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Voice of Experience

Back from the Iditarod: Teaching Is a Lot Like Mushing!

Educator Jeanie Olson is home from her trip to the 2003 Iditarod Sled Dog Race. As she reflects on her Alaskan adventure, she sees quite a few similarities between the skills it takes to be a dog sled musher and a classroom teacher!

How is a musher like a classroom teacher?

No, it's not a joke. There is no punchline, I am just back from an exhilarating trip to the Iditarod Sled Dog Race, and on the way home I caught myself reflecting about the skills mushers and classroom teachers seem to have in common. The grueling life of a sled dog musher on the trail seems to me to have many parallels to day-to-day life in the classroom.


More Resources

Before Jeanie Olson left for the Iditarod, she created ten Iditarod Math work sheets for teachers to use in their classrooms. You can find links to those real-world-math work sheets and more Iditarod resources in Education Worlds Iditarod archive.


Have you ever seen or watched video of a sled dog musher at work? At the Iditarod I had an opportunity to get up close and personal with many of the mushers and their dog teams.

As I watched experienced mushers marshal their teams of 16 eager and spirited sled dogs to the start line in Anchorage, it passed through my mind that the scene wasn't all that different from guiding a group of students to recess! When the destination is something kids or canines love to do, getting them there can be challenging and hectic -- even chaotic. The din of 64 dog teams impatiently anticipating the start of the Iditarod reminded me of the excited chatter in a lunchroom full of kids releasing a morning of pent-up energy.

As I observed dog teams at the start and along the race route, I was also struck by the variety of personalities I saw among the huskies. I observed the over-exuberant ones pulling, tugging, and yowling with delight. In any group of students, you are bound to see the same thing as high-energy students speed walk to commandeer their way to the front of the line. Like the Iditarod's four-legged participants, my students sometimes squabble and tussle for position, rights, and sustenance. Mushers and teachers must be prepared to work with the occasional bully, too.


Teachers and mushers have in their groups those alpha males and females, but we also have introverts. Those children who sit back and wait for inclusion in an activity make me think of the shy dogs on the team that hide when a stranger passes by for a quick pat or picture.

Most kids and dogs are well-intentioned, but when one gets out of line, teachers and mushers must tailor their discipline techniques to the situation and personalities involved. Some learn best from positive reinforcement, while others inappropriate behaviors are better handled with corrective responses or consequences.

In Alaska, I witnessed how Iditarod sled dogs thrived on their mushers love, care, praise, attention, hugs, and respect. Our students might not jump, nudge, or lick us, but they do respond when they know we care.

More Voices of Experience

Have you seen these Voice of Experience essays from previous weeks?


Some similarities between mushers teams and teachers students are just uncanny! I can't tell you the number of times I have had students look up at me in disbelief when I've made an error or placed expectations too high for them to fathom. Their furrowed brows question my motives -- and my sanity.

I saw that exact same reaction among the sled dogs, so I asked some of my musher friends about it. They told tales of times they have turned onto wrong trails or pushed a too-tired team too far. On those occasions and others, the dogs would stop dead in their tracks, whip their heads back in a unanimous double take, and raise their brows in disbelief. Are you sure you want to head this way? they seemed to respond. Other times they would respond with incredulous looks of I know you don't expect me to do that!

I am home now from my Iditarod experience -- and my personal experiences with the mushers and dogs of Iditarod 2003 will forever color the way I look at my students. It's going to be difficult not to look out upon my students' faces and think back to the faces of Iditarod huskies eager to learn, yearning for praise, and willing to respond to high expectations that challenge them to excel!

Jeanie Olson is a sixth-grade teacher at Schroeder Middle School in Grand Forks, North Dakota. She has used the Iditarod as part of the curriculum for about 15 years. Attending Iditarod 2003 -- as part of musher Vern Halter's support team, sponsored by Wells Fargo -- has been a dream come true for her.

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Updated 3/02/2012