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Native Pathways to Education
Alaska Native Cultural Resources
Indigenous Knowledge Systems
Indigenous Education Worldwide
 

ALASKA NATIVE EDUCATION
1953 – 1973
A PROFESSIONAL MEMOIR

BY
TOM (THOMAS) R. HOPKINS
© 2008

EDUCATION PHILOSOPHY AND TEACHER PREPARATION

Because my professional behavior as a teacher in the Alaskan bush from September 1953 – June 1956 was intimately founded on my teacher education as well as recent classroom experience, I think it appropriate to begin the “Education Discussion” with how I was taught to teach.

I graduated from The University of Texas in August, 1951, with a Bachelor of Science degree in Secondary Education. The Secondary program was not satisfactory. It did not teach me enough about how to teach adolescents and pre-adolescents. My student teaching experience was little more than rote memorization of content at the mid school level. My supervising teacher made no effort to teach me how to teach and my tenure as a student teacher merely meant he could occupy the teachers lounge as long as I was in charge of the classroom.

Partly as a consequence of this frustrating experience, we decided that I should also complete the elementary teacher education program. In this program I learned how to teach. My major professor, Thomas Horn, was instrumental in having me assigned to student teach the first grade. The supervising teacher, Virginia Firtch, was a marvelously gifted teacher. She was an exacting teacher with her first graders as well as with me. When I was not performing according to her expectations, she walked to the front of the room, actually pushed me aside, and took over the class. At first this happened more times than I care to remember. However in the end, she gained full confidence in me as a teacher so that when she was obliged to take sick leave for 10 days, she asked for me to be allowed to serve as the substitute teacher.

The spring of 1952 was the first time a man had completed student teaching at the first grade level in the University of Texas Teacher Education Program. At least, this is what I was told at the time. Subsequently, Dr. Horn asked me to write an article about my experiences. I did and the Phi Delta Kappan journal published the article (Hopkins, 1952).

Our Alaskan education experiences were founded on the Texas University’s Teacher Education program’s emphasis on John Dewey’s philosophy, especially as expressed in the essay, “Experience and Education,” (Dewey 1938). Teaching should relate to the world around the children in order for it to be meaningful. “Progressive” in the Dewey sense meant teaching for understanding rather than an emphasis on rote memorization and recitation. We were also influenced by Alfred North Whitehead’s, “ The Aims of Education,” (Whitehead 1929). We were also influenced by the classical scholar, teacher Gilbert Highet, and his memorable book, The Art of Teaching (Highet 1950).

Dewey and Whitehead railed against “Traditional Education” with its heavy emphasis on a textbooks only as the content of an education curriculum. They were especially concerned that children be taught how to think, and how to live in the contemporary would. Dewey’s emphases on the school as a “social institution”, and appropriate practice and academic training in democracy as an education goal were important to us. Further, since we have been involved for the past 40 years in the evaluation of American Indian education, we remembered Whitehead’s admonition on evaluation, which read:

. . . And I may say in passing that no educational system is possible unless every question directly asked of a pupil at any examination is either framed or modified by the actual teacher of that pupil in that subject. The external assessor may report on the curriculum or on the performance of the pupils, but never should be allowed to ask the pupil a question which has not been strictly supervised by the actual teacher, or at least inspired by a long conference with him. There are a few exceptions, and could easily be allowed for under the general rule. (p.5)

. . . I suggest that no system of external tests which aims primarily at examining individual scholars can result in anything but educational waste.

Primarily it is the schools and not the scholars which should be inspected. Each school should grant its own leaving certificates, based on its own curriculum. The standards of these schools should be sampled and corrected. But the first requisite for educational reform is the school as a unit, with its approved curriculum based on its own needs, and evolved by its own staff. If we fail to secure that, we simply fall from one formalism into another, from one dung-hill of inter ideas into another.(p. 13)

The title of Highet’s book is self-explanatory in that teaching is an art. He repeated some basic truths about teaching:

• A teacher must like young children
• A teacher must want to learn all his/her life
• The teacher must “know the subject and know it well”

After a few years of teaching, Highet says about teachers:

. . .They “settle down” – a phrase which implies stagnation – or at the utmost they “coast along,” using their acquired momentum, applying no more energy, and gradually slowing down to a stop. No teacher should dream of doing this. (pp. 54- 55).

We have tried life long to follow to the best of our abilities the ideals and teachings of Dewey, Whitehead and Highet in our teaching, administering, evaluating and researching the education of all American Indians and Alaskan Natives.

 

Go to University of AlaskaThe University of Alaska Fairbanks is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and educational institution and is a part of the University of Alaska system.

 


Alaska Native Knowledge Network
University of Alaska Fairbanks
PO Box 756730
Fairbanks  AK 99775-6730
Phone (907) 474.1902
Fax (907) 474.1957
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Last modified March 19, 2008