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After 50 years at Dillingham Elementary, Sophie Woods retires

Isabelle Ross/KDLG

Sophie Woods has worked at Dillingham Elementary longer than anyone else at the school. Over her 50 years as a teacher’s aide, she has taught students a variety of skills, from reading to native dancing. Now, she’s retiring.

At a class in early May, Sophie Woods sat with kindergarten students as they colored in line drawings of animals and insects and wrote the animals’ names on dotted lines underneath.

“I love to teach reading,” said Woods. “In this reading program we have to teach them nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs. I have to teach them a verb, and I just love teaching them. I whisper in their ear, and I say, ‘OK, you have to jog, or skip, and the kids say, ‘So-or-so is skipping.’ That’s how they learn—by doing what a verb is. That’s what I enjoy the most.”

First-grade teacher, Amy Ruby, was Woods’ student when she was in elementary school.

“I’ve known her since I was six years old. She has been an integral part of that school system, and she’s been there for me. She’s been there as a student, as an employee and as a teacher,” said Ruby in a speech at Woods’ retirement party.

Woods was born in Clark's Point. After living in New York for a few years, she came to Dillingham on a pilot program for teachers' aides. The program was two years long; she stayed on for 50.

After a period of administrative work at the school, Woods started working with students, mainly in the elementary school, and occasionally in the upper grades.

“I never did really teach the bigger kids,” she explained. “It was just kind of like a… bouncer. Just kidding!”

That sharp sense of humor punctuated her recollections of working with kids over the years.

“There was this kid who didn’t want to come to school. And his mom said, ‘I’ll just leave.’ I said, ‘Go ahead,’ and I put my arms and legs on the sides of the door. And he bit me!”

Midway through her career, Woods decided to pursue a teaching certification, and she earned 72 credits through a long-distance learning program. But doing so while working full-time and raising four kids became overwhelming. She decided to stay an aide, and at times, that title was an obstacle.

“Some people treated me like an equal. And some people treated me like I was a peon, because I was a native and because I wasn’t a teacher. In fact, another native lady didn’t let me be in the Native Teachers of Alaska group because she said I wasn’t a teacher. So I just let it go. I just stopped going to those get-togethers because she said I wasn’t a teacher,” she said.

Still, Woods said that being an aide has allowed her to develop a different dynamic with the students.

“You get to know the kids. And they confide in you because you’re not a teacher. You’re an aide. And they can identify with an aide.”

Woods reached a turning point as an educator in 1999. A native dance conference was taking place in Togiak. Fifth-grade teacher, Patricia Madore, told the organizers that Dillingham would send a group to perform. Then she asked Woods to teach some native dances to her class for the conference. 

“I hadn’t ever taught native dancing, but I knew some dances,” said Woods. “I had no idea how I would teach, and I just plunged in and taught them what I knew. I teach them how to drum, I teach them the songs. We just do it. And that’s how Yup’ik people do it too.”

The group went to Togiak twice, and Woods has been teaching native dance ever since. When President Obama visited Dillingham in 2015, Woods led the president and her students in a dance. She said that dancing gives the students confidence. She can see their eyes light up and that it makes them feel good about themselves.

Woods may be retiring, but she doubts she’ll stop teaching. She is considering leading a native dance class for kids in the fall.

Contact the author at isabelle@kdlg.org or 907-842-5281.

Credit Isabelle Ross/KDLG
Sophie Woods explains a "large motor skills" game.
Credit Isabelle Ross/KDLG
Sophie Woods helps kindergartners with writing.
Credit Isabelle Ross/KDLG
Sophie Woods leads second graders in a dance.

Izzy Ross is the news director at KDLG, the NPR member station in Dillingham. She reports, edits, and hosts stories from around the Bristol Bay region, and collaborates with other radio stations across the state.