Connecting Through Culture: A Model for Teacher Retention in Rural Alaska
Alaska has a high teacher turnover rate, with nearly 70 percent of hires each year coming from Outside to fill vacant roles. Part of the churn in rural districts is because these transplants don't acclimate to living in remote parts of the state.
“Especially in rural Alaska, they have a very high turnover rate," University of Alaska president Jim Johnsen explained in an Alaska Journal of Commerce article. "So there isn’t this level of knowledge, awareness, commitment, particularly to communities — unique communities — across the state that would make these teachers more effective in those communities.”
Alaska Humanities Forum's Creating Cultural Competence (C3) model is addressing this challenge by working in partnership with school districts and Alaska Native non-profit corporations in northwest and southwest regions of the state.
And we're seeing significant results: in a five-year evaluation, twice as many C3 teachers were retained in the Lower Kuskokwim School District compared to non-C3 teachers; in the Northwest Arctic Borough School District, 1.7 times as many C3 teachers were retained compared to non-C3 teachers.
How does it work? Newly hired teachers participate alongside local youth, elders, and other regional culture bearers in an orientation, cultural immersion camp, and debrief during the summer prior to the start of their school year, all under the structure of a 3-credit university course at University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA).
Throughout their first year, teachers continue working with their UAA instructor to complete the Multicultural Studies course. In February, the Forum hosts a mid-year gathering to continue cultural learning through guidance from local Elders and to support ongoing networking among the participants. In the spring, staff will work with the school districts to recruit for the Summer 2019 camps.
In the summer of 2018, 64 teachers spent a week at four cultural immersion camps at sites across northwest and southwest Alaska. The camps were run in partnership with Calista Education and Culture, Inc., and Maniilaq Association across six school districts: Kuspuk, Yupiit, Lower Kuskokwim, Lower Yukon, St. Mary's, Northwest Arctic. For most teachers, this was their first experience in rural Alaska.
At camp, teachers learned to cut fish, pick berries, make akutaq, hand sew atikluks and qaspeqs, and they were taught traditional dances. Each day, Elders shared stories and teachings.
“While filleting salmon I was taught that mistakes are how we learn, and that a teacher who is patient with those who make mistakes builds confidence," reflected one teacher. "When I gifted my first catch to an elder, I felt how happiness of giving serves as an encouragement to keep providing. When eating a home-cooked meal of seal soup, smoked salmon, and dried fish I witnessed the mood benefits of proper self-care, the strength of family, and that one has the ability (and duty) to make every person feel welcome.”
“I had a great experience, I gained an understanding of the people who live in my village; who they are and how they live. I will use the words of wisdom I received from the elders and incorporate these principals into the teaching of my students."