Alaska should support home-grown teachers to fill vacancies

Now that it is early September, children across Alaska have bid farewell to summer and are back in the routine of school. Questions about new teachers -- will they be strict, will they assign a lot of homework, will I be able to keep my phone during class -- have by now been answered. But for close to 2,000 students in rural Alaska, a more urgent concern is wondering whether they will have a permanent teacher for part or all of their school day.

More than half of Alaska's rural school districts from Craig to Kotzebue began the year with 70 teaching vacancies. Alaska's urban school districts that are more adept at late hiring started the year with dozens of unfilled jobs. Schools with vacancies are doing their best to fill their personnel gaps by hiring long-term substitutes, combining classes and asking teachers to cover two classes with additional classroom aides. While the number of openings is relatively small when compared to the state's total number of teachers (more than 7,000), it is clear that the pool of candidates interested in teaching in our state's public schools is not what it once was -- in the past three years, attendance at Alaska job fairs is down 10 percent in Anchorage and close to 30 percent at fairs in Seattle and Minnesota. The heyday of the late 1980s when 1,000 educators crammed into the Hilton ballroom looking for a teaching job is now a faint memory.

Each year, Alaska's school districts hire between 700-1,000 teachers. Some are moving within the state to a new district, a few are experienced teachers returning to the profession and some are new graduates of University of Alaska and Alaska Pacific University. Most of these hires. however, are from out of state. About two-thirds of the teachers hired this year are new to Alaska with many of them going to work in remote village schools. This dependence on teachers from Outside is not new, but it is a model that is beginning to crack.

There are several reasons for that. The most obvious two are that there is a declining number of students graduating from teacher preparation programs and Alaska's teaching salaries and benefits no longer shine as brightly as they once did. On the home front, the number of teachers prepared by UA and APU is relatively flat. So what to do? Convincing 600 Alaskans to become teachers each year will not happen, but we can take a series of short- and long-term steps to begin to address our teacher shortage.

  1. An immediate short-term fix is legislation to allow retired teachers to retain their retirement benefit and return to teaching when districts are unable to fill their vacancies. I suspect that there are dozens of such people who would take advantage of this.
  2. Increase the number of homegrown teachers by providing additional support for programs that set high school students on a teaching career pathway. The University of Alaska’s Plan for Revitalizing Teacher Education in Alaska and its support for the Future Educators of Alaska Program is helping to do this, but will need additional support. Local efforts by school districts and the Citizens for the Educational Advancement of Alaska’s Children are also creating opportunities for rural students and paraprofessionals to become teachers. Both of these efforts can only grow with more support.
  3. Create an ad campaign to attract Alaskans to teaching and teachers to Alaska. We are a unique state with a rich cultural history -- this needs to be promoted. Districts are spending more and more of their dwindling resources on recruiting teachers; the state needs to help with a campaign that makes teaching in Alaska appealing.

Long-term solutions to increase the less than adequate number of students becoming teachers are more challenging. Surveys show that in the past 10 years teacher satisfaction has gone down. This is likely due to an increasing set of expectations -- including the requirement to cover a growing number of social issues -- placed on teachers without a corresponding increase in support. The profession is also quickly dismissed as ineffective by many in the public without a true understanding of the whole. Although it has become cliché to look to Finland as a model for how to run schools, the professional stature of teachers in that country needs to be recognized as an important piece of their education system's success. Deciding to become a teacher is much more appealing when the profession is valued as a critical part of our social fabric. We need to do more to raise the teaching profession up.

The beginning of the school year is an exciting time for our state's 133,000 students. Let's pause to recognize that some of these students are less than excited when they learned that their teacher is a long-term sub. The education of our children is arguably the most important public service that we can offer. Let's think in terms of what we can collectively do to create incentives and supports to ensure that on the first day of school, every student has a teacher.

Steve Atwater is the University of Alaska's Associate Vice President for K-12 Outreach. Prior to that, he served as superintendent of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District and the Lake and Peninsula School District. Steve is a member and past president of the Alaska Superintendents Association.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

Steve Atwater

Steve Atwater is the University of Alaska’s Associate Vice President for K-12 Outreach. Prior to that, he served as superintendent of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District and the Lake and Peninsula School District. He is a member and past president of the Alaska Superintendents Association.