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Native Pathways to Education
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Lessons Taught, Lessons Learned Vol. II

Teachers and Administrators for Rural Alaska

 

by Claudia Caffee 

As common as the main elements are for successful education everywhere (appropriate teacher and administrator training, adequate resources, relevant curriculum taught by competent and caring educators, continued opportunity for professional development, and strong school-community relationships), Alaska's rural schools have some unique circumstances that affect how I would set about to improve them. It is with these circumstances in mind, along with ideas stimulated by the 1988 Rural Alaska Instructional Improvement Academy readings and class sessions that 1 will put forth my suggestions for improving education in the bush.

Training Administrators and Teachers for Rural Schools

According to Steve Grubis in the workshop on preparing rural administrators, in the lower forty-eight states over ninety percent of school principals work within five miles of the towns in which they were raised. Consequently, each has first-hand familiar with the culture of the students in his or her charge. In the whole of Alaska, however, there are only four Native principals who grew up near the schools they administer. Most of the others come from "Outside," where even rural communities have little in common with Alaskan villages. A program is underway to ameliorate the problem. It is the University of Alaska Fairbanks program to train Native administrators. Over a dozen Native graduate students are enrolled. In time this will do much to insure that the administrators in rural Alaskan schools understand the culture of the students for whom they are responsible, just as the XCED Program is gradually increasing the number of Native teachers in Alaska. Today, one hundred sixty-six of the state's six thousand three hundred seventy-five teachers are Alaska Native. Only ten years ago, when I first came to teach here, the number of Native teachers was a mere seventy-one.

But even if Alaska could provide 100% Native staffs, that would probably not be advisable in a system that is as concerned with educating students to be able to participate in the Western society as it is in helping to preserve Native culture. Just as a White teacher from outside is at a disadvantage in communicating the Native culture, so is a Native teacher at somewhat (though less) of a disadvantage in communicating Western culture. For example, a friend of mine, a Native teacher who went to high school in the lower forty-eight was watching "Saturday Night Live" with me and another Caucasian friend. We were laughing throughout the show when we noticed our friend crying. He said it made him feel bad that even though he understood English well, he couldn't understand the show. He didn't know what was funny. This is but one of many such examples I could give of what today might be called a problem with "cross-cultural literacy." Similarly, many eases of obstacles to the White teacher being able to participate fully in the Native culture could be cited. The ideal school would have a more equal mixture of Native and non-Native teachers. Let me address the training of the two groups separately.

Teachers from outside Alaska will most likely have come out of universities that did not prepare them specifically for teaching in Alaskan bush schools. Transition time for such teachers could be minimized in several ways. Each new teacher or teaching couple could be paired up with a community volunteer or couple. The community member would take the new teacher under his or her wing. Through association with this "foster grandparent" from the village, the teacher could more easily bridge the gap between school and community by gaining a first hand knowledge and appreciation of the culture. In addition, districts could provide incentives for teachers to learn the language.

At the district level the bilingual program coordinator and perhaps a University of Alaska Fairbanks Native Language Center representative could determine what amount of knowledge of the Native language in question would be worth a credit applicable towards advancement on the salary scale. For example, being able to give the Yup'ik name for x number of English words might be worth a credit. Being able to follow x number of commands might be worth an additional credit. Being able to engage in conversation in Yup'ik about predetermined topics might be worth a third credit. The districts would provide the means for teachers who so choose to learn the language formally. Perhaps the class now taught at the University of Alaska Fairbanks could be video taped. This would enable teachers, no matter what amount of knowledge they begin with to learn at their own pace. Perhaps audio conference classes could be offered. A village might require a teacher to make a certain amount of progress in the language each year in order to be rehired or tenured. Non-Natives with no background in cross-cultural education could receive a reading list of materials. Rather than be required to attend an orientation session at the University, they would have the option of exploring the culture and reading on their own, then demonstrating their knowledge in some way acceptable to the district.

Native teachers would be trained either on campus or through the X-CED Program. Only students with children would be allowed to receive their education while remaining in the village and, even then, should be required to live on campus for at least a semester. If they work for a district as an aide they should be granted an unpaid leave of absence to go to a campus to fill the one semester requirement. Native teachers who are seeking positions in villages they are from would automatically be interviewed for the job. The local school boards, most of which have advisory power only, would make their recommendation to the regional school board after interviewing as many applicants as possible and reading the resumes of others. The regional school board would take input from superintendent, staff, and school board, but would have final say as to who is placed in what position.

Perhaps a form of competency testing could be used to help in the selection of teachers as well. This would not be used to compare teachers, but to reinforce for the public their competence to teach. Questions could cover the areas of Alaska history, contemporary Native issues, and cross-cultural communication, as well as content areas associated with all schools. There could be a writing sample as well. Such a test would reassure those who doubt that the X-CED education is the same as other teacher training programs, as well as those who feel non-Native teachers lack the knowledge of the local culture.

Administrators would be expected to meet certain criteria before being offered a job in the bush. Principal/teachers would need, as a prerequisite, a minimum of one year of teaching experience under a principal or principal/teacher in a rural Alaskan site, preferably within the hiring district. Any requirement or incentive for teachers to learn the language would also apply to the principal/teacher.

Principals would need to have completed a minimum of three years of teaching experience, at least one of which should have been within the district, serving as teacher under another administrator. A year as principal/teacher would not suffice. Any requirement or incentive for teachers to learn the language would also apply to the principal.

The superintendent would have at least three years of teaching experience in Alaska, at least one of which should be in rural Alaska. Any requirement or incentive for teachers to learn the language would also apply to the superintendent. The superintendent should reside within one of the villages in the district or close by. As a recency credit requirement the superintendent would need to teach in a classroom for a year once every six years.

Pay Scales

As I listened to the Native teachers in the evening session of the Academy tell their reasons for going into administration I was moved by their sincerity and their commitment to effect changes in their community's school. It made me glad to think of the ranks of Native teachers coming up over the last ten years. As a child I was conditioned to believe that teachers are undervalued. When my high school teachers went on strike my parents encouraged me to go Out and show support. When I learned that my excellent high school English teacher had left teaching to take ajob in the central office and knew that my younger sister would thereby be denied the opportunity to be taught by this teacher, I felt directly affected by a facet of the educational system that I have always taken exception to, i.e. the pay scale that rewards teachers who leave the classroom for offices where they have less contact with the children.

I do not wish to minimize the contributions of principal/teachers, principals, superintendents and university professors who train teachers, but I do feel that the relative value we place on the efforts of those in the education field outside of teaching is out of step with their contributions. No person in the school system has a greater influence on the students than the classroom teacher. If it is true that one of the primary benefits of having Native teachers is that they know the Native language and culture, how sad to think that they too may abandon the classroom for administrative positions. Some of the candidates spoke as if they would have a greater chance to change the system from the top. I have my doubts. To me it seems that one compelling reason for going into administration is that being there gives one greater financial rewards and status than being a teacher.

Realizing that any blanket generalizations have exceptions, I felt that the teachers studying to become administrators who spoke at the Academy felt a responsibility to be good models for Native children. Since administrators, because they are more highly paid than teachers, have a higher status, the Native teachers feel that as Native administrators they will provide even better role models than they did as teachers. In the lower forty-eight the low status of teachers is cause for some of them to change professions. But, hopefully, there it means that a good teacher will leave and be replaced by another good teacher. I suspect that in rural Alaska some good Native teachers go into administration and are replaced by non-Native teachers. For this movement of Native teachers into administration to truly create positive change, the positions they vacate should be filled by Native teachers as well. However, it will take a beginning Native college student a minimum of four years to earn a teaching certificate, but only two years for a Native teacher to qualify to be an administrator.

One way to insure that all teachers who go into administration do so for the right reasons would be to eliminate the difference in their pay. To fairly compensate teachers who do wish to become administrators, districts could pay the cost of their schooling if they agree to stay with the district for two years after finishing.

Superintendents in Alaska are paid much more than teachers. Their pay should be limited, I feel, to a certain multiple of the base salary for teachers. They too should have a salary scale that rewards them for having been a teacher. The greater the number of years teaching experience they have, the higher their pay. Superintendents as well as principals should be instructional leaders. There is no better basis for which they can claim leadership than having spent time in the classroom.

Curriculum

Having taught in several rural Alaskan communities within the same district I have seen how different from each other they can be in terms of their curriculum concerns and extra-curricular preferences. Any district curriculum guide needs to be broad enough to emphasize what is generally deemed to be important. To accomplish this, more local control needs to be given. As it stands in our district and probably in others, the district administrators decide which extra-curricular programs will be offered in a given year and sites have the option of participating. For example, a site could choose not to have a wrestling team, but then would not receive the money that would have been paid for a coach and travel, to spend on something else the village deemed more important.

More flexibility would improve the schools. There would be a core of required academic subjects (a village could not choose to offer basketball instead of math) but they could elect to participate in Native Olympic Games rather than in competitive wrestling. Ideally, each site would be given a certain amount of money based on a formula that would take into account the number of students, the price of seat fare from the village to the nearest city served by a jet, and the cost of paying a supervisor. Prior to a community meeting where plans would be finalized, staff would meet to determine its priorities, taking into account what it feels its members have the most expertise to provide. Students would discuss and student council would vote its desires, and the local school board would come up with its recommendations. At a local school board meeting the community members would be presented with the options and vote on how the block of money should be spent. Because staff turnover often puts a village in the position of not knowing who will be teaching the next year, these recommendations could be made final in the fall. For example, if the high school teacher position is vacant and the village also needs someone who can start a school band and begin a community choir, they would recommend to the regional school board that they hire a teacher with a music background. If however, this doesn't happen the community could choose to reallocate the money that would have been spent on the music program. The superintendent, assistant superintendent or perhaps the federal programs coordinator could be in attendance at the community meeting to answer questions and to have on hand a copy of how each of the other sites allocated their resources.

Some of the types of things villages could choose to spend money for include; competitive sports, sports equipment, educational travel, grant to start a small school business, funds to publish a yearbook, Native crafts classes, student exchange programs, academic competitions, artist-in-the-schools, study hall monitors, after school club supervisors, Native language classes, etc.

Community-School Cooperation

Various approaches to delivering core curriculum would be presented to interested village members. Ongoing education of local school boards would be provided by a series of video tapes that would present different approaches to educating children. The more educated the people in the community become about alternatives in curriculum content and methods, the less they would be at the mercy of experts from outside. When faced with teachers who want to preserve the status quo or with teachers who want to try some new method or program, the cooperation between community and teachers will be a realistic way of deciding curriculum matters.

Staff Development

The plan for staff development would be based on the individual needs of each teacher as well as on their collective desires and the ideas of the superintendent. A superintendent will naturally have his or her own perception of what direction the teachers as a whole should be moving in, but the wise administrator would be able and willing to assess what the teachers want in relation to their professional growth and, to the extent possible, provide it. To that end each teacher, or perhaps in these hard times each tenured teacher, would have expenses paid to attend one professional conference each year. In addition, district wide inservices would be held - one addressing the superintendent's priorities, the other addressing areas teachers have identified as being high priority. The district would also pay for teachers to take summer courses that relate to areas in which they teach.

Conclusion

An ideal school system will probably never exist. But having spent the past decade teaching in rural Alaska I do feel that the above modifications in rural teacher and administrator training, hiring, and pay, as well as in curriculum adoption, extra curricular activities, staff development, and cooperation between school and community, would lead to better a education in Alaska's rural schools.

 Future Ship

Foreword

Ray Barnhardt

Part I * Rural School Ideals

"My Goodness, People Come and Go So Quickly Around Here"
Lance C. Blackwood

Parental Involvement in a Cross-Cultural Environment
Monte Boston

Teachers and Administrators for Rural Alaska
Claudia Caffee

The Mentor Teacher Program
Judy Charles

Building Networks
Helen Eckelman

Ideal Curriculum and Teaching Approaches for a School in Rural Alaska
Teresa McConnell

Some Observations Concerning Excellent Rural Alaskan Schools
Bob Moore

The Ideal Rural Alaska Village School
Samuel Moses

From Then To Now: The Value of Experiential Learning
Clara Carol Potterville

The Ideal School
Jane Seaton

Toward an Integrated, Nonlinear, Community-Oriented Curriculum Unit
Mary Short

A Letter from Idealogak, Alaska
Timothy Stathis

Preparing Rural Students for the Future
Michael Stockburger

The Ideal Rural School
Dawn Weyiouanna

Alternative Approaches to the High School Curriculum
Mark J. Zintek

Part II * Rural Curriculum Ideas

"Masking" the Curriculum
Irene Bowie

On Punks and Culture
Louise J. Britton

Literature to Meet the Needs of Rural Students
Debra Buchanan

Reaching the Gifted Student Via the Regular Classroom
Patricia S. Caldwell

Early Childhood Special Education in Rural Alaska
Colleen Chinn
 

Technically Speaking
Wayne Day

Process Learning Through the School Newspaper 
Marilyn Harmon

Glacier Bay History: A Unit in Cultural Education
David Jaynes

Principals of Technology
Brian Marsh

Here's Looking at You and Whole Language
Susan Nugent

Inside, Outside and all-Around: Learning to Read and Write
Mary L. Olsen

Science Across the Curriculum
Alice Porter

Here's Looking at You 2000 Workshop
Cheryl Severns

School-Based Enterprises
Gerald Sheehan

King Island Christmas: A Language Arts Unit
Christine Pearsall Villano

Using Student-Produced Dialogues
Michael A. Wilson

We-Search and Curriculum Integration in the Community
Sally Young

Artist's Credits

 

 

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.

 


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Last modified August 18, 2006