Teacher on the Trail, A Bold Idea!

Finney is Honored With Quilt on 20th Anniversary of Teacher on the Trail (Photo Credit Terrie Hanke)

The Winter Teacher’s Conference continued today with presentations from the three Teacher on the Trail finalists.  This was their opportunity to share their best practices using Iditarod as a theme for education.  With this being a year of celebrating Iditarod history, let’s take a look back and meet Finney, the first Teacher on the Trail and learn about what motivated her to propose such a bold idea.

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!

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.

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 since 1999.  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.

Teachers competing for the Teacher on the Trail position participate in interviews, a challenge task, have write daily postings with lesson prompts and present to the teacher’s conference attendees.  Being chosen as a finalist after submitting a very extensive application is a true accomplishment.  Being in Alaska for the conference and the start of Iditarod is an incredible experience and will be priceless regardless of who is chosen to serve as the Teacher on the Trail.  The finalists create long lasting friendships between themselves and the teachers at the conference as well as EDU staff.  The competition provides personal and professional growth.

The Teacher on the Trail enjoys a classroom without walls.  The lessons created and shared on the Iditarod Education page are used by teachers around the world.  From the trail the teacher shares the race from a front row perspective through daily posts that include lesson prompts.  In the villages, the teacher meets the indigenous people of the region and learns about their culture.   In the checkpoints the teacher works with volunteers and observes the mushers as they care for their dogs.  All along the trail, the teacher sees the amazing sled dogs in action – doing what they love to do – running and pulling.  The experience is profound and unique for every person who has held the year long job.   

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 the instigator of putting a teacher out on the trail, 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.

Here’s a fun fact.  The current Teacher on the Trail, Jim Deprez, is the 23rd teacher to hold the position and to date there have been twenty-three different Iditarod champions.  For the pattern to hold true for next year, a new champion must be crowned. 

Do you use Iditarod as a theme in your classroom?  Are you intrigued by the challenge of being the liaison between the Iditarod trail and classrooms?  Does the opportunity to create and  share Iditarod themed lessons with teachers around the world interest you?  Are you a hearty soul who embraces adventure, enjoys cold weather and would be comfortable in less that luxurious conditions in checkpoints?  The application for the 2024 Teacher on the Trail will soon be available.  Contact Education Director Jane Holmes at jane.holmes@iditarod.com.  

The impact of Finney’s 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.

Lesson Prompt:

Who are the leaders and founders in your community?  What character traits do the display?  Who are the leaders and founders of your school community?  What character traits do they embody.  Identify a leader or founder as a community hero.