Teacher-Student Equity in Alaska: Reflections on "Communicating Across Cultures"

This was my other written assignment for my multicultural education course, after my overall reflection. This piece responds to the four-part video series Communicating Across Cultures, produced in 1994 by Father Michael Oleksa.


Father Michael Oleksa (source)
Father Michael Oleksa’s multicultural training has influenced Alaskans for decades now, and I believe our state is better for it. In the lecture series Communicating Across Cultures, Oleksa provides his audience with a broad overview of cultural difference and the major issues that accompany it, including clashes, miscommunication, and notions of superiority. One key insight Oleksa highlights is that miscommunication within an unequal relationship will always harm the person with less power more. Thus, when a teacher and student miscommunicate—or fail to communicate at all—the student suffers, not the teacher. This axiom should provoke educators to strive more than ever to understand their students, because not doing so will result in hardship, if not serious inequity. Ideally, education should obtain in an open and inclusive environment, where teachers and students act more as equals engaging in dialogue than as masters and apprentices. Oleksa’s series provides reasoning both for why this goal is laudable, and why teachers have much more to do in order to accomplish it.

The series begins with an image of global culture, analogous to a game played by almost everyone, such that its rules, values, and expectations are thought of as self-evident. According to Oleksa, this global culture also has a very clear origin—writing—and while he uses strange figures for the age of our human species—one million years instead of two hundred thousand—his point that written literacy is a very “recent” development holds true, its invention probably dating to six thousand years ago at most. While writing is quite young in the context of all human history, Alaska’s story in the saga of conflict between literate and non-literate peoples is very recent as well: Aggressive, ethnocentric foreigners with writing only arrived in northwest North America three centuries ago, while literate “civilizations” have attacked, assimilated or destroyed non-literate peoples for several thousand years. A grand dichotomous struggle between those with writing and those without it certainly does not sum up the past few millennia entirely, but that narrative does appear useful in examining education in Alaska and the power relations within it.

Alaska Native student enrollment, 2004-2005 school year
Statistics compiled for the First Alaskans Institute in 2006 indicate that only 4.6% of teachers in Alaska identified as “Alaska Native,” while a full 89% were labeled “Caucasian.” Using Oleksa’s framework, one can reasonably expect that over nine tenths of teachers in Alaska—probably over 95%—are thoroughly grounded in the cultural tradition of Euroamerican literacy, including most all of those who are neither “Caucasian” or “Native.” Meanwhile, less than 5% of the teachers would likely have any meaningful familiarity with indigenous oral traditions, and even these teachers would have spent most of their time moving away from orality: After all, becoming a teacher involves a great deal of reading, writing, and learning to think how teachers do, which generally means literate white Americans. Even if educators become aware of orality’s importance, their everyday actions in the classroom will undermine it by only emphasizing reading, writing, and Euroamerican knowledge—unless some changes occur.

While his outlining of cultural conflict and the essence of cultural chauvinism is superb and quite effective, Oleksa does not spend a great deal of time in this video series proposing a vision for future interaction and education across cultures. Perhaps the most important idea he emphasizes in this regard is that students should receive education in both oral, “traditional” ways—indigenous ways—and in the ways of the present global literate culture. Considering this notion is a great first step, and I believe many Alaskans agree that both indigenous and Euroamerican education have value. However, it seems that far too many Alaskans who believe in this idea subsequently make a terrible conclusion: The conventional school system should provide Euroamerican education, while families and extracurricular groups should provide indigenous education. According to this view, indigenous ways are not a necessary component of education in Alaska, but rather an optional pastime that should compete with homework, sports, and everything else kids want to do. That sort of view will doom indigenous knowledge, relegating it to the realm of select academics instead of confirming it as an integral part of Alaska’s culture for generations to come.

Educators in Alaska by ethnicity
Realistically, Alaska will not train a quantity of Alaska Native teachers any time soon that will match the proportion of Native people in the population. I believe this deficiency is intrinsically related to the failure of the school system to support and inspire Native students in the last few decades, creating a self-perpetuating cycle. In that context, prospective non-Native educators like me should ask how they might help give indigenous traditions and knowledge a substantial, respectful place in their teaching. After acquiring willingness, I believe the most important characteristic an educator in this situation should have is humility: Without a deep knowledge or familiarity with local indigenous ways or people, teachers must reach out patiently and carefully to invite and encourage indigenous education in their classroom. Cross-cultural communication becomes essential here, as does the acknowledgement that communication is itself a learning process.

Greater teacher-student equity also has a role to play in the creation of more culturally responsive curricula and more culturally inclusive schools. Although many Native children may have a limited knowledge of the culture of their elders and ancestors, due to legacies of assimilation as well as present pressures, it would behoove all teachers to listen more to their students and strive to understand their cultures. If teachers consider themselves the cultural equals of their students, rather than literate, intellectual superiors, paths of communication and educational improvement may open to them in ways they never thought possible before. This precept applies to students of all cultural backgrounds as well: Alaska’s Euroamerican settlers have their own values and attitudes, as do the state’s other immigrant groups. Teachers who work to understand, engage with, and expand upon the cultures of their students will not only improve their students’ educational experience, but also their own.

In conclusion, one of the most powerful insights provided by Father Michael Oleksa in his series Communicating Across Cultures is that students will always lose if they miscommunicate with their teachers. In Alaska, Native students have been “losing” since the very first Euroamerican teachers entered their communities, and although circumstances differ today, miscommunication continues. A globalizing culture of literacy, founded to great extent on European and American traditions, threatens to overtake Alaska entirely and yet again push indigenous ways to the margins of society. While the teaching profession remains dominated by Euroamerican Alaskans, Alaska’s school system may change as long as educators make strong commitments to indigenous education, cross-cultural communication, and increasing teacher-student equity. Engaging in a respectful cross-cultural dialogue, students and teachers may learn a great deal from each other. As they do, they will participate in the creation of better schools and a better future.