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National Teacher of the Year finalist: Alaskan village “unlike anything else in the world”

Frist-grade teacher Harlee Harvey of a rural village in Alaska is one of 5 finalists for the National Teacher of the Year.

11 min read

EducationVoice of the Educator

NTOY finalists 2023 logo

Council of Chief State School Officers

The Council of Chief State School Officers has selected five finalists for National Teacher of the Year from a cohort of 55 educators. The winner will be announced in the coming weeks.

First-grade teacher Harlee Harvey, the 2023 Alaska Teacher of the Year, has been teaching for nine years in Point Hope, a remote village where the pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade school has 270 students and no staff specialists. 

SmartBrief interviewed her about infusing her lessons with the Alaska Native Inupiaq culture and knowledge, helping students feel valued and the challenges that teachers are facing.

This Q&A has been lightly edited for clarity and space.

SmartBrief: We ask a lot of our teachers in the US, often without giving a lot in return (whether pay, recognition or support). What can school districts and/or principals do to help teachers who are tapped out, keep the good ones and recruit new ones when the job can sometimes seem overwhelming? 

headshot of Harlee Harvey for article on teacher of the year finalist

Harvey: I live in a district where we’re higher-paying. But the cost of living has gone up; inflation has gone up. So there’s kind of a hesitancy to be able to negotiate for higher salaries for teachers. I think that a lot of times teachers feel locked out of conversations [because] decisions are made at a district level. I think a big thing districts can do is really make a concerted effort to include teachers in important conversations that affect the lives of them and their students, because we’re some of the people who know students the best.

Recruitment is harder. I’m the local president of the [teachers] union. We have been negatively impacted by the constant turnover, vacancies that aren’t filled. A lot of us need a second job or second income to make it work, to support our families. And child care is a big, big deal; it isn’t reliable enough.

Newer teachers are realizing how the job responsibilities are almost too much to handle on your own. Veteran teachers say this is not the teaching they went into. We have more and more and more responsibilities and little planning on how we support teachers. 

Our school is too small to have P.E. teachers. There are credible P.E. teachers, and I am not a P.E. teacher. I’m not comfortable planning for something way out of my scope of experience or training. We also don’t have intentional time for art or music. It’s up to the teacher to integrate those content areas as well. We used to be able to have specialists come out to villages, like a reading specialist, but that was cut a number of years ago. 

Also, it’s really hard for other educators to understand the experiences of rural Alaska, because it is unlike anything else anywhere in the world. It’s just such a hard thing to conceptualize without living here. I mean, I grew up in Alaska, but it’s a whole other setting even from the more urban areas.

I don’t know the answer to recruitment, except that I think there does need to be some attention paid into how much the job demands versus the benefits packages that teachers get for the time that they put into the job.

SmartBrief: We hear so much about teachers who want to make all students feel valued and gifted and capable of great things, and the importance of connecting with them — learning about a student’s home life, going to their sports or extracurricular activities. Do you have tips for ways to do this that won’t encroach into a teacher’s personal time or out-of-the-ordinary ways to connect?

Harvey: Point Hope is a really small village of 700 to 800 people. I think I’m in a unique position to connect with kids because we just see each other all over the place. As much as possible, I try to be really intentional with setting time aside in class to connect with kids, especially the more introverted kids who are quieter. 

Another thing I like to do, but I don’t get to do it often, is eating lunch with the kids. Sometimes it means you’re not going to get your 30-minute lunchtime by yourself, but eating with the kids every now and then really goes a long way. They love it, being able to connect without worrying about a math lesson or reading lesson, where it’s not a structured classroom environment. 

SmartBrief: Behavior problems have blossomed during the pandemic, but they’ve always existed. What are your classroom management strategies for dealing with disruptive behavior and regaining control of the room? 

Harvey:  We have whole-group discussions around classroom expectations at the beginning of the year, what it looks like. Even though they’re 6 years old, I’m really big on building those together. 

When we’ve experienced behavior struggles, I’ve tried to reinforce that the behavior is the problem, not the student. It’s that relationship-building. If they’re in a moment, I have to wait and go back later and reinforce that I want them here. I’ve had kids look at me like, “You want me? Are you sure?” And I’m like, “I’m sure, but we have to work on the behavior. We can’t behave like this in school. We can’t behave like this with our friends.”

I don’t have a magic button, so it’s getting that student back under control, and then maybe it’s doing a brain break with the kids — a dance or some kind of exercise, even if it’s just three minutes of jumping and moving around and then transitioning back to where we were and where we need to go. It can’t just be like, “Stop. We’re back to this.” It can be really hard because you also want to have that conversation with the kids so that they don’t start seeing their peers as a problem, [because] we’re all working together, and we all want to get along.

We’re seeing a heightened need for [social-emotional learning] in the classroom. I’m still getting more professional development, reaching out for different trainings to figure out what I can do to better reach students who have been out of school their entire life. [The school shut down due to the pandemic in 2020 and into the following year.]  

SmartBrief: Collaboration with teachers and administrators seems to be a thread that ties together all the National Teacher of the Year finalists. What does really successful collaboration look like? What are your favorite collaboration tools to engage and learn with other teachers, whether in your school or district or beyond?  

Harvey: Our district does, and a lot of districts do, professional learning communities. This was interrupted a lot during the pandemic. And for a long time, and even continuing on a little bit now, in-services were virtual; I could connect in my classroom and not have anyone in the room with me. 

I’m hoping we’re moving more toward in-person and staff getting together to talk about what we need to do, what does the staff want to know, what are the interests of the teachers to learn? So it’s not such a top-down approach. We know what we might need in our classroom to be successful.

I think a huge, huge impact on professional development the last couple years has been the virtual component, and it’s just not as good as connecting in person. Now, rural Alaska, of course, has travel barriers. So sometimes that’s just not possible. It can be costly. But at least teachers in a building can get together for this PD that’s going out across the district. So at least you’re collaborating with those in your building in person and then virtually with those outside of the building or in another village.

SmartBrief: What don’t we know or understand about Alaskan Native students that affects their learning? Is there enough research and data collected on these indigenous students to give us a picture of their needs? 

Harvey: The history of education in Alaska has been incredibly traumatic for our indigenous populations. It’s hearing stories of elders and people that had to go to the [Bureau of Indian Affairs] schools and boarding schools. They were not treated kindly; [the staff was] abusive in those schools. It’s hard to listen to this; I can’t imagine going through it. And that has led to this intergenerational trauma and this really severe breakdown between the school and community. 

So one of the biggest challenges is this gap between the community and the school. Even though we both want what’s best for students, we haven’t agreed yet or been able to create partnerships on how to get there.

There’s very little research specific to my teaching assignment about how our students would learn best. I think the biggest thing about rural Alaska and working with the populations that live in villages is they have experienced trauma that is not typical to other communities across the nation. We have to be mindful that this trauma affects every aspect of their life. Even if my students didn’t go to BIA schools, their ancestors did, their families did. And so there’s just that distrust that exists there. 

This distrust has been magnified by the [teacher] turnover rates. There was a study back in 2016 that said the majority of teachers leave rural Alaska, Arctic Alaska, before they complete two years. The relationship-building [with families] is really, really difficult. When you have a new teacher come in, there’s just an automatic distrust, understandably so. I mean, my first year I started having kids ask at Christmastime if I was coming back. They’re just used to people going. I counted last year. We have 23 teaching staff on-site. I’ve been here nine years, and there have been 72 different teachers.

We need to find future teachers within the community. I think that is going to be incredibly important in building a stable teaching staff and starting to bridge that gap between school and community. The only tribal college in Alaska has an associate degree in education, which is a great option for students, putting them halfway to their teaching degree and getting those foundational skills before transferring to a bigger university. That’s a big leap for our students to go from a high school where your graduating class is like five to 10 students. So even when there’s interest, sometimes there’s just different barriers that come into play when you talk about leaving the village. 

Other people have families and responsibilities. Everything stops at whaling season, and there are subsistence and cultural activities. But if you’re schooling in Fairbanks, it’s not that important there; they don’t understand. To go [to the four-year university], you sacrifice a lot of the life that you grew up in.

One positive thing that has come from the pandemic is there are more virtual options. A colleague is working toward her bachelor’s in education virtually. That’s challenging.

Another big issue is resources. Our base student allocation has been flat-funded for a number of years. There have been no meaningful increases, which makes it hard for teachers and for districts. 

During National Teacher of the Year activities, I’m interested in hearing about the experiences of other teachers, what works well with them. It’ll be interesting talking to other teachers who work with different demographics of students — maybe there’s some culturally responsive practices that I’m using that maybe they haven’t thought of before. I think the unique experience of being in rural Alaska is going to be kind of eye-opening for some teachers, just the same as hearing about their experiences in much larger schools will be eye-opening for me. 

Diane Benson Harrington is an education writer at SmartBrief. Reach out to her via email, Twitter or LinkedIn

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own. 


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