Mary Poppins of Hope, Alaska

January 26, 2017

Patti Truesdell ’02, earned her education degree at an age when other teachers choose to retire. Now, this non-traditional graduate has a non-traditional job as one of only two teachers in Hope, Alaska. “It was the greatest decision I ever made” (Photo courtesy of BP Teachers of Excellence).

Think your commute is rough? Patti Truesdell drives 98 miles from her home in Soldotna to her job in Hope, then rents a room through the week.

But she wouldn’t change a thing.

As one of two teachers in town, Patti plays a vital role in the historic gold mining community. Hope’s dusty downtown has a frontier feel, so it’s fitting that Patti essentially teaches out of a one-room schoolhouse. Even though there’s a gym and a library, Hope’s student population rarely tips above 20, and Patti teaches every single kid from pre-K to grade 12. Her teaching style capitalizes on the school’s unique setting — she’s all about personal connections and piles of pancakes with her students. It’s partially why she landed on the most recent list of BP Teachers of Excellence.

Though her job is unconventional, so is her path to teaching. After putting four kids through college, Patti decided it was time to enroll herself. She earned her degree in education through Kenai Peninsula College at age 50 and, though she wasn’t what some schools expected, she found a fit in Hope.

“I was a teacher looking for a classroom and Hope was a community looking for a teacher,” she said. “This community just wrapped their arms around me.”

Finding Hope

Patti didn’t have time for college the first time around. She got married straight out of high school. Her husband, Pat, worked on the North Slope while she went to work at the local hospital, starting in the kitchens and moving through various departments, like insurance, admissions and addiction treatment. Meanwhile, they raised their four kids, watching as each earned a college degree.

Patti stayed at the hospital 23 years before switching to education. What changed? She says she had “an epiphany;” one night, while training a new hire in the emergency room, Patti looked into the young kid’s face and realized she was probably there the night he was born, too. That was enough of a motivation to make a change.

By this point, Pat had earned two degrees in social work from UAA and opened his own family counseling business. “I got to a place where it seemed like everybody in my family had their college education except me,” Patti said. “So I went to school and got mine.”

It wasn’t easy. She worked three part-time jobs, including the weekend graveyard shift at the hospital, and entered the workforce at an age when many teachers retire. On top of that, the local district had just combined two elementary schools.

Amid that uncertainty, she bounced around to various schools — two years across the inlet in Tyonek, a year in Ninilchik, a year in Soldotna working with Alaska Native students on behalf of the Kenaitze Tribe.

That’s when a position — the only position — opened in Hope.

Pancakes in the classroom

Patti is one of 11 UAA grads on the 2016 BP Teachers of Excellence list. Click the image to see more (Image courtesy BP Teachers of Excellence).

Patti was one of 11 UAA grads on the BP Teachers of Excellence list last year. Click the image to see more (Image courtesy BP Teachers of Excellence).

Patti’s arrival in Hope reads like a Hollywood script. The previous teacher left over winter break and Patti entered a school on the edge. “They hadn’t had a teacher since Christmas. The kids had just been at recess for weeks,” she recalled. “The community was shell-shocked because it looked like they were going to lose their school.” So, like Mary Poppins or Sound of Music’s Sister Maria, she set to work. “They didn’t care that I was 56 years old. They just needed a teacher.”

Since starting in Hope, she’s maintained the same routine: weekends in Soldotna, weekdays at school. “Its kind of like the old days, I just board somewhere here in the community,” she smiled. Over the years, she’s housesat, lived in a cabin and even slept on a cot in the classroom. Though she now resides at a local bed & breakfast, she still brings her own groceries from Soldotna and cooks her meals in the school.

Patti’s experience is unlike most in the country. Students grow up in her classroom; she can read their emotions when they walk in the door. She may cook pancakes and chat over last night’s reading while passing a bottle of syrup. If a kid is late, she’s been known to call the house to wake him up.

Hope School now has two teachers, so Patti first covers language arts and history with the youngsters, then shifts to junior high and high school in the afternoons (her colleague Sandra Barron teaches math and science).

“My high school kids are my pride and joy,” she said, looking at a line of senior portraits hanging in the classroom. “Haleigh’s up in Anchorage, Deanna’s got three kids.” Some went to HVAC or cosmetology school, others to UAA or APU. “These are all champs,” she said.

Patti knows she’s lucky to have such tight bonds with her students. “If you have 120 kids plowing through your classroom every day, you maybe don’t have the opportunity I do to really spend quality time with kids,” she noted. “This is the kind of teaching I always wanted to do.”

She thinks those bonds helped her earn recognition on BP’s Teachers of the Year awards. “I was pretty stunned, to tell you the truth,” she remarked of the recognition. In fact, when the district informed her to expect a visit, she convinced herself it was to shutter the school. Why else would the superintendent drive 98 miles on 24 hours’ notice? “I spent the whole night cleaning,” she laughed. But instead of a pink slip, the superintendent arrived with a bouquet of flowers.

A second act at UAA

“I’ve been really fortunate,” Patti said, reflecting on the recent award and her career in education. One of her daughters lives in France where, she says, you don’t get a second chance at college. “You get in once when you’re young and then there’s no turning back,” she noted.

Thankfully, that wasn’t the case for Patti and Pat, now married 46 years and with 13 grandkids.

“We were two kids who got married at 18 and 20 with high school diplomas and raised our family and we both graduated from UAA,” she smiled. “I tell students all the time, I pay a lot of bills. The one bill every month that I never resented was my student loan … I’m thrilled I was able to get my degree.”

Though her students often tease her about getting the senior citizen discount on field trips, she says she’s not done teaching yet.

“I didn’t get started on this ‘til late, so I still feel like I’m challenged every single day,” she noted.

“I’m just happy with my life. It was the greatest decision I ever made.”

See the rest of UAA’s most recent BP Teachers of Excellence here.

Written by J. Besl, UAA Office of University Advancement

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