Down Under over — Alaska teacher exchange a gamble that pays off

By Joseph Robertia

Photos by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. Gavan and Margaret Brown of Victoria, Australia, take a dogsled ride in Kasilof before leaving Alaska. The two spent a year here on a teacher exchange program. Gavan taught at Kalifornsky Beach Elementary, while Margaret spent time in numerous central Kenai Peninsula schools as a substitute teacher.

Photos by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. Gavan and Margaret Brown of Victoria, Australia, take a dogsled ride in Kasilof before leaving Alaska. The two spent a year here on a teacher exchange program. Gavan taught at Kalifornsky Beach Elementary, while Margaret spent time in numerous central Kenai Peninsula schools as a substitute teacher.

Redoubt Reporter

In terms of teaching and exploring the world, Gavan Brown, of Victoria, Australia, has seen a lot. Not only has he been an educator for 30 years, but he’s taken part in three yearlong teacher exchanges around the world — in Birmingham, United Kingdom, British Columbia, Canada, and most recently in Soldotna. Despite this long career and his diverse travels, he said he still learns from each experience, and his most recent one was no exception.

“I didn’t know a lot about Alaska, other than it was a really cold place,” he said.

That’s exactly why he came, though. To Brown — and his wife Margaret, who came and taught in several schools around the district as a substitute while Brown was spending the year as a fourth-grade teacher at Kalifornsky Beach Elementary — teaching is about more than just imparting knowledge. It’s about exchanging thoughts, ideas, customs and cultures.

“Education should be a social experience,” he said. “The 45 kids I’ve had here at K-Beach, plus the others who’ve come in the room for presentations, they haven’t just benefited from my years of teaching, they’ve acquired a different view of the world from the experience, which will also shape those kids, and that’s priceless.”

In terms of how the U.S., and Alaska, specifically, compare to his other teaching posts around the world, Brown said that times have changed since he first became an educator, and a lot of the changes he’s seen are the same from country to country. This isn’t always a good thing, he said.

“We all want kids to be the best they can be, but it seems like we’re all headed toward a more centralized view of education. When I started, education was good for its own sake, and it used to be OK to be an individual, and be OK at math, but really excellent at art or something. Now, there’s so much emphasis on standardized testing, so we all have to jump through the same hoops as educators,” Brown said.

“But, I still believe in how we can all learn from each other, rather than just how we can beat each other, and I still want kids to be happy, confident, flexible and to think for themselves, not just pass tests,” he said.

When Brown first arrived, he had the initial growing pains that come with settling into a new and dramatically different teaching environment. He had to use a few different words, or pronounce or enunciate some of his usual vocabulary a little differently. He had to remember that flipping the switches by the door “up” turns the lights on, rather than off, like in Australia.

Brown also immediately realized that Alaska kids are cut from a different cloth than their more mild-weather counterparts Down Under.

“At home, they’ll make announcements to warn the kids it’s going to rain, but here it’ll be down to minus 10 and the kids are still outside playing tetherball and slipping down the slide covered in ice. It doesn’t seem to bother them at all. Alaskan children definitely have an adventurous spirit,” he said.

Brown said that the band and music programs at K-Beach are very good, and from

Coming to Alaska in January 2012, Gavan and Margaret Brown experienced all of Alaska’s seasons, including the record-breaking snowfall last winter and the minus temperatures that lasted for weeks this winter. Still, they said, “We loved it here. We couldn’t get enough.”

Coming to Alaska in January 2012, Gavan and Margaret Brown experienced all of Alaska’s seasons, including the record-breaking snowfall last winter and the minus temperatures that lasted for weeks this winter. Still, they said, “We loved it here. We couldn’t get enough.”

what he’s seen, Alaska kids have an above-average knowledge and appreciation for the environment. The unique outdoor opportunities presented to Alaskans aren’t something that was lost on Brown during his time in state.

“I was very surprised by the abundance of wildlife. There was hardly a day went by that I didn’t see a moose on the side of the road on my drive into work. I also enjoyed all the bears and eagles in summer,” he said.

It wasn’t just wildlife, but also wild places that Brown took in during his off hours while spending the year here.

“I did some fantastic fishing in summer, a lot of snowshoeing in the Skilak area in winter. We went to Denali three times, we took the ferry through the Kenai Fjords and drove all over and all the way up to Fairbanks,” he said.

As his time in Alaska was drawing to a close, Brown said that a familiar feeling began to fill him.

“It’s always bittersweet to say goodbye. The first few months are frantic as you’re running around to learn the culture of the school, but at this stage everything has fallen into place. You know what’s going on, you’ve made friends, but it’s time to leave,” he said.

On the other hand, Brown said he’s looking forward to getting back to the place he calls home, seeing his two adult daughters, and eating some lamb, which while somewhat rare in the U.S. diet, is a staple protein for most Australians.

Brown’s not sure when or where he’ll end up teaching next, but said he’s already looking forward to the experience.

“My philosophy is, you have to be willing to take a risk,” he said. “That’s what my wife and I did and we had a great year. The Alaskan experience was pretty unique.”

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