Michelle Martin and Ron Guthrie, Natives from Southeast villages, saw teachers from Outside come and go but they never expected to take their place.
Now a federally funded program has made it possible for them and about 20 other Natives this year to study for degrees in education at the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau.
Proponents say Native teachers will be able to relate to rural students better and develop culturally sensitive courses, and are more likely to stay in their community.
"The kids would be learning from someone that understood them and knew them," said Frank Hill, a former rural teacher and superintendent and now a co-director of the Native education-oriented Alaska Rural Systemic Initiative. Native teachers "would be more readily able to utilize the community culture and context to teach."
"When I was in school there wasn't much culture," said Martin, 28, who has worked as a secretary, classroom aide and substitute teacher in Kake. "I remember singing in a Christmas program in Spanish. Now my daughter is in pre-school and she's learning 'Jingle Bells' in Tlingit."
Although 23 percent of Alaska's K-12 students are Native, only 5 percent of the teachers are, according to the state Department of Education. That's one reason for the high turnover of teachers in rural schools, where many students are Native, educators say.
"We have a huge number of districts in Alaska that cannot retain teachers and cannot retain quality teachers. We're seeing that in test scores," said Rhonda Hickok, coordinator of the program that brings Native education students to UAS, called Preparing Indigenous Teachers for Alaska Schools.
The Lake and Peninsula School District near Bristol Bay loses more than a third of its staff each year, for example. Kake's turnover rate was 18 percent this year and 27 percent in 2000, according to Alaska Teacher Placement, a job clearinghouse based at UAF. The rate in Juneau, Anchorage and Fairbanks typically is 5 percent to 8 percent.
The Professional Education Center at UAS is in the second year of a three-year federal grant, worth about $1 million so far, for Preparing Indigenous Teachers for Alaska Schools. The first year was spent mentoring high school students, including a week-long visit to the campus in the summer, and recruiting them and older people to the college program beginning this school year.
"It was more to inspire kids," said Hickok of the mentoring. "It was more to get them geared up and provide information abut what the university offers."
This year 23 students enrolled with full scholarships, all but one in bachelor of arts degree programs in education. One student is in a master of arts program in teaching. About half of the students, like Martin and Guthrie, aren't just out of high school.
Guthrie, 34, was a Head Start teacher in Metlakatla for eight years and a special education aide in the school there for a year.
"From where I came from the teachers don't really interact with the community. They stick to themselves, and I don't like that," he said.
Guthrie said he hopes to bring Native culture to the classroom the way one of his grade school teachers did. "She not only taught the education part," he said. "She taught the land, the food, subsistence. She was part of my life."
The program also is an opportunity for the university to improve its on-campus support for Native students and collaborate with other institutions, such as the Sealaska Heritage Institute, to build a support network for the program's participants.
"We want to change our institution so we're welcoming to Natives in all disciplines," said Scott Christian, director of the Professional Education Center.
Not being able to afford college is the biggest barrier to Natives becoming teachers, said Ray Barnhardt, a co-director of the Alaska Rural Systemic Initiative at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
"We have quite a few people in rural areas interested in becoming teachers but they have families and can't take time off to pursue education," he said. "I hope they can sustain (the program) because it's exactly what's needed."
The grant allowed Martin to move to Juneau from Kake with her husband and two young children. She earned all As in her first semester, which just ended. And she's had a taste of teaching by helping other students, such as prompting a student to choose an essay topic in a writing course.
"To me what really marked our relationship," said education assistant professor Tom McKenna, "was Michelle was really focused, not just on academics, but on the distant goal of being a teacher."
Eric Fry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.