Inspiring Educators

The more I travel across Alaska, the more I realize how much NEA-Alaska members have in common. The ever tightening budget is raising class sizes and forcing districts to halt programs that have demonstrated that they improve student learning.

No district or community is immune.

But outside the continued squeeze on the budget, educators are working harder than ever to meet the needs of students.

In Doug Edwards’ culinary arts class at Ketchikan High School, students work together as a team to prepare meals for all kinds of occasions both in school and in the community. Edwards’ background in the grocery business gives him a unique view as a teacher. He knows the business skills students need.

“Students need hands-on and they need to know how to communicate,” Edwards said. “I teach them how to talk to their employer.”

At Wrangell High School, students in Ann Leutkemeyer’s community art class have put up so many murals in the school and the community that business owners call and ask for their services. Leutkemeyer doesn’t hire them out, though. The students only do public spaces, but the real key is the way they interact with the owners.

Whether it’s the classroom or a public space, the students talk to the adult in charge and interview them about what type of art they may want. Then they go back and come up with proposals. The students’ job is to make sure the “customer” is happy with what they are producing.

Although Leutkemeyer’s students do great work, she has noticed in the past decade that students are having a harder time being creative. “Kids want us to tell them the answers,” she said. “That’s not the way to go.”

After a decade of focus on testing, the result is that students wait for teachers to tell them the answers, and they are less likely to creatively come up with their own solutions.

At Evergreen Elementary in Wrangell, fifth-grade teacher Laura Davies tries to get students not to focus exclusively on textbooks. “They’re just too scripted,” she said. She prefers projects that push the students to think in ways that are not always simple.

In Laurie Brown’s K-1 class at Evergreen, the element that she thinks would most help students is time for creativity. Meanwhile, Brown notices that more students than ever are struggling with issues outside of school. Trying to meet their social and emotional needs is a challenge. Because of budget cuts, Evergreen is talking about eliminating its elementary school counselor position.

JanineIn Delta Junction, in Janine Todd’s third-grade class, dozens of “gold star” vocabulary words hang from the ceiling. When the students use the words—like tedious, putrid, hodgepodge, shriek, and many more—Mrs. Todd blurts out “gold star.” When the principal was giving an assembly and used one of the words, the whole class blurted out, “gold star.”

Making vocabulary a regular and fun part of class—even in the third grade—is what great teachers do.

In Petersburg, technology specialist Jon Painter says flexibility is one of the most-needed items at the local level. State mandates that don’t serve the community are an obstacle to increasing student learning. With the small staff in Petersburg, flexibility in scheduling and everything else key.

Petersburg High School counselor Rachel Etcher says that the school is getting stretched. “We take on a great deal,” she said. “It’s taking its toll on us.” Etcher, who is a Petersburg High School graduate, started as a middle school counselor. But with budget cuts, she now serves all middle and high school students.

Victor Trautman, high school science teacher, says “quality teachers” are the key to student success in schools. He says that finding good teachers to replace retirees really worries him. When teachers leave, programs disappear, he said.

Dave Owens who teaches in Petersburg’s multi-purpose shop talked about bringing students to AVTEC in Seward and how much it boosted their interest in career and technical education. “For Alaska students, it’s a big deal,” he said.

The examples from educators all over Alaska are truly inspiring, but I have to wonder how much longer this can go on. Budget cuts upon budget cuts will eventually cause great harm to student learning. As lawmakers continue to negotiate possible solutions to Alaska’s funding crisis, Alaska educators continue to teach our students but uncertainty looms over our classrooms. They can’t wait another year for a budget solution. Their education is happening right now.