A VISION: Educator Excellence Committee

Academies the answer for novice and new-to-Alaska educator training

Intensive, cohort-based academies will address barriers to educator and student success

By Sheryl Weinberg, SERRC Executive Director, Educator Excellence Committee Member, and Melissa Griffiths, SERRC Communications Director


For some people, the idea of Alaska is endless snow and clips from Alaska-themed reality TV shows, but for educators beginning their career in Alaska, the reality might be beyond what they can imagine.

About 75 percent of Alaska teachers, specialists, and administrators are hired from outside of Alaska, according to the Center for Alaska Education Project at the University of Alaska Southeast, as reported by the Anchorage Daily News in September of 2014. Even those who have earned their credentials in Alaska may find rural communities to be vastly different from the state’s urban hubs. That means a majority of educators starting out in Alaska begin with a limited understanding of what living and teaching in Alaska is really like. The effect is educators who may struggle to connect with their students and leave the state or profession after only a short tenure. About a dozen districts see turnover rates of more than 30 percent annually.

As part of Alaska’s Education Challenge, the team dedicated to the concept of “ensuring educator excellence” came up with a transformative idea: training academies for new and new-to-Alaska educators. The rigorous, cross-district and cross-organization, cohort-based academies will provide Alaska-specific training in a number of crucial areas, one of which is cultural proficiency — key to helping educators connect with students and their communities, especially as it’s recognized that Generation Z is the most diverse generation in American history.  With all educational organizations on deck, educators will participate in targeted experiences together as they begin their careers, and then stay connected to continue to learn and grow with support from each other and experts.

Excellent educators are culturally proficient

Educators will learn about Alaska and it’s culturally diverse population before they begin their new roles. The primers currently required, Alaska History and Multicultural Education, have proven to be insufficient. Districts and education organizations statewide, including Alaska Department of Education and Early Development and universities, will work across boundaries and join resources to induct and support novice and new-to-Alaska educators in their journey to become culturally proficient. As a result, educators across the state and across time—especially those in rural, indigenous-majority communities —will better understand themselves and the lives of students and their families. They will be better equipped to meaningfully engage their students and embrace their lives in the community. Entering a new role with this knowledge and appreciation will better equip educators to understand their students and personalize learning for each child.

What does that look like in practice? It might mean teaching through stories about hunting caribou or fishing. It might mean learning to display data related to counting salmon in a stream over a period of days. It might mean viewing undesirable behaviors through the lens of generational trauma.

Many in-state examples of cultural training for educators exist.  For instance, AASB‘s Alaska ICE has honed strategies for building student assets and community engagement. The Alaska Humanities Forum has administered “cultural immersion camps” for the past several years. SERRC staff has translated the Alaska Cultural Standards for Educators into practice, resulting in professional learning opportunities and the publication of Culture in the Classroom. Sealaska Heritage Institute publishes internationally recognized early learning language publications and strategies. Harnessing the collective wisdom and experience, and collaborative will of all education players on behalf of new and new-to-Alaska educators will indeed be transformative for our children.

Excellent educators stick around (or educators who stick around become excellent)

The longer an educator stays in the field of education and — even tougher — stays at the same school in the same district, the better the outcome. Turnover has two major costs: one is financial, but the more substantial cost is its effects on student achievement.

A Center for Alaska Education Policy Research report from March of 2017 highlighted a correlation between teacher turnover and reading proficiency — literacy, another area of focus for the Education Challenge group academies focused on “ensuring educator excellence.” Only 46.9 percent of students from Alaska’s five districts with the highest educator turnover rate demonstrated proficiency in reading, compared with 85.8% in the districts with the lowest turnover rates.

Rural districts especially struggle with retention. Educators may feel frustrated if they don’t connect with their students, but another big concern is feeling isolated and unsupported in remote locations. The academy concept offers another benefit in addition to invaluable training — the cohort-based model provides a support system. Educators may be physically isolated in remote communities, but they need not feel isolated on an interpersonal level. Academy graduates will have a built-in network of other educators who may experience similar challenges, educationally and personally.

Providing educators with a better understanding of life in the state, especially in rural Alaska, and a strong network of peers to provide support will address two significant barriers to educator retention and, by extension, student achievement.

Excellent educators are our future

The research is there. The evidence is there. We can prepare our educators to succeed in Alaska, but to improve our student outcomes we can’t continue to do it educator-by-educator, school-by-school or even district-by-district. Aligning our priorities and resources to provide these intense initial trainings and continuing education opportunities for all educators across the state will allow us to develop the most effective training for educators.

Currently, each district has its own strategy for utilizing limited budgets to provide training and support through various methods, but we need to combine our energy and our resources to transform how we support educators at the systemic level. The State of Alaska, school districts, educational agencies and all other stakeholders in Alaska’s educational outcomes must come together to make resources go further, to apply best practices in training and education, and to support educators professionally and personally.

If we join together, commit to change and invest wholeheartedly, we can take the bold steps necessary to ensure an excellent education for every student every day.

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The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Association of Alaska School Boards. AASB welcomes diverse perspectives and civil discourse. To submit a Guest Column for consideration, see our Guest Column Guidelines and email your 400-1000 word submission HERE.