UAA continues to combat teacher turnover in rural Alaska schools

Teacher turnover rates in Alaska’s rural school districts have been a work in progress for the state and University of Alaska system. While these rates have averaged 20 percent between 2004 and 2014, some school districts have averaged annual turnover rates above 30 percent, according to a study done by the Center for Alaska Education Policy Research.

Teacher Turnover rates
Photo credit: Mariah DeJesus-Remaklus

Despite these numbers, there are still efforts being made to improve teacher retention and continue providing education for youth in the communities. Part of this includes recognizing the contributing factors to teacher turnover.

Diane Hirshberg, a professor of education policy and the director of CAEPR, said that working conditions in rural communities can negatively impact teachers that are hired.

“We have a couple of issues. One is working conditions: we have a lot of rural teachers… who said that they felt unsupported either by their school administrators, the district administration, or the community,” Hirshberg said. “And in terms of the community, we have a real dilemma. You have community members who say, ‘Why should I invest in educators when I know they’re going to leave?'”

When the community members have these thoughts and the teachers feel a lack of support, it becomes a vicious cycle, Hirshberg said. Living conditions can also be a challenge in rural areas, such as in a small village where basic commodities are expensive and entertainment options are limited.

This can be especially difficult for teachers who are used to more urban environments where social and cultural norms might be different. These cultural differences also contribute to teacher turnover since many rural school districts are associated with Alaska Native communities.

Paul Ongtooguk, assistant professor in UAA’s College of Education, said that teachers often felt “alienated” or were not able to connect with, understand or learn about the cultures.

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“Teachers will say, ‘I’m trying to ask people about the language and culture,’ but they don’t step back and say, ‘If you’ve spent your whole life in this village, how many teachers have asked you that question?'” Ongtooguk said. “And they never learn from it because they’re here for a year and then they’re gone, which is hardly the time to begin accumulating any of that knowledge. It’s a problem that recreates itself.”

Ongtooguk said that the university has an opportunity to better understand how to prepare teachers for what they will face. Additionally, it would be beneficial to produce more Alaska Native teachers that can identify and contribute to lowering the turnover rates, as well as maintain proficient education.

“It’s like a low-hanging fruit for us to pursue as a university. There’s always an effort to try and develop more Alaska Native teachers for Alaska Native villages,” Ongtooguk said. “There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a good idea to support and encourage that.”

Unfortunately, students are showing low interest in teaching in rural schools, Hirshberg said, and this has also been affecting turnover rates.

“There’s the other part of the cycle. We’re graduating, in any given year, a couple hundred certificated teachers new to the field… But first of all, a lot of our graduates don’t necessarily want to go to rural Alaska. If you’re an Anchorage-based student, you probably want to teach in the Anchorage School District,” Hirshberg said.

Not only are students not choosing to go to college, but they are also not seeing teaching as a positive or worthwhile profession.

Cultivating teachers and fostering connections with kids is important, Mike Mueller, a professor of secondary education at UAA, said.

With a number of graduate students, Mueller visits the Bristol Bay and Lake and Peninsula school districts to teach what he calls eco-justice, helping the youth learn more about science and being environmentally responsible. Most of these graduate students are looking to become teachers.

“They design these learning experiences so that they can teach kids all about… place-based ideas, things that are local and regional, like salmon and the northern lights,” Mueller said.

In an effort to help cultivate teachers in rural Alaska, Mueller has created a partnership with the Lake and Peninsula School District that would encourage a student to do their last teaching semester in a village school. The district would pay for the tuition, housing and travel, and several students have already done it.

“We’re making good ground because they were hiring all their teachers from out of state, other places not from UAA, and there’s this concern. How can we increase the number of Alaska-raised, organically-grown teachers?” Mueller said.

Taking these students out to experience rural communities helps give insight as well.

“It’s this exposure to the village life and the students themselves that cultivate the interest. Before that, a lot of these students had these preconceptions about what village life is like and they think that being a village teacher is not going to be fun,” Mueller said. “They feel like it’s going to be too isolating, and it really isn’t when you connect them to the local community.”

Jennifer Lorenz was a teaching education student that taught in rural communities for two years. She went to Point Lay, located in the North Slope Borough School District, for a year and then to the Lake and Peninsula School District. Her decision to teach in these areas began while studying at UAA.

“I had met other teachers that had taught in rural places and it just sounded very interesting to me, so I did my student teaching in a rural community as well,” Lorenz said. “I loved it so much that I just kind of decided to keep doing it… It was something that was unique and, you know, you don’t really hear about rural programs like that outside of Alaska.”

Lorenz said that it takes time to be trusted and included by the community, but she hopes that teachers will continue to receive support and resources.

During her time teaching, Lorenz had a mentor to help guide her, but physical distance wasn’t easy. Mentors are typically assigned to help teachers as they live and work in a rural setting, although Lorenz wishes the support had been more accessible.

“I did have a mentor that was offered to me — she was fantastic, don’t get me wrong, but she was in Anchorage. She wasn’t out where I was and having somebody that can get to you and be there with you is incredibly important,” Lorenz said.

To help prepare teachers that are going out to a rural school, Ongtooguk has been creating informational videos, recognizing that sometimes these teachers don’t know they have questions until they arrive.

“We’re doing 5 to 15 minute videos about what I think are common questions that new teachers might have when they’re out in a community, when they’re finally taking a break, saying, ‘I’ve got to find out more about this,'” Ongtooguk said.

Teacher turnover has been an ongoing problem, but efforts are honing in on teacher preparation and support as well as creating more Alaska-based educators.

Hirshberg said that not only does teaching education need to be more attractive as a profession to students, but also potential teachers have to understand the needs of those in rural Alaska.

“But how do we meet the needs of kids that don’t come from privileged backgrounds, don’t have access to large comprehensive high schools? And how do we get educators who really understand those kids’ needs?” Hirshberg said. “It’s not that these kids can’t learn, it’s that we haven’t figured out how to reach them.”