Partnering to Strengthen Teacher Leadership in Rural Alaska

April 12, 2023

Partnering to Strengthen Teacher Leadership in Rural Alaska

By NIET West Director Pilar Holtrop

Recruiting and retaining teachers is a challenge school districts across the country are facing. But in Alaska, where schools are sometimes accessible only by bush aircraft or snow machines, that challenge is magnified. Alaskan districts frequently struggle to recruit and retain high quality teachers and administrators, making it difficult to improve student achievement. A consortium of four rural Alaskan districts, however, has been working for the past few years to overcome these challenges with the help of a federal Teacher and School Leader (TSL) Incentive Program grant. 

The TSL grant – titled the Increasing Performance and Retention in Alaska’s Rural Schools (IPRARS) – is facilitated by the Alaska Council of School Administrators (ACSA) and has brought together the Alaska Gateway, Nenana, Northwest Arctic Borough, and Yukon Koyukuk school districts. As part of the grant, the districts are working with the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET) to strengthen evaluation and observation, professional learning communities, instructional leadership, and performance-based compensation systems. Now in its third year, the IPRARS project is making an impact in the Alaskan districts and helping them better address the needs of their teachers and students.

Power of Partnership

Prior to IPRARS, each of the four districts had a human capital management system; however, the systems often did not support teachers to the extent needed. Additionally, due to the district’s rural locations, accessing high-quality professional learning networks was difficult. Teachers thus often lacked opportunities to develop their instructional skills and collaborate with colleagues. 

IPRARS addresses these challenges by creating a partnership between the school districts, ACSA, and NIET. The grant has created a network of partners, allowing the four school districts to provide teachers and leaders with high-quality professional learning opportunities. “The partnership was formed not only to bring human capital management system expertise to our grant project,” said ACSA Grant Director Sam Jordan. “It also provides the school districts access to deep topical knowledge, a national perspective, and skilled professional development facilitation.” 

IPRARS, and the partnership it creates, has connected the districts to resources they previously struggled to access and has allowed them to better support the development of their educators. These resources have allowed for consistent development over time in the IPRARS districts. For example, NIET conducted a strengths-based needs assessment for each of the districts immediately following the grant award. This allowed for high-quality professional learning opportunities to begin from the onset. Identifying areas of need for each district and deepening the leadership learning has been an ongoing collaboration.

Creating and Strengthening Leadership Structures 

NIET’s involvement in IPRARS began with conducting school-based needs assessments to get a better sense of the areas for reinforcement and refinement in each partner school. This approach grounds the support provided through IPRARS and ensures that it remains relevant to the unique needs of the partners. One of the areas for refinement identified in the needs assessment was shared leadership.

With support from NIET, IPRARS districts established new structures that bring more voices into leadership conversations and decision making. The districts created and strengthened teacher leadership positions, allowing teacher leaders to better support their peers and share out best practices. The teacher leaders are also members of the school leadership team where they provide school leaders with feedback and data directly from the classrooms. “Establishing a leadership team has led to a culture of shared leadership in the building amongst administration and teacher leaders, while building capacity in those teacher leaders,” said Nenana City Schools K-12 Principal Dave Huntington. “Doing so has resulted in teacher leaders being able to model professional best practice to other staff, while also helping to foster a common language about instructional best practice.” The new shared leadership approach encouraged by IPRARS has helped the partner districts increase teacher supports and implement effective classroom strategies.

Making Performance-Based Compensation Accessible 

Another component of IPRARS is performance-based compensation. Each partner district structured their performance-based compensation system with help from NIET to foster positive morale and reward teachers for student outcomes. Additionally, performance-based compensation has helped the districts become more intentional in their goal setting. “An essential aspect of performance-based compensation has been working with staff to set SMART goals and to track data toward reaching the goals,” said Alaska Gateway Director of Teaching and Learning Eston Jennings. “In many cases, the performance-based compensation was a nod toward the excellent work the teachers and staff were already doing. It was the icing on the proverbial cake!”

The IPRARS partner districts set their intention on making performance-based compensation accessible to all educators, not just those who work with high-performing students. This has allowed performance-based compensation to become a tool in recruitment and retention. For example, Alaska Gateway has chosen to create a performance-based compensation system that disburses at the beginning of the year as a retention bonus and a recruitment offering for new staff members. “Performance-based compensation has come a long way since I was first introduced to the concept," said Alaska Gateway School District Special Projects & Professional Development Coordinator Suzanne Bell. “In our district, we wanted to reward teachers for helping their students grow, being consistent in positive parent outreach, learning and honing the craft of teaching, and staying with our district.”  

The structures and support from IPRARS are creating accessible professional learning opportunities for educators in some of the nation’s most remote and hardest to serve school districts. This access, combined with strengthened leadership structures and improved performance-based compensation, is helping rural Alaska school districts better support their educators and, ultimately, their students.