Retaining teachers in the Alaskan bush

A mural in one of the rural schools where Ute Kaden is doing her research is very colorful. All photos: courtesy Ute Kaden. There’s no question that life is different in the Alaskan bush. Challenging as the remoteness, weather conditions, and life in a Native community may be, these are often the qualities that initially draw teachers to rural Alaska. Unfortunately, these same qualities often send them packing for urban centers.


This is what the commute to some rural communities looks like—not a Starbucks in sight!

Most of Alaska’s rural communities are accessible only by airplane or boat. Secluded locations coupled with long winter nights, cold temperatures, and limited housing often lead to feelings of isolation. Relatively low pay and high living costs are also contributing factors to high turnover rates and teacher shortages.

Ute Kaden prepares to travel to rural Alaska.

In a three-year study funded by the National Science Foundation, Ute Kaden and her research team (University of Alaska, Fairbanks) are looking at how to keep effective teachers in rural Alaska and throughout the circumpolar north.

During the study, which launched in August, 2013, current teachers, as well as those who have left their post already after two years or less, will be surveyed and interviewed about their training and experiences. NSF has already developed several publications with tips about teaching and doing research in indigenous communities. Kaden’s team includes Native researchers who will conduct focus groups and interviews with Elders, school board, and Tribal Council members.

Despite their isolation, most of the rural schools are like their more urban counterparts, including having gyms with rock climbing walls.

“We really hope to establish and develop good relationships with rural Alaskan communities. This requires a certain protocol consistent with tribal customs,” Kaden explains. “We want to engage people who will talk honestly and openly about the issues facing the rural education system and this requires trust and respect for the tribal system. Understandably, there is some skepticism about Western education given the oppressive past, current inconsistencies, and high teacher turnover rates which is reflected in low academic student achievement.”

Reality versus fantasy

“They come for various reasons – Alaskan adventure, a first employment opportunity, or perhaps they lost a job and this is a fresh start. Most have never visited Alaska before and are either at the very start or very end of their career. We don’t see a lot of people from the middle,” explains Kaden.

Living and working in rural Alaska often proves more difficult and less romantic than teachers initially thought, says Kaden. Consequently, many teachers leave after a very short time. “We see an incredible annual turnover rate in rural areas each year related to the overall harshness of working in the northern part of the country,” Kaden explains. “We need to better understand why in order to improve the education system in rural Alaska and around the circum-Arctic.”

Difficulty immersing

Not your typical school yard.

One issue for many teachers is the lack of preparedness for living in a culture so completely different from their own. In rural Alaska more than 90% of students are Alaskan Natives and each community differs from the next. Teachers are treated as temporary guests, which can make community integration difficult. Teachers must learn a great deal on the fly.

“The infrastructure and cultural aspects in these mostly indigenous villages is very different from where most teachers come from. Consequently, teachers often have difficulty bonding with students and the community,” says Kaden.

Multifaceted job descriptions

Teachers use video to enhance their lessons.

In the United States, teachers are usually trained in just one subject area. However, teachers in rural Alaska may be required to teach several grade levels across many subjects. In addition to school obligations teachers are typically responsible for hosting outside activities at the school, which is often used as a community center and may be the only place in town with Internet. Consequently, these teachers have very long work days.

Job disappointment

All of the above afore-mentioned factors can contribute to feelings of loneliness and frustration. About 60% of Alaskan teachers leave the Arctic region after only two years. Consequently, students and their communities suffer from the inconsistency and lack of stability.

“Communities want effective teachers who inform parents and students alike. Good student –teacher and community relations are critical. How can we prepare teachers to be effective regardless of their time spent in a community?” says Kaden. “We can’t expect most younger people to spend their whole life in rural Alaska. But, how many years can we expect? Two to three years would be great, but teacher effectiveness is equally important to communities. To do this, we must better prepare teachers for the realities of living and working in rural Alaska so that they have a positive impact regardless of tenure.”

Improved teacher training

Kaden is also working with teachers and communities to incorporate and strengthen a field practicum in which university pre-service teachers, those still working on their qualifications, can be involved in several different rural classrooms prior to pursuing a full-time position. This exposure allows pre-service teachers the opportunity to work alongside effective rural teachers in a Native village. The experience helps prepare teachers for the social and environmental challenges of living and working in rural communities. They learn to better manage student needs and expectations while gaining first-hand knowledge of native communities and how to work with students from different cultural backgrounds through community events and immersion in Native traditions and subsistence lifestyles. Teachers are also offered a university support network, mentoring, and professional development.

“Our research will inform teacher educators, school administrators, and community stakeholders about how to support teachers with pedagogical and cultural training while stressing the need for patience, respect, and flexibility. We want to give them the tools to effectively teach multilevel classes and place-relevant lessons. By collaboratively helping teachers to develop community relationships and incorporate art, culture, and local material into their classrooms, we hope we will enhance the educational experience for both teachers and students,” says Kaden. “Rural education in northern Alaska is different than elsewhere and our research, hopefully, sheds light on these differences as well as the beauty of living and teaching there.” Additional information about the project can be found on the Web:  —Marcy Davis