June 19, 2018

Eye on the Trail: 20 years of Teacher on the Trail – Honoring Finney

Honoring “Finney” as the founder of the Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™ program.

Over the years many education gurus have proposed what they consider to be the answer for motivating students and enhancing learning. Most of those panaceas have blossomed and then faded into oblivion. Not so with Iditarod. Educators have recognized its benefits as a theme for education for nearly as long as the race has been around.

It was an Indiana educator who envisioned the NEXT step in bringing Iditarod to teachers and students. Andrea “Finney” Auf der Heyde used the real life experiences of Iditarod in her classroom to make a positive impact on student achievement, motivate students, inspire creative learning and spark critical thinking. The NEXT step was to create a resource for teachers by sending a teacher out on the trail during the race!    

Iditarod is celebrating the 20th year of the Teacher on the Trail™ program. It all began in 1998 when Finney contacted Lois Harter at Iditarod Headquarters and presented her proposal for putting a teacher on the trail. That teacher would communicate with classrooms around the world as to how the mushers and dogs participating in the Iditarod were using life skills to achieve their goal of crossing Alaska in the 1049 mile Iditarod.

With a teacher on the trail, teachers would have first hand access to information about the race, dogs, trail, mushers, Iditarod Air Force, volunteers, veterinarians, checkpoints and villages. Everything would be at their fingertips to create real life standards based lessons in every subject across the curriculum – reading, writing, language, math, science, social studies, technology, engineering, art, music, physical education and health. The teacher on the trail would also create and provide race-based standard aligned lessons for teachers to use.

About her vision of putting a teacher on the trail Finney said, “I wanted students to understand how in life we constantly set goals, prepare for those goals and use life-skills to achieve those goals. The life skills that I stressed were perseverance, effort, organization, patience, initiative, humor, cooperation, flexibility, problem solving, curiosity, common sense, courage, integrity and caring. There was no doubt that all these life skills would be used by the mushers to be successful in the sometimes perilous and challenging journey to Nome.”

Having a teacher on the trail was cutting edge not only for the Iditarod but also for education. After Finney traveled to Alaska to defend her proposal, the Iditarod Trail Committee was less than enthusiastic. It was difficult enough staging the race with seasoned mushers acclimated to the North Country. Putting a teacher on the trail wasn’t on their list of priorities. They had concerns – who would be responsible for the teacher, who would fund the teacher, would the teacher be safe in the harsh climate, would the teacher be prepared to stay in the checkpoints, etc. Finney was persistent and when the ITC finally agreed, she was ready to take to the trail and live her dream of sharing Iditarod as a theme for education with educators near and far.

Finney’s vision of how Iditarod could be brought to classrooms and her persistence has profoundly affected the education world. She built the foundation of the Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™ program that has grown and grown over the past twenty years. Beginning in 2000, a teacher has been selected every year to be the liaison between the trail and learners. Each teacher on the trail has created exciting standards based lesson plans using the real life applications Iditarod provides. Those lessons are available through Iditarod’s Education Portal. The EDU portal is brimming with race inspired resources and activities created by the current Teacher on the Trail™ as well as past teachers.

Like Finney, every teacher that has served has provided insights and lesson ideas from the trail that have positively affected countless learners. Hundreds upon hundreds of teachers use the theme of Iditarod to captivate and motivate thousands upon thousands of students both homeschooled and in classrooms around the globe. So compelling is the use of Iditarod that some universities include it in the professional preparation methods courses required of their aspiring teachers.

Reflecting on how the Teacher on the Trail program has evolved over the past twenty years Finney says, “I have been extremely delighted and proud that the ITC embraced the educational value of the Teacher on the Trail™ program and has allowed my vision to continue over the years.” She not only recognized the Iditarod as an incredible teaching tool but conceived a unique effective idea to share it. As founder of the Teacher on the Trail Program, Finney insured that teachers everywhere would have access to and be able to use the Iditarod as an instructional theme to reap the tremendous benefits it has in all academic areas and grade levels.

On the twentieth anniversary of the Teacher on the Trail program, Iditarod Education Honored Finney at the Musher banquet. Finney will also be an Iditarider during the Ceremonial Start, an opportunity the first teacher on the trail didn’t have. She’ll ride with Zoya Denure.

The impact of her vision and leadership as well as serving as the first Teacher on the Trail in 1999 has opened the door of education success for multitudes of students to date and infinitely more in the future.