Engaging with culture: Native Charter School teacher nominated for Alaska Teacher of the Year

Danielle Riha is a nominee for the 2018 Alaska Teacher of the Year. She teaches at the Alaska Native Cultural Charter School. (Photo by Wesley Early, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

The State Department of Education will pick Alaska’s teacher of the year next month.

This week we’ll have profiles of each of the five finalists, from across the state.

Danielle Riha teaches seventh and eighth grade at the Alaska Native Cultural Charter School in Anchorage. Riha’s career has been varied, transitioning from working in rural Alaska to helping open the charter school.

Listen now

After getting a degree in physical therapy in her native Texas, Danielle Riha thought she’d only be in Alaska for a short time. She was working in Dutch Harbor for a summer on a fishing vessel in order to save up money for graduate school.

“While I was playing ball with some kids at the rec center, the superintendent asked me if I wnated to substitute teach, and I told him, ‘No way! I am not teacher material. You don’t want me in your school,'” Riha said. “And he said, ‘Well, I’ll pay you $120 dollars a day.’ and I said CHA-CHING! Okay, let me do that.”

She was wrong about not being teacher material.

“Everybody at the school in Unalaska was like, ‘You’re a natural. You should become a teacher.’ And of course, I fell in love with Alaska,” Riha said. “I went to Anchorage, got my degree and went and taught in Togiak and New Stuyahok.”

Riha admits that her introduction to rural Alaska was a little rocky.

“I’m not gonna lie to you. My first year in Togiak was a really tough year,” Riha said. “I was spat at, people threw rocks at me, people said, ‘Go home, kass’uq!’ It was tough. I was not welcome. Parents wouldn’t come to teacher conferences. Parents wouldn’t shake my hand, because I was white. But that was my first year. My second year, people were at the airport — which is just a runway; there’s no real airport. And they were waiting for me to get off the plane because they were so happy I was back.”

Riha says many Outside teachers only stay in rural communities for a year or less. Her determination to continue to teach won over the village.

The strong relationship Riha had with rural Alaska and Alaska Native children is largely what led her to help establish the Alaska Native Cultural Charter School in Anchorage. Riha had spent years developing curriculum in rural Alaska that helped keep the kids engaged by connecting lesson plans to Native customs.

“So the kids weren’t connecting the base of the readers, they didn’t understand the curriculum and they weren’t learning. They were checked out,” Riha said. “So I had, in order to teach the elements of literature, I had elders come in and tell oral traditional stories. And I taught what a protagonist is, what an antagonist is. I taught everything through those stories. And I worked with some elders on math and science and subsistence things, like why did they design boats differently?”

The Department of Education described Riha’s dedication to helping build the charter school from the ground up as the reason she was nominated for Teacher of the Year.

These days, Riha spends her time teaching seventh and eighth grade language arts, social studies, science and math. She says she’s happy she’s made lasting relationships with her students.

“And they all come to my school and they all volunteer and they all tell my kids to listen to me and to participate,” Riha said. “So my kids see these older kids come back all the time, and they’re just like, ‘Wow! I’m gonna be like them.'”

Riha says she’s proud she’s been able to help mold students into passionate community members who aren’t afraid to voice their perspectives.

Wesley Early covers Anchorage life and city politics for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at wearly@alaskapublic.org and follow him on X at @wesley_early. Read more about Wesley here.

Previous articleHeart disease
Next articleAK: Nerdiness and fandom abound at Anchorage’s 13th Annual Senshi Con