A Perennial Challenge in Rural Alaska: Getting and Keeping Teachers

By Victoria Petersen

A Perennial Challenge in Rural Alaska: Getting and Keeping Teachers

By Victoria Petersen

Anchorage, Alaska

As summer was waning in Alaska’s largest city, Hoonah City schools Superintendent Ralph Watkins was among a dozen or so other school officials from around the state spending a precious sunny day recruiting teachers at a job fair in a hotel conference room. Fewer than 30 prospective teachers attended the fair, and the competition for their services was intense.

Watkins was offering a $1,000 signing bonus to fill vacancies in his small district, which sits in a Tlingit village 500 miles away on the island of Chichagof on Alaska’s southeast panhandle. Other districts in the room offered signing bonuses of up to $3,000, a free laptop, free and subsidized housing, free airfare to their remote village if hired, and more.

“It’s tough,” said Watkins, who has lived in Hoonah for over four years. “I don’t want to be here right now—trying to hire. It’s hard and heartbreaking for me, but it is my job, and I’m going to make it work.”

“I don’t want to be here right now—trying to hire. It’s hard and heartbreaking for me, but it’s my job, and I’m going to make it work.”

—Ralph Watkins, superintendent, Hoonah City schools

Recruiting and retaining good teachers is difficult in many communities across the United States—especially rural ones—but in rural Alaska and its Native Villages, it can be even tougher. That’s because schools rely heavily on out-of-state teachers to staff classrooms, and many of the teachers the rural schools hire struggle to adapt to the harsh weather, isolation, high cost, and cultural differences that come with living in remote Alaska.

The problem is about to get worse. In January, the education school at the University of Alaska-Anchorage—the state’s largest teacher-preparation program—lost its accreditation. The Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation, one of two national bodies that accredit teacher training programs, revoked accreditation for all seven of the teacher-preparation programs at UAA, due to the school’s failure to meet four out of five standards set by the group.

The school graduated its last accredited class of education majors in May. And the state’s current budget crisis suggests new or improved teacher-preparation programs are not coming anytime soon. That leaves the university’s remaining education majors with the choice of transferring to the state’s other two teacher-preparation programs—at the University of Alaska Fairbanks or the University of Alaska Southeast—or changing their academic focus altogether.

Home-Grown Versus Out-of-State

Teacher staffing has been a longstanding problem in the 49th state. Annually, districts hire about 1,000 teachers, with over half hired at the five largest districts. In-state universities typically graduate a total of 200 teachers every year, far short of what schools need.

So in rural Alaska, most teachers come from out of state. In fact, teachers who are prepared in-state account for only about 15 percent of newly hired educators working in Alaska in any given year, according to the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska, and that share is likely to shrink in the wake of the education school’s closing.

In Scammon Bay, a small Native Village on the Bering Sea at the edge of western Alaska, a quarter of the Scammon Bay School’s teaching positions are held by people who were raised in the community. The school’s vice principal, Harley Sundown, who was born and raised there, said it’s important for students to have at least some locally grown teachers they can look up to.

“Up here, we have our local educators who do many things [other than] teaching—they also are involved with cutting fish in the summertime and doing traditional activities from Yup’ik dancing,” Sundown said. “We need people to understand what the communities are like to get the best out of every student, every year.”

“We need people to understand what the communities are like to get the best out of every student, every year.”

—Harley Sundown, vice principal, Scammon Bay School

The challenge with the out-of-state teachers, especially those who are new to the profession, is that they don’t tend to stay as long as their in-state peers. Many are drawn to the state in search of adventure, only to return a few years, even months, later to their home states, defeated by the weather, the isolation, or a culture with which they struggle to connect. About 80 percent of the state’s Native Alaskan students live in the rural districts.

The Hoonah district is among those experiencing high turnover this year. The rural district has 120 students and 13 teachers right now. Superintendent Watkins wanted to find eight more teachers at the job fair, which was run by Alaska Teacher Placement, a 41-year-old partnership between school districts and the University of Alaska that works yearlong to connect prospective teachers and districts.

In summer, Hoonah’s year-round population of 850 explodes to more than 3,000 as tourists come to fish, boat, and hike. What little housing is available is rented to tourists, pushing housing costs out of reach for teachers who want to continue renting from May to August. Watkins said the Hoonah Indian Association, the federally recognized governing body of the tribal members of Hoonah, is seeking grants and raising money to build teacher housing, but it will be several years before the units will be available.

“How do you make relationships with people in the community if every summer you have to leave?” Watkins said. “Hoonah is beautiful, and in summer you want to stay there, but you have no place to live.”

Seeking a Good ‘Fit’

As a result of the perennial shortage, rural superintendents spend much of their time on teacher recruitment and turnover, said Dayna DeFeo, the director of ISER’s Center for Alaska Education Policy Research, who has studied the struggles that rural Alaska superintendents experience in recruiting and retaining teachers.

She found superintendents are more interested in candidates who were a good fit, as opposed to those with exceptional credentials on their resumes. And, in initial orientations and trainings, immersing new teachers in the community is as important as any of their other educator trainings—a departure from many teacher onboarding practices in the Lower 48.

School administrators’ orientation toward community “fit” is a matter of necessity. DeFeo said teachers are more likely to leave when they’re working with students who are different from them, either ethnically or culturally.

Diane Hirshberg, a professor of education policy at ISER, agreed. The educators from the outside who’ve had the most success stayed in their rural communities in summer and participated in local pastimes, like hunting or berry picking, she noted. “They’re not the people who say ‘I can’t wait until the year ends so I can go back to fill-in-the-blank.’”

One adventure-seeking teacher from the Lower 48 who stuck around is Mary Cook, a science teacher in Scammon Bay. After retiring from a 30-year teaching career in Arkansas, Cook wasn’t ready to leave the classroom. She heard about the opportunity to teach in Alaska.

“I knew a couple teachers who filled me in on the difficulties,” Cook said. “The more difficult it sounded, the more I wanted to try it.”

Cook said the first year was tough, and she had to learn to adapt to teaching in a small community and an even smaller classroom. Now she’s been teaching in Scammon Bay for five years, and students respond differently when they see her come back year after year.

Ultimately, though, Cook said her time in rural Alaska will depend on the availability of health care.

“I’ve always said because I love it here, and I love my students, the thing that would cause me to leave would be lack of health care,” Cook said. “We don’t have any doctors or nurses and situations have developed where if you were dealing with life-threatening conditions and the weather is bad, there are just no flights.”

Teachers’ pension issues also hinder recruiting, according to teachers at the Anchorage job fair this summer. Alaska, like many other states, changed its teacher retirement system from a pension fund to a 401K arrangement nearly 15 years ago, and the teachers’ unions have expressed concern that the newer system may not yield sufficient retirement savings for teachers joining it now.

To keep teachers in the classroom, Hirshberg said, it’s also important for districts to recognize that the teachers they hire are adults and professionals, and to set up conditions for them to feel valued and lead independent lives within these communities.

At the same token, she cautioned, outsiders should not expect to walk into schools and dictate how kids should learn in rural Alaska. She said communities need to feel like they own their schools, especially so in Native Villages.

Recognizing the historical context of the state’s formation is a critical piece of that. From 1867, when the Russians were colonizing Alaska, until the mid-1900s, long after the Americans had purchased the territory, generations of students in rural Alaska were forced into missionary and boarding schools that sought to strip students of their Native culture. The multigenerational trauma of those experiences is still present, Hirshberg said.

“For some, walking into a school building brings up pain. They may not even realize it because it may not be their pain, but it may be the pain of their parents or grandparents,” she said.

“If an educator can’t see a way to reach the kids and have them be successful, [he or she] is not going to stay. We need to transform what happens in those schools and then equip teachers with the support they need, so they can thrive and the children in their classes can thrive,” Hirshberg said.

The consequences of teacher turnover and shortages can be costly in terms of both student achievement and money. ISER found it costs the state $20,431 for every teacher turnover, or roughly $20 million a year. Hirshberg, an author of the cost study, found that low teacher retention and high teacher turnover impact student learning outcomes for the worse.

Even if the state university system were able to prepare more teachers, though, it might not stem the shortages in rural areas, Hirshberg said.

The educators coming through the state’s university system tend to flock to Alaska’s largest, urban districts upon graduation.

Students from the University of Alaska Anchorage’s education program celebrate during graduation in May. The school lost accreditation for all seven of its teacher-preparation programs.

Students from the University of Alaska Anchorage’s education program celebrate during graduation in May. The school lost accreditation for all seven of its teacher-preparation programs.
—Young Kim for Education Week

“They don’t want to go to rural districts because a lot of our students are place-based,” Hirshberg said. “They’re older and already have families, and there are limited opportunities if you have a spouse. ... There are a number of reasons why it can be difficult if you’re a more mature student to go out and teach in rural Alaska versus if you’re 22 and kind of looking for that first exciting adventure.”

Meanwhile, at the job fair, school and district administrators soldier on, even as the turnout seems to them to have dwindled over the years.

The Northwest Arctic Borough school district—which serves 11 small Alaska Native Villages in the state’s far northwest corner—was offering prospective educators $1,500 for moving costs, health, dental, and vision insurance for an entire family for $90 a month, low rent, free utilities in teacher housing, and a starting salary of $55,550. The district’s retention rate veers from 20 percent to 25 percent, leading the 1,800-student district to hire 40 to 60 new teachers annually.

Accentuate the Positive

Assistant human resources director Amie Gardner—who moved to the village of Kotzebue in the district seven years ago with a single duffle bag and $300 to her name—last year prepared welcome bags for new hires. She filled a waterproof bag with snacks, a one-pound bag of coffee and tea, stress balls, stickers with the district’s logo, an iPad holder, an eye mask to help block out the midnight sun, candies, cold and hot packs, and other goodies.

“I thought it would help with retention, as a way to welcome them to our district with open arms,” Gardner said. “We do this because our teachers are important to us and the future of our children.”

Mike Hanley, the superintendent of the 100-student Chugach school district in Alaska’s southwest coast, bordering Prince William Sound, said his district manages to retain 90 percent of teachers from year to year, more than most. The district accomplishes that by empowering teachers to be a part of district decisions, he said.

DeFeo said it was striking to find in her research that superintendents, despite their recruitment struggles, weren’t suggesting communities in rural Alaska were worse off in some way than other communities. Indeed, the administrators at the job fair said they accentuate the positive aspects of living in rural Alaska—the serenity, quiet, and beauty of living in a village seemingly on the edge of the world, the sense of community.

“Pretty much everything that happens in the communities happen in the schools—weddings, funerals, potlucks, you name it,” said recruiter Jim Hickerson, a retired school employee of Bering Strait school district, a remote community where the schools are nearer to Russia than Anchorage. “If you’re looking for shopping centers, movie theaters and restaurants and vehicles, that’s not us.”

Cook, the Arkansas teacher transplant, said her years in Scammon Bay have given her a greater sense of fulfilling her mission as a teacher than she had before. “I feel like I am able to make a difference and [that’s] a positive thing for them, and it’s positive for me,” she said. “I think I made a difference in Arkansas, too, but I think there is more need here because there is less opportunity.”

Vol. 39, Issue 4, Pages 1, 12-13