New Alaska College of Education talk of the town on Talk of Alaska

“It’s the middle of summer, but students seeking higher education are making plans for fall. The university’s new Alaska College of Education aims to train more state residents to take teaching jobs here. The idea is to keep good teachers in rural Alaska communities.”

Talk of Alaska program introduction

So began a round-robin discussion on July 24, when President Jim Johnsen and College of Education Executive Dean Steve Atwater joined host Lori Townsend on Alaska Public Radio Network’s Talk of Alaska to discuss the university’s goal to recruit and educate more teachers. The discussion also included Kameron Perez-Verdia, president/CEO of Alaska Humanities Forum.

“What precipitated [the Alaska College of Education] was the regents’ recognition that this is a critically important issue and our challenges ….. You are looking at the single most important job in our state,” Johnsen said.

Alaska faces a range of obstacles as the university endeavors to educate more Alaska teachers. Currently 70 percent of teachers hired each year for Alaska school districts come from outside the state and turnover, especially in rural Alaska, is as high as 50 percent annually. Teachers who come to rural Alaska from outside the state are often unprepared to understand cultural differences and infrastructure challenges, and the effects of decades of trauma from forced assimilation and abuse of Alaska Native students in schools are still present. The effects of these obstacles are costly, both in the financial cost of constant teacher recruitment and the impact to students who witness teachers regularly cycling in and out of their schools.

The discussion emphasized the importance of supporting teachers during their first years in the classroom as critical to improving retention. Atwater said that strategies for supporting teachers include an increased focus on cultural immersion, also known as place-based teaching, mentoring and community partnerships to increase support for new teachers, recruiting Alaska Native educators, and developing youth programs to attract aspiring teachers to the profession.

Johnsen also emphasized the importance of extending the school year and raising esteem for the teaching profession along with addressing the many issues educators face that originate outside the classroom. Research has shown that the learning environment, interactions with the community, additional training mandates, and increased workload contribute to teachers leaving the profession even more than compensation-based reasons.

Non-profit organizations also play a significant role in improving teacher preparedness, retention, and community support, including the Alaska Humanities Forum’s Creating Cultural Competence (C3) program. Perez-Verdia spoke about the program, a coordinated intervention focused on cultural orientation and introducing new teachers into rural Alaska communities. He explained that newly hired teachers participate alongside local youth and elders in an orientation, cultural immersion camp, and debrief prior to the start of the school year within the structure of a 3-credit university course that builds a framework for understanding and relating to rural students and communities.

Through the new Alaska College of Education, UA seeks to better coordinate and align teacher education programs statewide. Atwater, who began serving as executive dean of the college on July 1, emphasized that he will work to  coordinate and maintain strong relationships with the 53 school districts in the state and serve as a conduit for placing teachers into Alaska’s schools who are prepared with the skills, values and cultural understanding necessary to thrive. The Alaska College of Education will take the lead to increase opportunities for completing education programs, including expanding online course offerings, post-baccalaureate training and continued refinement and alignment of existing programs. The college will also lead the expansion of scholarships, mentoring and other support programs. Education programs continue to be offered at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the University of Alaska Anchorage.

The Board of Regents has set a goal for UA to educate 90 percent of Alaska teachers hired each year by 2025, a goal Johnsen and Atwater acknowledged as lofty, but necessary to help address these challenges and improve Alaska’s education system. Johnsen noted that increasing retention is an equally critical step toward achieving this goal.

A recording with links to the programs discussed can be found at https://www.alaskapublic.org/2018/07/20/uas-college-of-education/

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