CECH Grad Launches Teaching Career in Alaskan Tundra

Cortney Proffitt Seizes Opportunity to Teach Inupiaq Eskimos

Cortney Proffitt

Cortney Proffitt, standing in her village in Kivalina, Alaska

When Cortney Proffitt, BS ’13, decided to pursue a degree in Early Childhood Education, she never thought it would catapult her to Kivalina, Alaska, where – during part of the winter – there are only eight minutes of daylight and everyone is expected to report to school unless the snow reaches the building’s roof. Here, snow days are rare.

Despite the area’s frosty conditions that can make the mercury hover below zero for weeks, Proffitt loves teaching in Alaska and has adapted well to the subarctic climate. 

“Teaching in Kivalina means so much to me,” Proffitt said. “In a school like this, you become more than just a teacher to your students. I can name every student in the school from Kindergarten to 12th grade.”

Proffitt doesn’t remember her specific application for this teaching position, nor did she ever plan to move to Alaska, but she agreed to do an interview via Skype, and after speaking with an administrator she decided to capitalize on the unique opportunity.

“I realized that opportunities are everywhere, and you have to be willing to take chances,” she said. “This is the best decision I ever made. What I thought would be my perfect teaching environment has changed.”

“When Cortney first contacted me to share that she had moved to Alaska for a teaching position, I was shocked,” said Amy Mayfield, education professor and program coordinator of the Early Childhood Education program. “But the more I thought about her move, I realized this is simply the next challenge in her life. Cortney is always reflecting and growing personally and professionally.”

In Proffitt’s Kindergarten classroom she relies on technology to help teach her students many things that students in the 48 contiguous states typically already know from daily life, such as street signs, community buildings, and animals. “Because they don’t have a lot of things you would see in a “normal” town, it’s hard for them to understand things they are expected to know on standardized tests.”

In addition to utilizing technology, Proffitt uses everything she learned in UC’s School of Education’s course on classroom management. Without that class, she said she wouldn’t be an effective teacher. Proffitt’s coursework at UC, along with her student teaching experiences, exposed her to diverse teaching environments and helped her understand the important role that culture plays in a classroom. In the small school and village of 450 Inupiaq Eskimos, the Inupiaq culture infuses every aspect of life.

“I’ve had to learn cultural norms as well as some vocabulary of the Inupiaq,” Proffitt said. “The Inupiaq raise their eyebrows to say yes and scrunch their noses to say no. Also, elders are highly respected and play a special role in society.”

Proffitt has learned some common Inupiaq words, such as taaiku and kanitchaq, which mean thank you and Arctic entryway, respectively. She’s also adjusted to the need to ration out water, as the village cannot access any water until the area thaws out in June or July. Proffitt notes that because she is a teacher, she has access to running water – when it is available – but the natives do not use any running water. 

Adjusting to changes and overcoming hurdles like these fuels Proffitt’s unwavering spirit and tenacity.

“Instead of being brought down by challenges, Cortney digs deep and uses the experiences to grow personally,” Mayfield said. “When Cortney faced hurdles outside of school that could have dragged any student down, she internalized all that she faced and persevered, growing into a positive, skilled pre-service teacher.” 

Now, beyond adjusting to extreme weather and living without some modern conveniences, Proffitt has grown even more and describes her move as a truly transformative experience.

“I have grown in so many ways… I have become an independent adult all while living 3,000 miles away from my family, she said. “I am constantly looking at the beauty around me. Even when it is -20 degrees, I am outside taking photos. I have definitely stepped outside my comfort zone. I’ve always loved the city and fashion, but it is a lot different now. I love the quiet and being able to see the sky.”

Alongside her academic responsibilities, Proffitt has taken on the role of varsity volleyball and basketball coach. During the basketball season, Proffitt travels to different villages with her team, and the sport is taken very seriously throughout the region.

Proffitt keeps in touch with friends and family in Ohio via Skype, the telephone, and email. As another way to communicate and expose her students to life outside the village, she set up a pen pal exchange with her mentor teacher in Ohio.

“As an educator, Cortney is certain to use her strength and wisdom to have a positive impact on the children she teaches,” Mayfield said.

“I have a contract until May, but there is a very good chance that, if offered the opportunity, I will stay up here for another year,” she said. “Being up here has shown me just how precious life is. I think you should take chances, go on adventures, and treasure every opportunity you get.”