All the new teachers for the Lower Kuskokwim School District huddled in the cafeteria at Bethel Regional High School last Thursday for a welcome orientation. Most of them are new to rural Alaska — some of are even new to the country. But there was one teacher there, Zachariah Pleasant, who went to class right down the hall.
“Born and raised here in beautiful Bethel, Alaska,” Pleasant said. “I am going to be a first-grade teacher at M.E. school, that is where I went to school many, many moons ago.”
Pleasant went to Mikelnguut Elitnaurviat, or M.E. School, as a kid growing up in Bethel. He later graduated from Bethel Regional High School in 2011, but he wasn’t immediately sure what career he wanted to pursue. He decided to become a teacher almost by accident after a chance encounter while fishing a few years after graduation. That day, the Lower Kuskokwim School District’s dean of students happened to be on the boat and asked Pleasant if he wanted to interview for a job.
“I go in on Monday morning, put on a shirt thinking I was going in for an interview, and they said, ‘Oh, here’s the paperwork’,” Pleasant said. “And I absolutely loved it. I loved working with the kids.”
Pleasant took the job and worked for years in special education as an intensive needs aide. Then he decided to take the next step in his career. After six years of studying for his credentials and interning as a student teacher, Pleasant is now a first-grade teacher at the same elementary school he attended.
Teaching in his home town is a dream job, but it wouldn’t have been possible without a longstanding, grow-your-own program within the school district called the Career Ladder.
“We want the education to be from local people,” said Erin Haviland, the assistant superintendent of Human Resources and Student Services. “That’s how we build sustainability is by people that want to stay in our region.”
Haviland helps run the Career Ladder, also known as the Teach Program, which is an initiative within the school district that allows community members to pursue their teaching credentials. If you’re accepted into the program, the school district pays for your entire college degree at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Kuskokwim Campus, as well as books and other materials. The goal of the program is to recruit promising, potential teachers from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta who know the area, know the culture and might want to stick around.
Teacher retention is consistently a problem in rural Alaska, and there’s a teacher shortage across the country. Nationwide, 44% of public schools currently report full- or part-time teaching vacancies, according to The National Center for Education Statistics. The Lower Kuskokwim School District is no exception. But while some other districts are seriously struggling to find teachers in the post-COVID-19 education environment, the Bethel-based district has about the same number of open positions as any other year.
“Certainly our Career Ladder has really helped staunch the effects that other districts are seeing,” Haviland said.
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Beyond filling positions in remote schools, the Career Ladder program also helps build a staff that’s culturally fluent, according to the district. Both the school board and community members have made it a priority to teach elementary school students in both English and Yup’ik. To achieve that, the school district needs certified Yup’ik speaking teachers. The Career Ladder program helps find those Yup’ik speakers from the region who often share a similar background as their students. Haviland said that those shared experiences are a boon for any teacher trying to mentor and connect with their class.
“No one really understands the region we live in unless you’ve grown up here, and so having teachers who do have that full understanding really puts education where it should be: in the hands of the parents and the community,” Haviland said. “That’s what public education is about.”
Ann Marie Tinker, a second-grade teacher in Kongiganak who just completed the Career Ladder program, said that the program comes with some challenges. For example, usually people are working full-time as they study for their credentials. Still, she thinks it will help people become teachers who wouldn’t have been able to otherwise, and help preserve the language and culture of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.
“The numbers of Yup’ik speaking teachers are growing within our district because of the Career Ladder and the teacher program,” Tinker said. “It helped me.”
For Pleasant, he’s just excited to be contributing to the next generation in the town that raised him.
“It’s just amazing to watch the steps a student takes, watching them grow into who they are going to be,” Pleasant said. “You get to help them put on their shoes and see where they want to go.”
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