Coach-Turned-Teacher Brings Vision to Alaska Village

Ralph Watkins with a whaleRalph Watkins ‘08 is what you might call a wanderer, or free spirit.

This is a man who once chose his next home by throwing a dart at a world map while blindfolded.

But it’s more than restless feet that brought Watkins to his latest adventure.

Watkins said his position as principal of the school in Shishmaref, Alaska, is the perfect fit for his background in coaching and his passion for creating change.

‘The Friendliest Village’

Shishmaref is an Inupiak village of about 600 people on the Bering Strait. It’s a place where past and present meld in a uniquely Alaskan sort of way.

There’s lots of computer technology but often no indoor plumbing.

People live a sustenance lifestyle, hunting seals, walrus, caribou and muskox, though they transport their pretty on snowmachines.

There’s one stop sign in town, but it’s a showpiece, Watkins said. With only six vehicles on the island, no one uses the traffic signal.

It’s considered the “friendliest village in Alaska,” as it often welcomes scientists and researchers from outside — though the reasons are troubling. Shishmaref’s island is disappearing due to climate change. As the seas rise, the island is losing about two feet of shoreline each year.

“You can see pictures where houses have actually fallen into the sea because of the eroding shoreline,” Watkins said.

The community also suffers the same challenges as many extremely rural places: the challenge of maintaining an education system in a changing world.

There are about 200 students in Watkins’ school, from preschool to 12th grade. They are taught by 22 teachers. Only two of those teachers are native Alaskans — the rest come from outside the community. This year alone, nine of the teachers are new to the school, and seven of those are brand new to the profession of teaching.

“What brand new teachers need more than anything, they need coaching,” Watkins said. “It takes a lot to be a teacher. It takes twice as much in a village setting.”

Welcome to Shishmaref sign

‘A Restless Spirit’

Watkins grew up in California, one of 11 children in a family that didn’t move.

“My family lived in the same house on the same block form the time I was 2 until the present,” he said. “I, on the other hand, moved a lot. Maybe it was a restless spirit, I don’t know.”

He spent the first part of his life operating a high-caliber gymnastics studio, coaching young people, some of whom became national champions and Olympians.

When he decided to change careers, he embarked on the infamous dart challenge. He had five options, so he tacked a map on a board, sat in his desk chair, spun around and threw the dart.

“I could have wound up in New Mexico or overseas,” he said. “Instead, I wound up in Wyoming.”

He started in Sheridan, later moved south to Douglas, and ultimately did most of his studies in education at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. Before he finished, though, his family moved to Oregon, where he initially enrolled at the University of Portland.

“I attended about a week of classes, and someone mentioned Pacific to me,” he said. “I drove down, saw the campus. I met with an academic adviser, and they were able to match (my transfer credits) over at UP and they were a little less expensive.”

He moved again.

“I enrolled at Pacific University and could not have been happier,” he said. “It was, in my opinion, the best place for my academic philosophy and my learning style.

“It really helped you to kind of reflect and evaluate who you were going to be as a teacher. They didn’t tell you, ‘This is what a good teacher is or what a good teacher does.’ It was more, ‘Of all these different things that make up good teachers, which are you going to take and shape into the kind of teacher you’re going to be?’”

After earning his undergraduate teaching credentials, he began teaching. He returned to Wyoming for his master’s degree in school administration. Last year, after teaching a year in Las Vegas, he decided to attend a job fair in Tacoma, Wash.

“I really just wanted to go and have a couple interviews and see what kind of interview questions are asked to sharpen my own skill set,” he said. “I interviewed with five districts and had four offers. I was really surprised.”

The decision to move to rural Alaska wasn’t an easy one. His teenage sons, who live in Las Vegas, considered coming along. (He also has two grown daughters.)

“When they found out there were no flushing toilets, they said no,” he said.

His wife and two stepchildren, ages 11 and 8, were up for the adventure.

Ralph Watkins and family

‘A Single Vision’

And an adventure it is. When Watkins arrived, alone, in July, he went about five days working 24 hours straight, because his body hadn’t adjusted to the all-day sunlight at that extreme latitude.

Now, the family is learning about the other extreme: dark and cold. In late October, Watkins reporting it was 19 degrees and snowing — and destined to get much colder. The sun is up only a couple hours a day, but the family did enjoy their first spectacular show of the aurora borealis.

“I went and woke everyone up, and we all sat out and watched the northern lights,” he said. “I honestly and truly have never seen anything like it.”

Professionally, there’s a lot of work to be done, he said. Academic performance in Shishmaref has been in a slump, Watkins said, and he was hired to help turn that around. Meanwhile, community engagement with the school has been rare.

But Watkins is determined to use both his coaching and teaching skills to make a difference. He’s worked on building relationships in the community.

“Everyone is related, literally. Relationships are important to them, so you have to be willing to do the work,” he said.

He meets with the city council and the native council to talk about his vision for the school, and, as there’s no newspaper in the community, he relies on Facebook to communicate about what’s going on in and around the classroom.

He’s also working on building relationships with his staff and developing an excitement and vision for success.

“I’d like to see my school become a Blue Ribbon School,” he said. “It’s not impossible. I think that it’s a combination of having a cohesive staff that is committed to a single vision and a belief in that vision that they’re willing to do the work that it takes to see that it comes to fruition,” he said. “It’s getting in there and doing the work as a team, a group of collaborative educators. That’s something else I took from my time at Pacific.”

Watkins knows he tends to wander, but he hopes to be in Shishmaref for the long haul — at least for him.

“There are a group of fifth- and sixth-graders that I would like to see all the way through their senior year,” he said. “I thing they would be the product of my leadership. They would have enough time under that leadership to grow or not to grow, to expand their worldview or shrink it, depending on what we do as a staff and what I do as a leader.”

Monday, Nov. 10, 2014