It’s a tale as old as time: Student meets teacher, teacher changes student’s life, student becomes teacher and the rest is history. This story was no different for Christine Dyer, a local educator of 20 years who teaches English at Lathrop High School.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I went to college. I just went to play soccer and then I thought I wanted to be a DJ so I was studying to be on the radio,” Dyer said.
Then she took an English class and everything changed.
“I had this instructor who just kind of changed my life,” she said. “She made me want to teach and be like her and read literature like her and teach other people how to read literature and be inspired by it and see the humanity in it.”
After that one class, Dyer changed her major to English.
“That’s pretty much how I ended up where I am today,” she said with a laugh.
Dyer received her Bachelor of Arts in English from Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri, where she also received her initial teaching certificate.
She then returned to Alaska to complete her Master of Arts in English at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where she also completed a second teaching certificate.
Since then she’s taught at Ben Eielson High School, UAF and now at Lathrop High School. Her career has also taken her overseas on an unanticipated but fulfilling adventure teaching in Kingston, Jamaica.
“About five years ago my husband and I were teaching together at Eielson High School and a new librarian came in and said she used to teach at an international school that loved hiring couples and suggested we’d be great at it,” Dyer said. “I deleted the email immediately because I was not a very adventurous person. At the time I was teaching at the same high school that I went to when I was growing up.”
But Dyer’s husband was adventurous enough for the both of them and began looking into the process.
“We got job offers in South Korea, Mexico, Ethiopia and Kingston,” Dyer said. “We chose Kingston.”
The two taught for two years at a school called the American International School of Kingston. The process was both trying and rewarding, Dyer said looking back.
“It was equal parts incredible and challenging. It challenged us as individuals and as a family unit. When we left for Kingston, my daughter had just turned 3 and my son had just turned 6,” she said. “We took these kids to a world they’d never seen. My husband had traveled extensively before this, but I hadn’t. I had driven through Canada before this. And all of a sudden we’re in this new place and navigating a new culture and a new way of doing school.”
The first year was incredibly difficult but eventually subsided into a smooth rhythm, Dyer recalled.
“Like any big transition in life, at first it’s difficult and then things get easier and you get more in the flow,” she said. “So we were really in a groove there and we loved it but we came back because the school district only allows us to take two years leave of absence without totally retiring.”
Teaching at Lathrop
This is Dyer’s second year teaching English at Lathrop. She teaches ninth grade and 11th grade.
It’s difficult to pick a favorite grade to teach, she notes.
“I have a special place in my heart for freshmen and juniors. I don’t really know what it is. With freshmen, I love how they enter into a new phase and find their footing. It’s really cool to see how much they realize that the literature and things we study play into their decisions as a human being,” Dyer said. “But juniors are amazing. They’re very driven and they’re just more mature. They’re eager to be grown-ups. The lens that they look at literature through and their own writing through, it’s just so much more powerful and experienced.”
Dyer teaches AP Language and Composition to her juniors, which includes reading still, but much of the discussion centers around writing.
“That’s one silver lining that I’ve seen in this current classroom shutdown that’s going on is my students are much more able to express how they’re feeling as we all try to figure out this new way of teaching. It’s really cool to watch them use language in order to become an individual,” Dyer said.
After nearly two decades teaching the same age groups, Dyer has developed favorite texts to teach her class.
“I feel like the books we read in junior year land really hard with kids. We read Zora Neal-Hurston’s ‘Their eyes were watching God,’ and for some students, it was their first experience reading from a female writer — a female writer of color — and having a protagonist that’s a female and a female of color,” she said. “That’s really powerful, and the fact that this book shows them that you don’t have to write in this dry, academic English to get your point across.”
For freshmen it’s been a bit more difficult.
“It’s hard because there’s always these big things that everyone has always taught — ‘The Odyssey,’ ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’” Dyer said. “So my current human and educational struggle is, ‘Do we really have to teach some of those?’ I mean, there’s great values and ideas and, yes, ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is a challenging read, but is it really what today’s students need?”
It’s because of this that Dyer has been incorporating more choice and individual freedom in how her freshmen read.
“Allowing them to have their own voice and choice in what they’re reading and input into how they read it, I’m really seeing huge payoffs since I’m not able to see them face to face now,” she said. “So I know for at least three-fourths of this year, I’ve worked with my freshmen to make value judgments and be responsible for their own learning, so now I’m probably going to say, ‘Hey, read whatever makes you happy.’”
Impact of the shutdown
The time away from her students during the COVID-19 school shutdowns has been trying for Dyer.
“For all educators, this period of non-contact with our students is really difficult. Because a lot of the reason we got into teaching was to work with kids, to get that joy you get from interacting with your students,” she said.
This doesn’t just include classroom time.
“I miss — and I’m sure other educators miss — the hallroom time and the lunchtime and just, especially on the high school level, a lot of times high school teachers sometimes see students more than their own parents do, and we help our students navigate struggles and navigate life,” she explained, noting technology has made distance education a lot easier for her. “In fact the other day I had a Zoom meeting with my students, and I was trying to hide this on camera but I was just crying because I was so happy to see their faces and hear their voices.”
The challenge for some teachers to learn new ways of communicating through technology with their students could actually be a benefit in the long run, Dyer thinks.
“There are some teachers who are starting all of this from scratch, and those people need to be hugely commended for what they are doing. I think a silver lining is that teachers can feel what it feels like to be a student and have new things thrown at you,” she said.
Perpetual learning is an aspect of teaching that Dyer said she never tires of and ultimately feels is her favorite part of being an educator.
“My job is to teach kids and help them develop and as a teacher when you give your students choice and voice in the classroom and when they trust you, you just get to see things and hear things and read things that not only just makes me a better teacher but makes me a better human,” she said. “I learn so much from my students.”
Contact staff writer Erin McGroarty at 459-7544. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.