On Saturday, March 7, Ridgewood Elementary School third-grade teacher Jim Deprez will witness something few people experience: the start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, with 57 mushers beginning an almost 1,000-mile race between Anchorage and Nome in Alaska.
Deprez, a 14-year educator who is in his second year teaching at Ridgewood, will be back in the classroom before the Iditarod ends, but he might have an even closer look next year.
He is one of the three finalists in the Iditarod Teacher on the Trail program. If selected as the Teacher on the Trail for 2021 – he will learn in early April if he is the winner – Deprez would follow the mushers during the entire Iditarod.
“I’m a little nervous but excited,” said Deprez, 39, who flew Feb. 29 from Columbus to Anchorage.
As a Teacher on the Trail finalist – the other finalists are teachers from Pennsylvania and Virginia – he will present at a conference to other teachers before the start of the Iditarod.
Deprez also will serve as an ambassador to the Iditarod and as a race volunteer, he said.
“I’ll help lead the mushing teams from the trucks to the starting line,” he said.
The Iditarod began in 1973, and it starts each year on the first Saturday of March. Peter Kaiser of Bethel, Alaska, won the 2019 race with a time of 9 days, 12 hours, 9 minutes and 2 seconds, according to the Iditarod website, iditarod.com.
Deprez said he typically uses the Iditarod to teach the subjects of geography, meteorology and math, as well as other lessons that can be learned from the dog-sled race.
“I plan to Skype with my class,” he said. “They are just as excited as I am.”
Each musher in the race has about 14 to 15 dogs, typically Alaskan huskies, Deprez said.
“A lot of kids have pet dogs, so they can relate to the stories about how the mushers depend so much on the dog team,” he said. “Mushers usually cover about 100 miles a day, so the race takes almost 10 days.”
Deprez said he is scheduled to fly home Monday, March 9.
“I’ll be back in the classroom (by Wednesday, March 11), so my class will track the mushers each day for the rest of the race,” he said.
“It’s something that I had thought about for several years,” he said. “I wanted my daughters to be a little older before doing something that could have me away from home for so long.”
Deprez and his wife, Emily, have two daughters: Alexis, 8 and Riley, 4.
He said his interest in the Iditarod can be traced back to another teacher: Amie Bassett, whom he met in 2005 while he was a long-term substitute teacher for her when she was on maternity leave at Hamilton Elementary School in the Hamilton Local School District in Columbus.
“(Bassett) used the Iditarod to teach her kids math and writing,” he said. “I saw how much they loved it and knew it was something I wanted to use in the classroom, too.
“Since then, I’ve worked to make it my own and to make it as personal as possible for the kids.”
Deprez said he has used Apple’s FaceTime video-messaging calls each of the past five years, including for his classes in Marysville before coming to Hilliard, to conference with Matthew Failor, an Ohio State University alumnus and Mansfield native who participates in the Iditarod.
“Jim is a wonderful colleague who has brought his passion for the Iditarod to life in our third-grade community,” said Tammy Schmidt, a fellow teacher at Ridgewood. “He has created a unit that is exciting to students (and that) students will remember long after their elementary school days.”
Another colleague, Caitlin Beck, agreed.
“It is neat to see how passionate Jim is about the Iditarod and this unit he has developed,” Beck said. “His passion gets the kids excited to learn and explore. His unit incorporates all subject areas, as well as STEM activities.
“This is the second year that we have introduced this unit to our third-graders, and I have already learned new and different information than I did last year. We are grateful he is part of our third-grade teaching team.”
Students are connecting, too.
Ridgewood fourth-grader Maggie Ray said her favorite activities while studying the Iditarod are tracking mushers, learning about the race checkpoints and “Mush Madness,” during which students build sleds and compete against other classes.
Maggie said she also was able to experience real sledding.
"My family had a trip planned to go to Canada and go skiing,” she said. “I just had started talking about the Iditarod in my class, so we looked to see if we could do dog sledding there (and did).
“It was a neat experience but I was so nervous and worried about falling off because we went over lakes and rivers.”
Deprez said he is looking forward to sharing his firsthand experiences from the Iditarod and his first trip to Alaska – and he hopes to have more stories to tell after next year.