Student Well-Being

Veterans Come to Aid of Novice Teachers in Alaska’s ‘Bush’

By Sean Cavanagh — October 17, 2006 5 min read
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In Toksook Bay, Alaska, help for new teachers arrives by phone, Internet, and e-mail—and occasionally, by snowmobile.

Two years ago, when a blizzard made it impossible for planes to reach the village of 532 people on the Bering Sea—no roads go there—Barbara K. Angaiak had to resort to other means. The longtime Alaskan, who is a mentor in a state-run program for new teachers, climbed aboard a snowmobile and rode 17 miles from the village of Nightmute, in subzero temperatures, to the school in Toksook Bay.

Second-year teacher John Broussard, who hails from Portland, Ore., works with his 2nd graders in Kotlik.

Ms. Angaiak is one of 27 veteran teachers working in the Alaska Statewide Mentor Project, an enterprise to help new first- and second-year teachers improve in the classroom—and make the often-difficult adjustment to life outside it, after having taken jobs in some of the nation’s most isolated districts.

About 400 new teachers statewide are receiving help this school year, and participation is growing. Alaska officials, who have also launched a separate program to coach new principals, say their efforts are reducing turnover among teachers—as high as 85 percent in some districts—and improving the academic quality of schools.

“Beginning teachers start out with a very small toolbox,” said Ms. Angaiak, 49. “The mentors are there to add to that toolbox.”

Full-Time Job

The mentoring program was established at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 2003, and state officials began a partnership to run it two years ago. The state legislature is contributing to it for the first time this year, adding $5 million from the state’s $923 million K-12 budget.

In contrast to some mentoring programs, Alaska’s mentors work full time in that capacity. They are freed from their teaching responsibilities in their home districts, and the state covers their salaries. The approach is based on a model designed by the New Teacher Center, a nonprofit professional-development organization in Santa Cruz, Calif.

Much is expected from Alaska’s mentors in return. They typically spend two to three weeks per month on the road, traveling between schools.

There is a lot of ground to cover. Alaska has 506 public schools, 135 of which serve 50 or fewer students. Most schools are located in the “bush,” the vast Alaskan wilderness accessible only by “air, boat, dog sled, or all-terrain vehicle,” state officials explain.

During school visits, mentors watch teachers in class, then give them tips on everything from teaching techniques and curricula to student discipline. They often meet with more than one new teacher per school.

Mentors are expected to go through extensive training before they begin making school visits. State Commissioner of Education Roger Sampson said he personally interviews all applicants, along with Barbara Thompson, the state’s director of teaching and learning services.

“We look for those with the right attitude and flexibility,” Ms. Thompson said. “Anything can happen on the road. Can you sleep on a gym floor and still perform your work?”

Community Outreach

To help principals, Alaska officials originally tried a one-on-one coaching model, but found the approach wasn’t reaching as many administrators as they had hoped. The state now arranges workshops, during which one coach works with six to eight principals.

In many rural areas, principal turnover hovers at around 50 percent a year, said Gary Whiteley, who directs the principals’ program. In those areas, principals face enormous scrutiny in how they deal with all kinds of issues—disciplining students and getting along with the surrounding community, among them.

Mentors Joan Walswer, left, Susan Hubbard, and Rick Frederic meet in Fairbanks with outreach coordinator Tom Howe, right, from the New Teacher Center.

“It’s life in a fishbowl,” Mr. Whiteley said.

Schools in Alaskan villages often serve as the main social hubs, and principals can easily be consumed with overseeing activities in the building, he added. “We try to accelerate their comfort level so they can manage easily and move on to instruction,” Mr. Whiteley explained. “One of our sayings is, ‘Don’t major in the minors.’ ”

While measuring the success of the principals’ program, which began in January 2005, is difficult because it is relatively new, Mr. Sampson sees evidence that teacher mentoring is working. In about a half-dozen rural districts, where about 50 percent of the teachers leave each year, he estimates that those losses have been roughly halved.

State officials tout the program by sending mentors to job fairs, including some in the lower 48 states. New teachers and principals also receive advice before coming to Alaska about housing—which is extremely limited in bush communities—and reminders to have food and other personal items flown in before they arrive.

Having teachers serve full time as mentors is more effective than a buddy system, in which veteran educators try to help younger colleagues in their spare time, according to Ellen Moir, the executive director of the New Teacher Center. Full-time mentors can focus more intently on academics, as opposed to administrative challenges.

Stephanie Hirsh, the deputy executive director of the National Staff Development Council, believes the best mentoring strategy is to have teachers at schools, or in districts, who have expertise in various academic subjects and can work with teachers. But in some districts, especially rural ones, offering that on-site expertise is not realistic, she said.

“The most important thing is that you get people who want to be mentors and are committed to the training,” said Ms. Hirsh.

Subject-Matter Flexibility

Ms. Angaiak, who moved to Alaska 26 years ago after completing teacher-preparation work in Oregon, says her strongest area is middle school math. So when a new teacher asked her advice in working with struggling readers, Ms. Angaiak collected advice from other mentors via e-mail. She then went over those suggestions with her protégée, who was based in the village of Newtok, population 321.

One new teacher receiving help is John Long, who moved to Alaska after retiring from the U.S. Air Force. Mr. Long, 44, teaches grades 6-8 in Port Heiden, on the remote Alaska Peninsula, working in a three-room school with 27 students and two other teachers, one of whom is also new.

Carol VanDerWege, left, visits with her protege, Kansan Kristin Peless, on the Kenai Peninsula.

The mentors help new teachers gain the trust of village communities, where the population is often predominantly Alaska Native, with distinct cultures and traditions. Mr. Long found, for instance, that his students, who are Aleutiq, were given more freedom than he was accustomed to. He adjusted his classroom-discipline policies as a result.

His mentor, Cathe Rhodes, has helped him with his academic preparation as well, giving him tips on such matters as student vocabulary-building exercises. She visits him regularly, and they communicate by phone and e-mail.

“The relationship we have is awesome,” Mr. Long said. Without the person-to-person visits, “it wouldn’t work,” he said, and “other teachers are too busy. It’s good to have an outsider come in and watch.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 18, 2006 edition of Education Week as Veterans Come to Aid of Novice Teachers in Alaska’s ‘Bush’


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