Dancing with History: Our Sixth Podcast, from Wyoming

December 7, 2020 |
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Welcome to our sixth episode of the I Am a Rural Teacher Podcast! This week we're talking with Mark Roy, a seventh and eighth grade science teacher in Fort Washakie, Wyoming. You can listen to the podcast here, or read the story below.

You can also find our podcast on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Google Podcasts and Spotify.

"What does it mean to be a rural teacher? Rural means that I'm living in a state where there's more antelope than people!"

Mark Roy wasn't always a rural teacher, but being remote is comfortable to him. He likes to be out in the back country.

"Rural means that you need to take care of yourself because if you need medical care, it could be a long ways away. Rural means that you step outside and the air is clean," Mark says.

Mark describes his background as having strong ties to the bread basket. He was born in Illinois, grew up in Minnesota, and ended up in Wyoming to go to the National Outdoor Leadership School, or NOLS, in 1987.

After attending that school, he ended up working for them teaching outdoors courses. And he loved this way of life - it took him all over the country, even down to South America for a bit - but he reached that point that most of us do, when you kind of want to settle down in one place, make a little more money more consistently.

"I liked helping students grow and develop and learn. So I thought, well, maybe I could be a teacher. So I got my teaching certificate and I fell in love with the first day I walked in class."

“I liked helping students grow and develop and learn... So I got my teaching certificate and I fell in love with the first day I walked in class.”

Lander, Wyoming is where that outdoor school is. It’s right next to the Wind River Reservation, where Mark now teaches seventh and eighth grade science at the Fort Washakie School. He says people are spread out here, but there is still a sense of community. You can drive 8 hours and still be in Wyoming.

"The resources can be hard to come by. But it's also a place where people have always figured out how to do things that have been ingenious in ways to make things work. How to get that lumber from up in the mountain down to build your house without a truck, and over greater distances, because there's not a lot of trees down here."

Spring brings the smells of sage and grass to the area, while snow is usually here by Halloween. In terms of outdoorsy, it's pretty out there.

"I remember here at the school, one of the children, they're out for recess, and they pulled up at her teacher's sleeve and said, 'Look at the kitty' and pointed up 15 feet above them. And on a Cottonwood limb was a mountain lion, just watching school children playing in the park. So they obviously brought everybody into the into the building. And I've seen mountain lions around here at least three times."

Teaching outdoor leadership courses, it's very practical. You use the things you learn there to survive. Mark wanted to apply this notion, this direct path from lesson to use, to his teaching.

Mark says he hated math in grade school, but when he took Physics in college it all made sense to him. That context was important and is something he implements into his own classes now.

"Engaging in the world around me, especially with the natural world, has always been personally rewarding and fulfilling. And so when it came down to teaching, it was very obvious to me that this is where I wanted to teach. This is where I wanted other kids to learn that all of the skills and knowledge that they do develop in school are actually applicable."

This has, of course, been especially difficult during COVID times. But despite the pandemic messing up his hands-on curriculum, one of his favorite lessons actually happened last school year, when COVID first struck and sent everyone home - he was trying to keep his lessons alive.

"So I needed to be able to do something that was really engaging and inquiry-based and I chose container gardens."

It was perfect, in English they were already reading the Omnivore's Dilemma. He sent all of his students home with potting soil, pine chips, pine needles and seeds. They were challenged to take soil from their neighborhood and create these planting systems. The control was the potting soil, and the experiment was the dirt around their homes. The question was, will I be able to amend the soil near my house to effectively grow food in my container?

"And on the reservation school, we were able to look at the connection of corn and culture. And then we took a look at some historical things with growing gardens and the victory gardens, and how we were heading into a pandemic. Nobody knew it was going to happen. Where's the food going to come from?"

But it all comes back to that DIY lifestyle and spirit Mark equates with rural living,

"How do you do online teaching when the internet doesn't reach some of your kids? How do you maintain equity in education when you have less resources for kids sometimes? So there's a lot of ingenuity and being able to make things happen, in creative ways when not all of the pieces are easily accessible. "

“So there's a lot of ingenuity and being able to make things happen, in creative ways when not all of the pieces are easily accessible.”

Now, Mark is a white teacher on a native reservation. The Wind River Reservation is home to both the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Native American tribes. But he says actually, most of the teachers at his school are white, and drive in from neighboring towns for work.

The school he works at used to be a boarding school. It was part of a practice that started in the 1870s, where the federal government began sending Native American children, often by force, to off-reservation boarding schools, in an effort to assimilate them into European culture.

At many of these schools, where kids were stripped away from their families, they were also punished when they spoke in their native language, and often subject to horrible living conditions.

And these schools lasted for decades, with some still running into the 1950s in both Canada and the US. But while the schools are closed down, the trauma of that loss of culture and life has been passed through generations.

"So this is a place where people are able to work together, to come together to do amazing things, all within the context of a long history of separation and suspicion. So it's very complex relationship, and you will find people for whom that relationship is not complex at all. It's black and white and the two will never mix. And there are other people who are making strong attempts to create a community and respect for diversity."

The politics around this school and the area that it’s in can be tricky. Mark says that ranchers, oil workers, and miners that surround the reservation in the 2 border towns don't really understand life on the reservation. There is a river that splits the reservation from the town of Lander.

"And I think of that river sometimes as being like the grand Canyon, culturally, and how people have a hard time crossing that."

With the demographic being more white teachers in this native school, Mark says teachers have the role they choose in this community,

"So there are teachers who are more integrated and teachers who are less integrated in terms of being active in the community. The community has always welcomed me in and I feel welcomed and embraced when I go to powwows or to events on the reservation. And there are teachers who carry that same kind of perspective of the reservation as being a violent, scary place to the school with them. And so when they're done working, they get in their car and they go home and they don't come back to work. And most of those teachers are not here very long. We have some turnover."

“This is a place where people are able to work together, to come together to do amazing things, all within the context of a long history of separation and suspicion.”

Mark says teachers who put in the time and invest in the community are the ones who stay. He taught here before going to South America, but always wanted to come back.

"I appreciate very much relationships I have. It's the primary reason that I chose to leave the high school position that I had before, two years ago. I had wanted to come back to this school to work on the reservation and with this community for a long time.

And in some ways it's a little bit like starting over because I left and I'm a white guy that walked out. And while there's nobody saying 'you abandoned us', there is that kind of unspoken, 'okay, so are you really here?' And it will take me a while, probably, to build some new relationships, but I'm fortunate enough to be able to come in and rekindle some of those relationships that I walked away from to go to South America for four years."

But doing his best to understand and empathize with this nuance, Mark says, is what he thinks makes him a better teacher.

"You know, people on the reservation talk about living in two worlds and that's their life. They are of a minority culture living in a dominant cultural world and they can't escape that dominant culture. It's all around them. And they have to be able to operate smoothly, transitioning back and forth all the time. And I understand my students better every time I make that transition. And if I were to just treat this as a job, I wouldn't have that, part of it's empathy and some of it's just appreciation for the beauty of that dance.

It's a dance that requires really listening a lot. So I consider myself lucky to be a part of this Fremont County community as a whole, but specifically with this place of tension between dominant culture, minority culture, and native American reservation life, it's a privilege to be here."

Thank you for reading. This story is part of the “I Am a Rural Teacher” national advocacy campaign. We’d like to thank our partners at the National Rural Education Association, Community Foundation of the Ozarks, Ozarks Teacher Corps, and The University of West Alabama’s Black Belt Teacher Corps. The “I Am a Rural Teacher” campaign is made possible by a grant from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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