facility? Teachers grade students and support staff disciplines the local children. There is a clear balance of power. 

Who will suffer then in cases of slippage? 

Village Slippage 

FIGURE 2 (Created by Samuel Bourgeois)

I have learned so much over the years from Yup'ik elders living in Togiak, Mountain Village, and the 80 or so villages and towns I have visited in Alaska. I will do my best to share the idiosyncrasies I have observed  in terms of being an immediate benefit to a newcomer to bush Alaska. Organized using Figure 2 above, the following topics will detail some interesting observations I have made over the years. 

I grew up in the South where guests are treated like family and your reputation hinges on generosity and kindness. Certain customs such as letter writing, invitations, and thank you cards are lost on me but alive and well today. As I transitioned into the culture of the bush I became acutely aware of the lack of pomposity and pretentiousness of the Yup'ik people. Much of the expected behaviors to be wary of are unique to the community in which you might visit. If an elder dies, fishing and hunting might cease for a day or even a week. Birthdays sometimes involve a feast and party thrown by the family in which all who attend enjoy and leave a few dollars for the honoree. I typically leave $20 for good friends and their children, and less depending on how close I am to the birthday boy or girl.

As a man who enjoys hunting and fishing I generally jump at the opportunity to get out and see the world with local men and women. My first year in the bush I met a local man working as a custodian in the school. Every night he would come to my class and announce, "Yeah, I think I'll go check out... (fill in the location up river or down the coast)" and I would reply something innocuous, like, "good for you." I thought it was small talk, gloating, encouragement to buy a boat, or some other silly thing. As it turns out, that was his way of inviting me to join him! My advice to new teachers in the bush, then is to put yourself out there, so to speak. Ask to join local people in their harvest and outdoor fun. Offer to supply gas or food on the trip. Don't be shy. If someone does offer you join them, never say no. You may never be asked again.

As far as your students go, there are a few things I have noticed and made myself more comfortable with over the years which at one time offended my "delicate sensibilities." Students out in the village may burp at lunch, pass gas in the classroom, or spit far more often than you are accustomed to. It may offend you as it did me initially, but you must simply let it go. Taking personal offense when they do it, though you express your distain, will only point out a weakness in your personal character to be exploited by a child seeking attention.

Adults in the village often speak there mind. Taking this as a personal offense is not recommended either. Gruff, crass, or rude as you might think it, understanding it as being an expression of their feelings and ideas you must interpret it at face value. Basically, go with the flow and don't get up in arms over perceived insults.

This one is a tough one. My opinions expressed here are based on child psychology, knowledge of domestic violence or abuse statistics, and general observations. As a teacher we are all told to use the PET Method (Proximity; Eye Contact; Touch) to manage a student in the classroom. Disruptive students require teachers to walk near them when they talk, look them in the eye when they are not following directions, and touch an arm or shoulder when all else fails. In the Yup'ik culture this may not be effective, however. Effectively a stranger, new teachers must be aware of the differences in Yup'ik customs which are often at odds with traditional teaching styles. Appropriate distance and touch are subjects best left to experiential and personal judgement.

Often when new teachers get close to village students, the child will freeze up and become very shy, quite, and even fearful. Forcing the matter can even cause a child with a history of outbursts to lash out. Touching students, without understanding their family history can also be detrimental. With instances of sexual abuse many times higher than the national average and rape more common in rural Alaska than anywhere in our country, though underreported, teachers must be mindful of the power of touch. In some villages "one in every 30 men are registered sex offenders."(AK Dispatch)

Conversely, villages are full of love and affection. Hugging small children may be a thing of the past in the inner city where lawsuits and liability prevent such, but not in the bush. Genuine love is expressed freely and giving your students a great squeeze now and again is perfectly acceptable when they initiate. I simply wish to open the eyes of those unfamiliar with village life so that they are better prepared for this grand adventure. 

I recall in my college years being forced to give oral presentations and graded well on my "teacher voice." Loud and booming, I projected my authority throughout the classroom and enraptured my audience with a volume uncomfortable to those in the front row. I would encourage you to leave that "teacher voice" on the playground. Yelling in the Yup'ik culture is rare. Elders are powerful and command respect based on their content not volume. Teaching in the traditional sense was personal and intimate. Mothers to children and grandparents to young people spoke softly and required active listeners to absorb the full value of what they had to share. Unknowingly, I offended countless community members in my first years in the bush... all because of my volume. 

Yup'ik culture is rich in song, dance, and story. Church services include numerous "specials" in which locals will sing their favorite songs to the crowd. Men dance, drum, and bellow the ancient and modern tunes known as Yuuraq. Students will be more engaged by your iTunes collection than where you are from and cherish their iPods as much as their friends. Evidence shows students learn through melody and rhythm as well, so I encourage you to use music in your classroom when possible. 
Many a Yup'ik story involves song, too. I would venture to guess that stories, much like poetry, are deeply rooted in musicality of voice and spoken word. 

Little is of more import that the tempo in which you speak. I have never been to New York City, but I have met those from there. Their tempo, of pace of speech (and life in general) are alarmingly fast to those of us who live in the village. What's the rush I say?

Big city folks and, for the most part, Americans in general speak rapidly compared to the people of Western Alaska. A coworker, originally from Houston, years ago illustrated this difference very well for me. I remember it was their first time in front of my students. They got up in front of the class and began rattling off career paths and skills for decision making. Talking for what seemed like hours, they paused only to breathe and ask, "any questions?" every few minutes. I had a class of wide-eyed seventh graders staring at them like they were on fire the whole time. Upon leaving, the first student raised there hand and said, "Where is ____ from?" and "What the heck was ____ talking about?" My class had not heard a single word and were awestruck at the speed this person could let loose meaningless vocabulary.

The point is: slow down. I am not implying that Yup'ik students are slow learners. Quite the opposite, actually. You may find them learning on their own or in groups what you could not adequately convey or teach. What I am saying is that the quality of your words matters much more than the quantity. Use vocabulary your students undertand and they will learn easily and quickly. Speak at the pace to which they are accustomed and you may never need to repeat yourself. Engage them and they will perform highly, even beyond your expectations! 


I have not yet scratched the surface of communication and will likely never master teaching in bush Alaska, but I hope I have helped shed light on the subject for you. Basically my hope is to better prepare future teachers so that they may overcome certain difficulties in time to get through to their students before the first year passes them by. Many a time I have seen well-meaning teachers turn down a second year in the bush simply because the felt slighted, resentful, or indignant because of perceived events and their bearing on personal and professional relationships.

The topics I briefly reviewed here account for but a few things you will see commonly in rural Alaskan communities. By all means you will find more, like the shoulder shrug for "I don't know" and the eyebrow raise for "yes." Minor details change from place to place. In some villages a child will never look you in the eye while being scolded, in others they will. In the end I hope you recognize that there is indeed a great deal of slippage in our communication with students and parents. How you deal with those are what will define you as a person and as a teacher in the bush.