Identity, Community, and Sincerity

How Danielle Riha, the 2019 Alaska Teacher of the Year, builds relationships, inspires students, and creates lifelong learners at Alaska Native Cultural Charter School.

Like many educators who find themselves working in Alaska public schools, Danielle Riha had no idea she wanted to be a teacher. When she came to Alaska in 1995 she was looking for adventure, and a job to help pay for graduate school to become a Physical Therapist. She worked on the slime line in the fishing industry in St. Paul, then Unalaska before reluctantly taking a position as a substitute teacher.  It was in this position that she first learned she had a natural ability to work with students, even those who struggled with behavioral issues that could disrupt an entire classroom.

Danielle continued to embrace challenging opportunities as she entered a new role as a full-time aide in Unalaska, ultimately using a blend of teaching and Physical Therapy to assist a young woman with Cerebral Palsy graduate as the valedictorian of her class. That same student told Danielle, “you’re a natural at teaching, you should be a teacher.” From then on, she was hooked. She enrolled at the University of Alaska Anchorage where she received her teaching degree and headed back out to rural Alaska.

From Unalaska to Togiak to New Stuyahok, Danielle’s rural Alaska education experience is extensive and rooted in a deep respect for Alaska Native cultures, people, and languages. “In rural Alaska, make sure that you know you are a guest there,” said Danielle during a recent interview with NEA-Alaska. “Don’t go there and try to change their world. Be a learner, because there is so much to learn out there.”

In 2007, the Alaska Native Cultural Charter School was established in Anchorage. Danielle was one of the first teachers invited to help develop the curriculum that would form the foundation for what is one of the most culturally unique public schools in Alaska. Currently in her 11th year, Danielle can’t think of a better place to work.

“Our school is really unique−people say they can feel it when they walk through this school,” said Danielle. “Every kid knows every teacher. Every kid knows the older kids.”

The interconnectedness of ANCCS is critical to its success and that of its students, explained Danielle. “The way I measure their success is when I see them connecting to their community. We do AFN’s Elders and Youth Conference every year and I have students every year that have written resolutions and have them voted on. I have students every year who become youth representatives of their village. I have students who become MC’s every year. To me, that’s success. To become involved in their community through learning, that’s success.”

While Danielle has countless success stories about her students, her job is not without its challenges and heartbreak. “A third of my class right now is either homeless or in foster care, just as of this year,” explained Danielle. “That’s tough. Some of the things that happen to some of these kids−I can’t imagine how they’re going on−so I have to make this the safest, most desirable place to be, and I can do that with honesty. I can do that by letting them know I am here for them so they can trust me.”

Alaska Native Cultural Charter School is committed to continuing to advance curriculum that is focused on Alaska Native culture while promoting academic rigor that teaches the skills for lifelong learning. Danielle Riha plays a critical role in ensuring that success. “I love helping kids connect to their identity and be comfortable in their own skin and become independent learners so they’re seeking everything on their own,” said Danielle.

As the 2019 Alaska State Teacher of the Year, Danielle hopes to share her vision with educators across Alaska. “One of my platforms is to teach positivity and kindness and teach those character traits that kids aren’t necessarily getting at home,” said Danielle. “My parents did a really good job at teaching me these things−really old world values−and I think that’s why I did such a good job at connecting with our Native cultures so quickly.”

Danielle’s experience as an educator in rural Alaska has given her great perspective on the challenges new educators face when entering the profession in rural areas. “You have to let them see who you are. You have to make those connections. They call it being culturally responsive, but you have to get to know your kids. There is a curriculum that everyone has to teach, but how kids connect to it is different. Every kid is different. If you can connect what they have to learn to what they like, then you’re a winner and they’re a winner.”

Danielle Riha will serve as the Alaska State Teacher of the Year for 2019. She will be honored with an award at the 2019 NEA-Alaska Delegate Assembly on January 18, 2019.