The Good We Can Do

“Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher;
“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”

What profit has a man from all his labor
In which he toils under the sun?
One generation passes away, and another generation comes;
But the earth abides forever.

—Ecclesiastes 1:2-4

I don’t want to try to enact the myth of the hero teacher.

Tribal education in Southwest Alaska has many systemic problems. Alcohol abuse, fetal alcohol syndrome, English language acquisition, traumatic head injury, and cultural clashes. The first six months of a teacher’s tenure here are wasted working in familiar ways against unfamiliar problems, rebuffing the students’ mischievious gestures of friendliness as disobedience.

Above all of these is the fact that there is no life here for teachers from the outside. Though as an outsider you cannot own land or settle here, a rare few teachers will find reason to stay here as many as five years. The rest will leave after two or three, leaving place for a new teacher to come and struggle with the students against their situation and misunderstandings.

What does it mean to do good for these students? Giving them tools to take advantage of modern opportunities can only be considered a good. And yet many teachers will also lay pressure on students to conform to the demands of western civilization, pressure as subtle as singling out the college-bound for praise. When students find that they cannot meet these demands, that they were given only expectations but not ability or motivation, severe psychological distress can result. Feelings of inadequacy can perpetuate the cycle of alcohol abuse and annual suicide. Teachers with long tenures here might bury as many kids as they send to college.

Whatever I do here as an individual will be lost. I will leave in short time and my name and works will be forgotten. The best thing I can do for my students is to support them in their own goals, emotionally and academically. And I can hope to support the teacher that takes my place with systems that will help guide them towards a quicker understanding of the students that they are working with.

The best I can work towards, day by day, is to be happy and help those around me be happy too.

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