Iditarod superfan, Hilliard teacher Jim Deprez will hit trail in 2021, bring lessons home
A Hilliard teacher will spend next spring on the Iditarod trail and sharing the experience with his students, as well as other students and teachers throughout the United States.
"It's finally sunk in (and) it is truly an honor," said Jim Deprez, a third-grade teacher at Ridgewood Elementary School who has been named the 2021 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail.
Deprez is the 23rd Iditarod Teacher on the Trail and was selected from three finalists.
A 15-year educator, Deprez is beginning his third year teaching at Ridgewood Elementary School.
As a finalist, Deprez was at this year's Iditarod, where he spoke at a conference in Anchorage, Alaska, just before the start March 7.
The 900-plus-mile race between Anchorage and Nome, Alaska, included 57 mushers, or dogsled drivers.
Deprez was back at Ridgewood Elementary School on March 11, where he had only three days to share the experience in person with his students before schools were closed by state order to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.
Deprez acknowledged the uncertainty of the coronavirus and how public education during the continuing pandemic will challenge the traditional model of his Iditarod curriculum, but his job as the Iditarod Teacher of the Trail will continue. Deprez will make regular posts to the Iditarod's educational website, iditarod.com/edu.
"I'll talk to veteran mushers and write 'then-and-now' pieces," describing how the Iditarod has changed, Deprez said.
The Iditarod began in 1973 and is held each year on the first Saturday in March.
Thomas Waerner of Norway won the 2020 race with a time of nine days, 10 hours, 37 minutes and 47 seconds.
Deprez said he also will work to educate the public and address common misconceptions about the Iditarod race.
"One misconception is that the Iditarod is linked to the delivery of a diphtheria medicine (in the 1920s) between Anchorage and Nome," he said. "While some of the route is the same, what the Iditarod is linked to is the mail route (between the two cities)."
The "mail trail" became less used in the 1960s as air mail and snowmobiles replaced mush teams to deliver mail to remote areas, Deprez said.
"The Iditarod was started to keep the sport of mushing alive," he said.
Perhaps most significantly, Deprez will reach out during the fall, winter and spring to teach students and other educators about the Iditarod and how it can be used to encourage children to learn about math, geography, meteorology and other subjects.
Deprez said he will use Skype and other digital methods for livestreamed and recorded lessons, and when it's possible, he'll teach his students at Ridgewood in person.
During next year's Iditarod, Deprez plans to travel with the race's support team, moving from place to place along the path from start to finish while reporting back to students and educators.
Deprez said his interest in the Iditarod can be traced to another teacher: Amie Bassett, whom he met in 2005.
Deprez served as Bassett's long-term substitute while she was on maternity leave from Hamilton Elementary School in the Hamilton Local School District.
"(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."
Other teachers at Ridgewood say students are excited to learn about 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."
Ridgewood Elementary School principal Kevin Buchman said he is excited for Deprez and the students.
"I can't tell you how thrilled I am that Jim has been selected to be the teacher on assignment for the 2021 Iditarod. Not only is this going to be an amazing learning experience for him and our third-graders, but the whole school will be actively involved with this educational journey," Buchman said.
The Iditarod named the first Teacher on the Trail in 1999.
"The real-life applications that Iditarod offers give teachers powerful tools for motivating students of every age in every aspect of the curriculum," said Chas St. George, a spokesman for the Iditarod.