New Ketchikan High School welding teacher Meri Miller has tackled a wide range of adventures and experiences in her 19 years as an instructor.
During an interview Friday at the Kayhi welding shop, Miller said she grew up in Auburn, Washington, and started her career as a career and technical education teacher in the small town of Tekoa, Washington, south of Spokane.
“I was trained as an ag teacher — FFA and that kind of stuff, and so when you do that, you learn kind of all of the areas,” she said, “because, if you think, Western Washington, Idaho and that kind of thing — most of the programs that just have one teacher, the teacher teaches everything from animal science to horticulture to welding to tractors to engines. The whole works.”
Miller taught at four different Washington schools over the years, until she moved to the village of Emmonak to work for a year as one of the school’s four teachers. For the past two years, she was a CTE teacher at Barrow High School in Utqiaġvik.
She said she heard of the welding instructor position open at Kayhi from the school’s woods, welding and construction teacher David Lindquist.
Her move to Ketchikan began in March with a drive down the North Slope Borough-owned ice road to Fairbanks in March.
To prepare for the trip on the ice road, Miller said, she was required to complete a series of preparatory steps.
“You have to register with the borough,” she said. “You have to actually go to at least two meetings, you have to have your vehicle inspected. If you’re not an employee of the corporation or something like that, you can’t go alone. You have to go with a group.”
She said that other required preparatory tasks include figuring the fuel load for one’s vehicle, then doubling it and adding a minimum of 15 gallons for safety.
“You have to carry all your own fuel, you need food, you need emergency clothing, water and a VHF radio,” Miller said.
There was a lead vehicle for the group and a tracker vehicle which followed the road by GPS. The road itself was nearly impossible to see, Miller said, as the packed snow path was bounded on each side by more snow.
“The road itself is just packed down snow, and you can’t even identify it a lot of the time,” she added.
There are only 10 vehicles maximum allowed in each group, and Miller’s had five.
“You get six inches off, you’re deep in snow and you’re stuck,” Miller said.
Miller said the approximately 300-mile trip took about 39 hours to complete.
After her youngest son’s graduation from Barrow High School this spring, they made their way to Bellingham, Washington, where the two parted ways. Miller finally came to Ketchikan in July via ferry from Bellingham, making it just two weeks before the Alaska Marine Highway System strike.
Miller said Ketchikan has felt familiar from the beginning.
“It’s very different from Barrow, but I grew up in the Seattle area, and so rain in and of itself I’m not that unfamiliar with, and the rainforest and the moss and the slugs and the salal — that’s all a lot like home,” she said.
She said getting used to the influx of tourists this summer was a bit more of an adjustment, but still not totally new for her.
“I did work in downtown Seattle for a few years, which now I wouldn’t be able to do, but as far as having a big influx of people during certain times of the day and certain times of the year, that’s not a totally foreign concept. You just learn to avoid that area,” she said. “I know where the bypass road is now.”
She added that the crowds of tourists, however, are “a little nervewracking.”
A happy surprise Miller received when moving to Ketchikan was the attitude of the town’s residents.
“Everybody is so welcoming,” she said. “The kids are so nice — they’re so nice. They’re easy to teach, which is a little different.
“They are really nice kids, they’re interested and they have a lot going on. It seems like they can see how they can use some of these skills,” she said of their high motivation.
Living in Ketchikan, Miller said, also will make visiting her one-year- old and four-year-old granddaughters who live in Seattle much easier than it was when she lived in Utqiaġvik. She described her new experience of having an “empty nest” as a challenge for her, which will make those visits all the more important.
Speaking of her new working environment, she expressed appreciation for Kayhi’s size, which she described as ideal, as well as for Kayhi’s welding shop.
“The exhaust system is brand new, which is so nice,” she said.
Miller teaches three periods of Welding I, one period of Welding II and III in addition to an introduction to engineering class.
She described the importance of the engineering class as part of her program.
“A lot of kids who start in shop who learn some of those skills get really interested in various, especially mechanical engineering, type things, so it’s sort of a natural extension,” she said. “But, the kids that are in there right now will get to build some things out here and then hopefully, also, we’re going to share a little bit with the wood shop. Right now, we’re focusing on measuring and precision and accuracy.”
She said she plans also to introduce the engineering class students to using a Computer-Aided Design program and to material sciences.
Miller said her longer-term goals are to get to know the students, her fellow staff members, the district and the community’s expectations.
She said she’d also like to tap into the strong arts community in Ketchikan.
“There’s a lot of metal art that can be done as projects,” she said.
“Once we learn how to actually run welds,” she said of her students, “then it’s always nice to have them make something that — it may not have a purpose other than being decorative, but even if it’s garden art or something like that, you still really look at the quality of the welds and how long that piece is going to hold up when it’s outside, so that’s kind of cool.”
With more artistic projects in mind, Miller said she has been searching for metal buoys that community members would be willing to donate to her classes, with the idea of creating fire pits with them.
“What I would like the kids to do with them is plasma-cut scenes into them,” she explained.
Miller talked about her belief in the importance of CTE programs like those at Kayhi.
“Not every student is going to go to college,” she said. “College isn’t right for every student.”
She added, “I was a college kid all the way, and yet — I have three sons who are all in trades.”
She told a story as an example of how learning a trade skill is different from gaining academic knowledge.
Miller was teaching a student in her Barrow High School sewing class who was highly academically gifted. The student, frustrated with her project, finally told Miller, “This is actually really, really hard.”
Miller said she asked the student, “‘What’s hard?’ And, she said, ‘I can read about this, and read about this, and read about this, but then I sit down and something doesn’t do it the way the book says it’s supposed to do it and I don’t know what to do,’ and it was a really different perspective from a very bright, capable kid, and I said, ‘Well, this is one of those things that you figure out as you do it. But, you have to actually do it.’”
The student put her mind to the task and did improve with practice, Miller said. She also said that she is careful to always explain to her students the “why” behind what they’re doing and how that will affect their projects and skills in the future.
She said she does that “so that they can figure stuff out, so that someday when I’m not there holding their hand, they’re going to be able to figure out — if it’s welding, they need to turn the amperage up, they need to turn it down, they need to clean something better, they have some impurity. Or, if they’re sewing and stuff is wrinkling up or whatever — ‘Oh, the tension is too tight, I need to loosen this, I need to change that.’ So that they can figure that stuff out for themselves.”
She explained further, “I can describe how to strike an arc and all the techniques and how you’re supposed to do this, but until you go do it,” it’s not going to work.
She said that there are many skills need such hands-on practice.
“Fishing is like that — tying knots. And, what does it feel like when the fish is on the end? I mean, you can read about that all day, but until you actually feel it,” the information is meaningless, she said.
Fishing has been an interest of hers since enjoying the sport with her father as a youth in the Puget Sound area, Miller said.
She’s already been fishing several times since settling in Ketchikan.
“I caught a 32-pound ling cod,” she said, grinning. “That was exciting.”
She added that it also was delicious, as were the three silver salmon and several soles she’s caught.
A delight for her while out on the water also has been sighting whales.
“I love Ketchikan,” she concluded.