Corey Shepherd chose Kotzebue, and that’s where he wants to stay.

(Stepheena Smith / NEA-Alaska)

Working as a teaching assistant in Tennessee during graduate school, Shepherd knew teachers who worked second or even third jobs to support themselves. He knew he wanted something better.

“I was really looking for a state that would allow me to earn a good living as a teacher,” Shepherd said. “Certainly there was another appealing angle: coming to a new place.”

Rural Alaska seemed to fit the bill. Shepherd researched every district he was interested in and compared the things that mattered to him -- not just salary and benefits, but the kind of support available to teachers.

“I tried to make informed decisions before I even applied,” he said. And Kotzebue’s June Nelson Elementary School came out on top.

But no amount of research could truly prepare him for life in the Northwest Arctic hub, or for the challenges and rewards that awaited him there.

A different world

With his move to Kotzebue, Shepherd was embarking on two new journeys. Not only would he be leading his own classroom for the first time, he’d be doing it in a community that was nothing like anyplace he’d ever lived before.

Research has shown that induction and mentoring programs can help new teachers become more effective more quickly and make them more likely to stay on the job. Shepherd benefited from both. Along with mentoring from a more senior teacher, he credits the Alaska Humanities Forum’s C3 cultural immersion program with helping him make a smooth transition to Kotzebue, where about two-thirds of residents are Alaska Native people.

(Stepheena Smith / NEA-Alaska)

“Without that experience, I would’ve had a much rougher start to my career here,” he said. The C3 experience -- which includes an orientation, cultural camp, and debriefing -- gave him a grounding in Alaska Native culture and made him aware of how much he had to learn about the place he’d chosen to make his home.

“I learned to just close my mouth and listen more attentively and ask for help,” Shepherd said.

Shepherd also learned to live in rural Alaska, where things often just aren’t as convenient or accessible as they had been in the Lower 48.

“I plan ahead a lot more,” he said. “If I’m going to Anchorage, whether I need eggs right that moment or not, I’m coming back with five dozen eggs.”

Then there was that unexpected question he used to hear all the time:

“Are you coming back next year?”

“That question always floored me,” Shepherd said. “It showed the culture of what had happened before I got here. There’s such turnover churning through these classrooms that people just accept it as the norm.”

When teachers leave

Teacher turnover is high across the state, but it’s particularly significant in rural Alaska -- up to 20 or 30 percent in some districts. That can create a culture of distrust, according to NEA-Alaska President Tim Parker.

(Levi Brown / NEA-Alaska)

“They’re so used to people leaving that they won’t give you the benefit of the doubt,” Parker said. Relationships and trust can take years to build in a school that’s used to teacher attrition, he added.

When a succession of short-timers cycles through a school, it’s hard on the students as well as the next teacher to fill the position, according to Parker.

“The teacher doesn’t get to control that factor, but they certainly are subject to it,” he said.

Shepherd says he definitely felt the ripple effects of turnover in his first years on the job, not only from students but from parents and colleagues.

“I think it affects the professional climate in a building to have high turnover,” he said. “Whenever a new teacher joins the staff, there seems to be this skepticism. You never know if that person’s going to choose to stay or not.”

Now that he’s lived the life for a few years, he understands why teachers move on. He’s known colleagues whose medical needs required that they move to a more populous area. Some weren’t a good fit for the lifestyle. And others left for places where they felt more secure in their retirement options.

“Teachers that are in Tier III, they know that there’s not really a secure retirement waiting for them, and it’s a much more attractive option for them to cash out their earnings and take them someplace where they at least have the knowledge that they have Social Security,” Shepherd said. “If you want to make your life and your career, especially in a city like Kotzebue where costs of living are much higher, not having that extra piece of retirement in your senior years -- it puts people in a very difficult situation.”

Now midway through his fifth school year in Kotzebue, Shepherd said he’s taking his retirement planning seriously so he can stay in the place he’s grown to love.

“I do consider myself fairly financially literate,” he said. I have other savings that I am actively contributing toward that will help make up that difference. It’s all a lot to take in, and not everybody is going to devote the cognitive power to unraveling that mystery.”

It’s a lot of extra work, but for now he says it’s worth the effort.

“I love my work,” Shepherd said. “I love the kids. I love the community. Being able to be part of such a loving and welcoming community -- that pays dividends to me that are not financial in nature.”

Difficult choices

Shepherd is not unique in his love for Alaska, but his financial literacy does set him apart from many of his peers, both in and out of the teaching profession. More than half of Americans don’t know how much money they’ll need to retire, and one in five has less than $5,000 saved for retirement, according to a 2019 Northwestern Mutual study.

Danielle Specht freely admits that retirement was the furthest thing from her mind when she accepted a job in Kodiak 12 years ago. The special education teacher and her husband moved from Minnesota, along with their infant daughter, so her husband could work as a fishing guide. When her paychecks started showing up without Social Security withholding, she initially thought it was an error; she didn’t realize that Alaska teachers are not allowed to participate in the federal program.

“The expectation from the Lower 48 was ‘You can really make a lot of money in Alaska and they treat their teachers really well,’” Specht said. “As somebody who was not really concerned about retirement at that age, I didn’t exactly look into it.”

Specht’s tween daughter has spent essentially her entire life in Kodiak, but now the family is trying to decide if it’s feasible to stay there long enough for her to graduate from high school with her friends.

“It’s looming,” Specht said. “We have a completely unsecure retirement. It’s dependent on the stock market. It’s not going to be as big as I need it to be. And I’m not going to get Social Security.”

Specht is fully vested in Alaska’s defined contribution plan, so she could move to another state and take her retirement savings with her. Every other state offers some defined benefit option for teachers, including some where she could buy in to make up for the years she was working in Alaska.

“It’s hard,” Specht said. “I know I’m valued here in Kodiak. I would like to retire here.”

But given the cost of living and the uncertainty of her retirement, she said: “That’s definitely not an option.”

Looking Outside for examples

Both Specht and Shepherd serve on an NEA-Alaska committee called SOAR (Saving Our Alaska Retirement) that works to educate Alaska teachers about retirement planning and promote alternatives they say would improve the current retirement system, including opting back into Social Security and exploring “hybrid” arrangements that offer a smaller defined benefit and defined contribution plan. Other states also offer employees a choice between defined benefit and defined contribution plans.

Specht, Shepherd and Parker point to states like Wisconsin, South Dakota and Tennessee, which have built successful defined benefit plans, as examples of potential paths for Alaska.

“We’re not going to be able to go back to a TRS (Tier) I scenario,” Specht said. “The world’s not like that anymore. (But) there’s ways they can do it that are more safe than the way they did it in the past.”

Personally, Specht said, she hopes a change will come quickly. She doesn’t want to leave Alaska, but now in her early 40s, she’s starting to take retirement planning seriously. If her family is going to make a move in time for her to vest in another system, they’ll have to do it within the next few years.

“We love Kodiak,” Specht said. “We want to stay here.” But, she added: “If push comes to shove, within a couple of years, I may not have a choice.”

Presented by NEA-Alaska, an organization of 13,000+ members who work in Alaska’s schools. NEA-Alaska exists to be an advocate for an excellent public education for each child in Alaska and to advance the interests of public school employees.

This story was produced by the creative services department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with the Sponsor. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.