Teacher's adventure continues: Sampson now at Houghtaling

Becca Sampson stands in front of the school in Tuntuntuliak, where she taught for three years before coming to Ketchikan to teach at Houghtaling Elementary School. Photo courtesy of Becca Sampson

Houghtaling Elementary School first-grade teacher Becca Sampson is an adventurer with a love for children.

Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Sampson graduated with her bachelor’s degree in education in 2016, then attended a teacher recruitment table at which she spied recruiters for a tiny Alaska school in the Lower Kuskokwim School District.

“I interviewed with them and decided it would be an awesome adventure to just go to Alaska,” Sampson said in an interview this past week in her classroom. “I’d always loved being out West, and I’d lived in the Tetons for a little bit, and Glacier, Montana for a little bit.”

Sampson landed the job and headed north to the Yup’ik village of Tuntuntuliak, which has about 400 residents.

Despite the fact that the village lacks running water and no mountains or trees, Sampson was enchanted by village life. She taught at the school for the next three years.

The village is located Southwest of Bethel along the Kuskokwim River. To get there, Sampson said she would travel from Anchorage to Bethel, then would fly a Cessna 207 to Tuntuntuliak, “if the weather was OK,” she added.

In the summers, Sampson said she would either return to Ohio or work in the wilds of the Teton Range.

“I never got to spend the full summer” in Tuntuntuliak, she said, “but I experienced the winter!”

She explained, of the water situation in the village, that the school and nearby teacher’s quarters did have running water, but the rest of the community would pick ice in the winter for water and collect rain water in the warmer months.

Sampson said she loved her experience living and teaching in Tuntuntuliak.

 “The kids there are amazing,” she said. “I taught kindergarten and first grade and I’ve never met sweeter, kinder, more compassionate little kids.

“They go through a lot of trauma there, but it kind of makes them resilient and strong. They look after each other. The kids are what kept me.”

She said she also enjoyed the challenges inherent in teaching at a very small school.

“I was super busy with school,” she said, when asked what she did in her time off from teaching in the village. “It was great, because I got to know kindergartners all the way through high schoolers, but it was very challenging to get that space, because I did student counsel, I planned prom, I did the Halloween carnival, I coached volleyball.

“When you only have 10 teachers, you kind of just take on what you can,” Sampson said.

She said another challenge of teaching in Tuntuntuliak was more practical.

“It’s was hard to get any materials out there, so you kind of learn how to be creative, which is great, because kids learn best through hands-on,” she said. “It taught me really how to adapt to the children, and how to create things myself and how to make games for them. I think that having that experience really helped me to be thankful, too, for everything that I have now.”

When asked why she wanted to work and live in a tiny Alaska village, Sampson cited her lifelong interests.

“I’d always had a passion for just going places,” she said. “Each summer that I was in college, I’d gone to a different National Park and lived there and worked and they’d all been in the mountains and they’d all been out West, and I just knew that I wanted to go somewhere new, and I also really enjoy learning about other cultures. I like the immersion of it, and not just traveling for a week and seeing it, but really learning about it and being a part of it, so I thought this was going to be an adventure, and it’s a whole different culture — a different world, really, a different way of living and I knew it would be a challenge for myself.

“It was awesome though,” she said.

She explained why she enjoys teaching so much.

“I love the kids,” she said. “I love the grade that I teach because they’re still enjoying school so much. They love school and you just have fun with them, you know, they make your day brighter, they make you laugh. That’s what I love — just the things that they say.”

Sampson said she did learn some of the Native language while working in Tuntuntuliak, and she has enjoyed sharing that knowledge with her Houghtaling students. She said her first-graders now will often spontaneously greet each other with the “Waqaa” greeting she taught them, for instance.

She also set up a penpal project for her students to connect them with her Tuntuntuliak students. She showed the Houghtaling students photographs of their penpals, and coached them through writing short introductions and drawing pictures for their long-distance friends.

“They love it,” she said of her students. “They really enjoy the idea of having a friend in a different place that they can write to.”

When asked what inspired her to seek a teaching position in Ketchikan, Sampson said she’d felt it was time for a change.

“Eventually, I decided to branch out and try to find somewhere less isolated, and I’d heard of Ketchikan,” she said. “My parents had gone on a cruise here one time; they loved it. Ketchikan was their favorite spot of all their stops, and I thought it would be an awesome place to end up.”

So far, Sampson said she’s been very happy with her move.

“I love just exploring by the water, and the mountains. I’ve always loved mountains, and in Tuntuntuliak it’s flat tundra — so, no mountains,” she said.

One thing she noted in Tuntuntuliak, is the complete lack of trees.

“What’s so funny there is the kids — they’ll have little shrubs and that’s what they call trees, ”she said.

As a maker of jewelry, Sampson said she’s especially enjoyed searching Ketchikan beaches for sea glass.

She also has enjoyed the Ketchikan community.

“I’ve really loved how much there is to do here,” she said. “I went to the film festival — I love how artsy it is. I’m not the best at it, but I love experiencing that. Just kind of getting out there and seeing new things. Wandering the streets.”

She said she was pretty amazed by the influx of tourists this summer. She arrived in Ketchikan early in August.

“It was wild. I’d never really experienced anything like that, especially being so remote, I mean, you don’t get anyone in the village, nobody comes in except for the people who live there,” she said. “It was really interesting to see so many people. What was crazy, was, 5 o’clock hits and it’s dead. It’s a different world.”

Sampson said that Ketchikan seems “huge” to her after three years in Tuntuntuliak.

Of course, she had been given a heads-up about Ketchikan’s climate.

“I was warned about the rain, so I actually was surprised that it had been so sunny over the summer.”

Then, it started to pour near the end of the month.

“Ok, this is what I need to get used to,” she said, laughing as she recalled what she’d told herself.

Sampson said there have been many positives about working at her new school.

“It’s much bigger. When you have a staff meeting here, there’s so many people, but it’s awesome because you get a lot of ideas, too,” she said. “Where I taught before, of course, being a small village, I was the only K through one teacher, besides my co-teacher,” who taught in the Native language.

“It’s nice to have other teachers who teach the same thing that you can kind of collaborate with and talk to,” she added.

“I definitely want to make a difference,” she said. “I know that a lot of our kids experience trauma as well. It’s not as obvious as in the village, but a lot of them go through things and I just want to be that safe place for them. I try to really pride myself on creating a classroom that’s safe and open and kind, so I really just want kids to feel accepted and learn and grow. All of the things you hope every teacher wants.”

In reference to her future plans in Ketchikan, Sampson said she plans to stay for the summer and possibly get a part time job then in which she could meet more people.

“I’m super excited to be here and immerse myself in this community and all that it has to offer,” Sampson said.