Columns 2012

Teaching in Bush Alaska

I work with Ilisagvik college in Barrow, the only federally recognized Tribal College in the state. It exists because the people of the North Slope have always put a premium on education. Although their educational aspirations may not always have matched reality, they never stopped trying.

While I was researching a piece for the college encouraging local students to become teachers, I heard this story from a teacher in one of the small villages outside of Barrow. This teacher is Inupiat. She is a fully accredited teacher with a four-year degree. She related how, on one of her first days teaching in her village school, a young student came up to her and asked her if she were a “tanniq” now. That’s the Inupiat word for non-natives in general, and Caucasians in specific. Apparently, the young student thought that only tanniqs could be teachers, not Natives. So if this Native was a teacher, she must have somehow become white.

That’s the kind of story that makes educators in the Bush, and especially Native educators, get up every morning with renewed determination to make education something achievable by everyone, from the brightest student in the biggest village to the most struggling of students in the smallest village. No one should grow up assuming that the respect and prestige their culture traditionally bestows on teachers is denied them because of their race.

This story came to me last week as I attended a fundraiser for the Avant-Garde Learning Alliance, the brainchild of former state Education Commissioner Shirley Holloway, a woman who is simply incapable of figuring out how to actually retire. Long before Shirley was the commissioner, she was a teacher, principal and superintendent in Barrow.

I’ve always been impressed by the fact that the North Slope produced so many amazing female educators. No offense to the guys, but while they were running the borough and corporation, the women took over education. The North Slope can boast of having had Inupiat women in the positions of school superintendent and college president. That’s pretty impressive given the barriers to education that traditionally exist in remote Alaskan locations.

These educators are determined to make higher education locally available and to create a local pool of teachers who understand the many traditional ways Native children learn.

This is what the new partnership between Avant-Gard Learning Alliance and Ilisagvik College is all about. Using grants from Shell Oil and the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, they will jointly explore the possibility of expanding Ilisagvik’s role so that it can offer a four-year teaching degree that emphasizes teaching indigenous children. And that means allowing teachers to bring into school methods of teaching not necessarily found in Western curricula, but methods that are nonetheless effective because they speak to the way Native children learn within their own culture.

I know there are probably teachers in our schools who really aren’t very dedicated to what they do. I know there are teachers who are unfit and unqualified. But as an outsider looking in, I have to say that most of my experience has been that the majority of teachers do what they do because they have a passion for doing it. You wouldn’t otherwise spend seven to eight hours a day in a room with kids if you didn’t really love and believe in what you did.

Most teachers want their students to succeed. They want this not because it means a raise for them or an extra gold star next to their school’s name. They want this because their students’ successes are what make all those hours worthwhile. Ask a Carol Comeau, ask a Shirley Holloway, ask your kid’s first grade teacher. Knowing they were part of lighting the spark of learning in a child is what gets them to work every day.

Teachers in Alaska’s small villages face enormous challenges to lighting that spark, from language barriers to cultural walls and less than ideal living circumstances. But if those teachers had been born and raised in a similar village, if they knew how the children learned because that’s how they learned, if a honeybucket was simply not a big deal to them… well, think of all the time that would free up for those teachers to spend lighting the spark of learning in their pupils.

How great would that be?