This year's Iditarod dog sled race ended last month, but Gilman School teacher Jen Reiter is already preparing for next year's race.
For thousands of students nationwide, Reiter will be the face of the race that begins March 1, 2014. She has been chosen by race officials as the Iditarod's 2014 "Teacher on the Trail," the first from Maryland, she said.
Reiter will follow the 1,000-mile, 10-to-14-day race through the Alaskan wilderness from Anchorage to Nome, blogging and Skypeing online, keeping a journal, teaching classes in small villages along the route, and generally promoting Iditarod in the Classroom, a popular teaching tool for educators around the world.
She will miss about five weeks of work at Gilman, including spring break, she said.
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing," said Reiter, 43, of Rodgers Forge. "I'll get to go places most people never get to go."
Reiter, who came to Gilman from Norwood Elementary School in Dundalk in 2000, routinely uses the Iditarod as part of the curriculum in her third-grade classroom, where a stuffed, white toy husky sits expectantly in a corner, its pink tongue licking the air, as if waiting for a race. Next to it is a bin of books with titles such as "Born to Pull."
Featured prominently around the room are posters and maps of Alaska and the Iditarod route. Several of the posters are signed by former mushers.
Iditarod is a winning educational theme, especially at Gilman, whose lower school is all boys.
"They just eat all that adventure stuff up," said Reiter, who even wrote her own Iditarod-themed math curriculum. "They think they're learning about the race and they're learning all this math stuff."
North to Alaska
The Iditarod was only an academic exercise for Reiter until last year, when she and science teacher Ellen Rizutto won a $10,000 grant from Gilman to attend a dog-mushing school in Ely, Minn., and a teachers' conference in Anchorage, Alaska in conjunction with the 2012 Iditarod.
After the race was over, the Iditarod's director of education, Diane Johnson asked Reiter, "What's your next step?" and suggested that Reiter apply to be the next Teacher on the Trail, Reiter said.
In January, Reiter learned that she was one of three finalists. And on April 2, Johnson phoned Reiter in her homeroom to announce that Reiter had won the all-expenses-paid trip.
"The kids were very excited," Reiter said. She said students had already given her a gift certificate for Christmas to take dog-sledding lessons at a kennel in western Maryland.
Also excited is her own son, first-grader T.J. She and her husband, Joe, a teacher in Carroll County, told T.J. about her trip.
"He's trying to get us to take him," she said.
Johnson said that although the race and its educational components are well-known, Reiter was one of only six applicants for Teacher on the Trail, due to a rigorous application process, the rigors and long days of the trek, and the amount of time the winner would be away from his or her own school and family
"Not every principal is going to let their teacher go for five weeks," Johnson said. She said Teacher on the Trail is a job, and that the teachers must be willing to do everything from posting articles online to helping feed the dogs. A committee of five members from around the country evaluates the candidates on how well they write and communicate verbally with the public; their energy level; the creativity and uniqueness of their lesson plans; and their ability to rough it on a route with no roads, where, "You have to live with what will fit in a backpack and a duffel bag," Johnson said.
Reiter starts her official duties in June, when she will attend and make a presentation at a summer camp for educators. She will also take a "glacier field trip" to learn how to tie Alaskan geography into lesson plans, and will write and post a curriculum to the Iditarod website, iditarod.com., she said.
Reiter won't actually ride a sled in the 2014 Iditarod, because mushers must have access to a kennel and meet high qualifying standards for the race. Instead, she will fly in a small "bush" plane from checkpoint to checkpoint along the route, and will sleep in a sleeping bag, just like a real musher. The bears will be hibernating, but moose could pose a danger, especially to the dogs, she said.
"It's not like I'll be at the spa."
She's a little disappointed not to be mushing.
"I would really love to try it," she said, "if I knew there was somebody who was going to stay with me the whole time."
In an April 4 interview, she was already wearing an official Iditarod fleece jacket that race organizers gave her. She said they will also provide her with warm clothes appropriate for the trip, including a heavy-duty winter coat with a fur collar that she gets to keep.
"You don't want your Teacher on the Trail frostbitten," she said.