Racer and sled dogs at Iditarod

A teacher hits the trail

Connecticut teacher Kelly Villar brings her passion for the Iditarod sled dog race to classrooms across the country, inspiring perseverance and courage along the way.

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In 2000, my father told me about a cool sled dog race in Alaska—a 1,000-mile trek run each spring from Anchorage to Nome. As a dog lover, I could not resist, and I have been hooked on the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race ever since.

Kelly Villar with a sled dog

Early on I learned about an innovative program called the Iditarod Teacher on the Trail.™ The program selects a teacher each year from across the nation and invites that teacher to participate in events that surround the Iditarod. The embedded teacher develops lessons and shares them with children and teachers across the country. 

As a teacher and Iditarod lover, I knew I would someday apply for this opportunity. This, along with a supportive school community, has led me to where I am today as the 2020 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail!™

Kelly Villar at Iditarod race

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Inspiring perseverance and courage

I have had the good fortune to spend most of my 19-year career in Mansfield Public Schools, teaching children in grades 2-6.  I currently teach 2nd grade at Southeast Elementary School.  

One of the benefits of working in a fantastic community like Mansfield is the support and encouragement from my administration to bring my passions and interests into my classroom.

Immediately after learning about the Iditarod I began developing ways that I could use this great race in my classroom. Each year since I have found new and exciting ways to incorporate the race into many aspects of Mansfield's standards-based curriculum. The Common Core State Standards, Next Generation Science Standards and Mansfield’s 21st Century Learning Standards all lend themselves to easy integration.  

Each year I use the Iditarod to motivate my students to read. The “IditaRead” challenges students to read the length of the trail, 1,000 minutes for the race’s 1,000 miles.

Iditarod themed bulletin board

Students also learn about and follow their favorite mushers. I have also used the Iditarod to teach literature studies with the themes of courage and perseverance. And there are many strands of science, math, and STEM activities to incorporate. The IditarodEDU website is an excellent resource for integrating the race into any classroom.

My 2020 vision

After following the Iditarod with my class in 2018, I knew that the time was right for me to apply for the Teacher on the Trail™ program.  My own kids were getting older, and I felt like I had enough professional experience to be a serious contender. In July, I began drafting the application, and in August I met with my principal and superintendent—both were completely supportive of my dream to be Teacher on the Trail.™ The application process was long and intense. It allowed me to reflect on my own teaching and really forced me to think deeply about teaching and learning.  

I continue to be so very appreciative and amazed by the tremendous support that I have received from the administration of the Mansfield Public Schools and the entire Southeast School community. I feel that everyone really rallied around me to support my application for the Teacher on the Trail.™  

I received letters of support and the help of my entire school to create an amazing video that introduced me to the selection committee. After four months of work, my application was complete.

Kelly Villar's application in a binder

Preparing to hit the trail

On January 15, 2019, I received a call that I was a finalist, and in one short month, my journey to Alaska began. I was one of three finalists invited to Alaska. The next round of the selection process required me to attend the Winter Teacher's Conference in Anchorage, complete two interviews, write daily blogs, participate as a volunteer dog handler in the start and restart of the Iditarod and participate in behind-the-scenes race communications. 

My schedule in Alaska was grueling and did not afford me much sleep, but it was also simply amazing!

Alaska bound!

On March 27th, I received the call I had been waiting for for 20 years. I was selected to be the 2020 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail.™  My journey through the application process was my own lesson in courage and perseverance, two traits I’ll take with me on the trail!

I officially assume my responsibilities on the trail this June, 2019, when I travel back to Alaska for the Summer Teacher’s Conference. My duties as Teacher on the Trail™ will include the opportunity to teach beyond the walls of the classroom and reach students from around the world. I will post lessons and journal entries to the IditarodEDU website and offer classroom visits through video conference.

In February of 2020, I will return to Alaska for about a month for the Iditarod. During this time I will have the amazing opportunity to travel along the trail from Anchorage to Nome in small bush planes, visit the villages along the trail, present at and visit schools, volunteer at checkpoints and share the events from the trail through a daily journal, which teachers can use to bring the Iditarod into their classrooms.  

I am so appreciative of all of the support that I have received from the Mansfield Public Schools and my friends and family. I am looking forward to my time as the Teacher on the Trail™ and sharing my experience with educators across the country.

Follow Kelly—on the trail and in the classroom

You can learn more about the Teacher on the Trail program and follow Kelly during the Iditarod 2020 race, which begins in March, 2020. You can follow in her footsteps and bring your passions and interests into your own classroom all year, every year.

Whether your passion is sled dogs (and they are really cute!) or tree frogs, there’s a teaching job for that!