My Story: Why I Am a Teacher in Ketchikan, Alaska

I wrote this story about myself and my community for a college student doing a project. Those of you reading this blog who know me will likely be familiar with most of the story, but I thought I should share it anyway:

I live in Kichx̱áan, Taantʼa Ḵwáan ḵa Sanyaa Ḵwáan aaní, Lingít Aaní—Ketchikan, in the land of the Taantʼa and Sanyaa people, Tlingit Country. Ḵoo at latóowux̱ x̱at sitee. I am a teacher.

Ketchikan is one of the largest urban communities in Alaska, a city of over 10,000 people built on one edge of Revillagigedo Island, wedged between beautiful, forested mountains and dynamic, bountiful waterways filled with hundreds of islands. Sitka black-tailed deer, black bears, wolves, ravens, orcas, sea lions, seals, bald eagles, halibut, and all five species of Alaska salmon thrive in the surrounding rainforest, streams, and ocean. Unlike most Alaskans, people in Ketchikan enjoy mild temperatures, extreme amounts of rain, and very little snow year-round. Our temperate and verdant environment is not wholly unique in the world, but it's virtually unparalleled in its intensity and purity.

My grandparents came to Ketchikan in the 1950s for my grandfather to work as a chemical engineer with Ketchikan Pulp Company. They've been here ever since, and my grandma went on to start a political career, becoming Ketchikan's first (and still only) female mayor. My father grew up in Ketchikan in the '60s and '70s, and then returned with my mother in 1994, when I was three years old.

My love for Ketchikan has only grown and matured over the past 21 years I've lived here. When I was younger, I already appreciated many aspects of my hometown, from its fun activities and quirky celebrations to its small-town comforts and natural beauty. Nevertheless, most of my interests and passions lay far away—in learning about the geography and history of other places around the world. These passions led me to college in Washington, D.C. to study international relations. Fortunately, I quickly realized that a political or bureaucratic career would not bring me much joy. Instead, I intensively pursued my passion for history.

Eventually, I realized that some of the most interesting and important histories I could study had been at home all along: During my senior year as an undergraduate, I devoted myself to writing a thesis on Tlingit history (Lingít ḵa Waashdan Ḵwáan, the Tlingit and the Americans: Interactions and Transformations, 1856-1896). Writing and researching in D.C., I learned more about Alaska than I ever had before, and I finally began to understand the true value of my homeʼs indigenous heritage, which Iʼd often taken for granted as a child.

At the same time, my thinking on education led me to conclude that a life in academia was not for me; I believe that learning about history can have transformative power for everyone, not just college students. I enrolled in the University of Alaska Southeast to earn a masterʼs degree in teaching, and soon found that the best place to work as a student teacher back in Alaska would be my alma mater, Ketchikan High School. I spent a wonderful year working with history teachers there, and also gained insight into phenomena I'd failed to see as a student.

When I was in elementary school, I had many Native friends—boys and girls mainly of Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian heritage, the three indigenous nations of the Ketchikan area. I still remember many of the jokes we made, often particularly fun for me, as a white boy from a pretty reserved family. As I moved on through high school, however, all these friends disappeared: For all sorts of reasons, they weren't in the same classes I was, they went to the alternative high school instead, or they dropped out of school entirely. When I was a teenager, I didn't see any patterns. I didn't linger thinking about how my school served or failed to serve different students.

Now, when I consider the high school curricula in Ketchikan, I see how little attention is paid to Native cultures or Native knowledge. When I think about Ketchikan's teachers, very, very few of them are Native, even though 31% of the school district's students are. While the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian languages are all seriously endangered, the school district does not have a single employee tasked with teaching any one of them. In the statistics, Native students are greatly underrepresented in Advanced Placement courses, but greatly overrepresented in suspensions. I have no doubt that these facts must change.

Luckily for me, I was given an amazing opportunity after finishing my student teaching: Ketchikan Indian Community hired me as a teacher for the Tribal Scholars Program, an alternative high school program for Native students (funded by grants, not the school district). At Tribal Scholars, we foster a community learning environment with a small group of students, engaging in cross-curricular, place-based, and culturally-enriched learning. We explore topics from the science of subsistence foods to Alaska literature and Native languages. I am teaching both social studies and mathematics this year, which means I get to teach my passion and take on new challenges at the same time.

In short, I love my work. I love my hometown deeply, despite its problems, and I feel I am growing to understand it more and more. Teaching in the place I grew up isn't just a fun thing to do, but I believe it's truly the right thing to do—and, perhaps, the best thing I can do. Young people across the United States desperately need teachers and mentors who understand them—people who come from their communities, and people who honestly understand their communities. I'll keep doing my small part in Alaska, and hopefully we can raise up new generations of well-nurtured youth who can help make the world a better place.