Lessons from Alaska part of educational trail for teacher

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  • WILLARD, Ohio — The Iditarod Trail makes a squiggly partial bisection of Alaska as it traces an irregular tangent across some of the most rugged wilderness in North America.

    The historic freight route from Anchorage to Nome passes through tiny villages and ghost towns such as Yentna Station, Rainy Pass, Cripple, and Unalakleet on its nearly thousand mile test of the skill and endurance of mushers and their canine teams of sled dogs.

    But the race is a worldwide event, and it’s made a loop through northwest Ohio to add an unofficial checkpoint in this town of about 6,200, located 60 miles southeast of Toledo. The local link to the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is Shannon Wyckoff, a teacher at Willard High School here, and one of three finalists for the role of “Teacher on the Trail” in next year’s race.

    The program brings the race, its history, and a better understanding of our 49th state into classrooms around the world. The Teacher on the Trail travels the race route in a small plane, posting lessons throughout the race with the goal of bringing quality teaching and learning to students in Alaska, Willard, and beyond.

    Wyckoff, who was also a finalist last year, is one of three chosen to compete for the 2015 honor from a pool of about 10,000 applicants. She recently traveled to Alaska for 10 days to attend a teachers’ conference, go through more rigorous screening, and take in the start of this year’s race.

    Willard High School’s Shannon Wyckoff is one of three finalists for next year's Teacher on the Trail honor.
    Willard High School’s Shannon Wyckoff is one of three finalists for next year's Teacher on the Trail honor.

    “From the moment you arrive, they watch everything you do,” said Wyckoff, who teaches students with disabilities and senior project at Willard. While in Alaska, she worked as a dog handler at the start of the race, helped out with the race stats on a midnight to 6 a.m. shift, and worked a 4 p.m. to midnight stint in the phone room another day.

    “It is grueling out there on the trail, with just a backpack and a sleeping bag, and they want to see how you function with little sleep,” she said. “The Teacher on the Trail connects with classrooms all over the world using Skype, so they go to great lengths to make sure they select the right person.”

    Wyckoff has a strong link to Alaska. Her parents built a cabin in the Alaskan bush and spend about three months there each year. Wyckoff wants her students to share her appreciation for the breathtaking beauty of Alaska and the spirit of the folks who live there.

    “I wanted my students to understand what Alaska is,” she said. “When I started this, some of them had no idea it was part of the U.S. They couldn’t grasp the concept of living somewhere with no electricity.”

    But due to Wyckoff’s involvement in the Teacher on the Trail competition, the school is now very Alaska savvy. When she left for her visit to Alaska, she got a huge sendoff from the students.

    “It is so exciting because now they know about the Iditarod and they know where Alaska is and why it is so important,” Wyckoff said. “There is so much history and geography associated with this race, and the state of Alaska. The students — they take this journey with me.”

    The 43-year-old Wyckoff is in her 20th year teaching, and her 17th at Willard. The Ashland University graduate gave a 45-minute presentation on Alaska to a teachers’ conference during her recent visit, and her performance in that session will be part of what the five-member selection panel will use to decide who will serve as the Teacher on the Trail for the 2015 Iditarod.

    “I’ve been through the process before, so I think I have a really good chance this time,” Wyckoff said. “I am heavily invested in this, so it would pretty much mean the world to me to win this thing.”

    Wyckoff will find out in early April if she has been chosen for the prestigious honor of leading this global teaching adventure.

    “The hardest part about not being chosen last year was that my students took it so hard,” she said. “And since then, I think I’ve been asked a million times why I decided to apply again and go through the whole process all over, but it makes perfect sense to me. I tell my students every day that if something doesn’t turn out right, you do it over. I’m just following that philosophy.”

    FAILOR UPDATE: Ohio native Matt Failor was in 23rd place in a field of nearly 70 teams in the Iditarod as of early Monday, and headed for the coastal community of Shaktoolik. The race leaders were less than 100 miles from the finish at Nome, with California native Jeff King, who has lived in Alaska for nearly four decades, out in front. Failor’s team was checked by the race veterinarian team at the Unalakleet stop and given a clean bill of health to continue the nearly thousand mile race. After watering the dogs, Failor departed for Shaktoolik and narrowly missed out on a treat that fans had sent for him. Last year at the Unalakleet checkpoint, a fan who had been following Failor on Facebook had a fresh pizza delivered there to coincide with Matt’s arrival. That fan has since passed away due to complications from diabetes, but friends of hers decided to carry on the tradition and sent five pizzas to the race stop. Failor was gone when the food arrived, but a trio of mushers who came in after him were treated to the special meal.

    Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: mmarkey@theblade.com or 419-724-6068.