When Isabelle Dyment first stood in front of a classroom, she had no college degree, no teaching certificate and no experience. That was five years ago, and Dyment was hired to teach kindergarten at Ayaprun Elitnaurvik, a Yup’ik immersion school in Bethel, Alaska. A mother of seven and a fluent Yup’ik speaker, Dyment was terrified that first day she became an Alaska teacher.
“I passed a test and was interviewed by a state administrator,” she told ICMN. “But this was going to be my first time in front of the classroom instructing the students, and I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
Dyment is one of about 60 associate teachers hired by the Bethel-based Lower Kuskokwim School District to fill vacancies in immersion or bilingual programs. Associate teachers, or those who lack teaching certificates, usually come from the communities in which they teach.
It’s part of an effort to recruit and retain instructors in a rural school district that, at 44,000 square miles, is roughly the size of Ohio. The district, geographically the second-largest in Alaska, serves 4,200 students from 22 remote villages (four of which are on islands) accessible only by plane, boat or snowmobile.
Dyment, 45, grew up in the village of Toksook Bay, located on an island off Alaska’s southwestern coast. She earned a high school diploma, took a couple of college courses and worked for a while as a teacher’s aide before focusing full-time on raising her children. When she saw an advertisement for associate teachers five years ago, Dyment decided to apply.
“Being a teacher has always been my dream,” she said. “Ever since I was in high school and had a teacher that inspired me, I wanted to do it. When my kids got older, I decided this was something I should try to do.”
When she accepted the position, Dyment also agreed to work toward a bachelor’s degree in elementary education. Although the district hires non-certified teachers, it expects them to get certified by taking a minimum of nine college credits per year.
“These are people who are already fluent in Yup’ik,” said Josh Gill, director of personnel and student services at Lower Kuskokwim School District. “They lack the formal training in methodologies that comes with certification. Once they have that, they’re that much stronger.”
But the certification process was taking too long, Gill said. Full-time associate teachers who doubled as part-time college students still faced 10 to 12 years of education before receiving their bachelor’s degrees and teaching certificates.
To help cut that time—and remove other barriers to education—Gill introduced a program that allows associate teachers within two years of earning a bachelor’s degree to focus exclusively on their studies. The program, called “two and done,” covers Alaska teachers’ tuition costs and pays them stipends equivalent to their salaries for two years while they finish their degrees.
“Consider the fact that most of these associate teachers have families, children and homes to take care of—on top of jobs where they’re really already doing all the responsibilities of teachers,” Gill said. “We need to remove any barriers to certification we can.”
District officials are hoping that the “two and done” program ultimately saves recruitment dollars. The district, which employs 400 Alaska teachers, hires between 40 and 60 every year, and it spends hundreds of thousands of dollars to recruit them from areas across Alaska and the lower 48.
“As a district, we’re constantly looking at ways to bring in more teachers,” Gill said. “If we take more of a retention approach than recruitment, we can look locally, at the people who already understand bush Alaska.”
Home-grown teachers face a learning curve when they step into the classroom, said Barbara Angaiak, the district’s education specialist. But it’s not nearly as steep as it is for outsiders who are not familiar with Yup’ik culture or the unique challenges of bush Alaska—and who often don’t stay long once they get there.
“The geography and weather here are a challenge for many teachers who come here from the lower 48,” Angaiak said. “They have to get in a small plane or skiff to get to work; they have to learn new ways to buy groceries and provide for themselves; they have to learn a whole new culture. People coming here from other states or countries often don’t understand our district, but we solve that by hiring people who have lived and worked in the region their whole lives.”
Dyment was one of the first to sign up for the program, which offers classes online through the University of Alaska Fairbanks and in-person at the university’s Bethel campus. She, along with three other Alaska teachers in the Lower Kuskokwim School District, will complete their first year of full-time studies this spring.
“The program is very beneficial because there are not a lot of Yup’ik teachers,” Dyment said. “To be able to understand the culture first and then get certified second, you already know what the expectations are. Growing up in these villages, we understand the language and the culture. Now we can pass those on.”