Teaching in Alaska

Nestled high in the northern latitudes, Alaska is a state with many challenges. In the northernmost regions, the sun doesn’t set through part of the summer, and doesn’t rise through part of the winter. Many regions in rural Alaska are difficult to access, and unconnected to the more developed portions of Alaska by road. Moreover, as much as 80 percent of the rural school population is composed of Alaskan Natives who are learning English as a second language.

Teaching in such a frontier environment, amidst amazing geography and amongst varying cultures, can itself be an educational experience for any teacher. To attract educators to its state, Alaska rewards its teachers with some of the highest teacher salaries to be found in the nation.

What’s the education climate in Alaska?

Since 2004, the state of Alaska has nearly doubled the amount of money it spends on education each year. As of 2012, about half of the state’s entire budget goes to education. Much of this increase has been done in an effort to bring up students’ test scores, which in 2004 were among the lowest in the nation. However, student test scores in the state have not risen as hoped, prompting legislators to look for additional means of improving the educational system. To that end, two major task forces were commissioned to investigate and make recommendations for change.

Average Salaries for Alaska Teachers
  • Elementary School:
    $72,090
  • Middle School:
    $69,680
  • High School:
    $69,730
  • All Alaska Jobs:
    $51,590
  • Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

In April 2011, the Task Force on Higher Education and Career Readiness published its final recommendations, setting the goal that 100 percent of high school graduates have the skills necessary for career or postsecondary education, without the need for remedial classes. The task force believed this goal to be attainable, though ambitious—as of 2010, about 50 percent of high-school freshmen in Alaska needed to take remedial classes in English and math. Other recommendations included increasing vocational education, introducing college planning to middle school students, promoting bridging programs (particularly in rural areas), promoting merit-based scholarships, using more culturally relevant curriculum for the state’s diverse ethnic populations, and strengthening schools through the collection and sharing of data. The state legislature has already responded to many of these recommendations, increasing funding to vocational programs, and using school data to better target education funds.

The Task Force on Theme-Based Education published its final report in January 2012. Theme-based education refers to an alternative teaching pedagogy where curriculum is presented in context of students’ cultural life experience and expectations. For example, some communities have for generations been built upon fishing or whaling. (Outside of Alaska, Future Farmers of America represents an analogous program for agricultural communities.) The task force believes that more relevant curriculum will go a long way in meeting the educational goals for Alaska’s diverse rural communities, and recommends supporting theme-based education in those districts where standard programs have proven ineffective.

Alaska has also explored expanding its early childhood education programs. Governor Sean Parnell has stated that he wants to make sure the state is prepared to step in to help parents in need, but does not want to establish a cradle-to-grave educational mandate and bureaucracy.

How’s the job outlook for Alaska teachers?

In 2004, the state began a different approach to education. First, spending per pupil was greatly increased. Then, in 2009, a pay raise for teachers of about 18 percent was approved—resulting in Alaskan teachers taking home more than $7,000 additional dollars every year. Currently, the average salaries for Alaskan teachers are among the highest in the nation.

About 8,000 elementary, middle, and high school teachers work in Alaska. Most of them work in the urban areas of Alaska (3,000 around Anchorage alone). However, most of Alaska’s school districts are in rural areas—some difficult to access—and these schools have a great demand for teachers, doing proportionately more hiring. There are more than 130 rural schools in Alaska that have fewer than 50 students enrolled, and about 80 with fewer than 25—often including many Alaskan Natives learning English as a second language. Rural Alaska has a particular need for teachers capable of instructing this population.

What benefits do Alaska teachers have?

Alaska teachers work an average of 189 days a year, less sick days (earned every month) and personal leave days (6 a year). Medical, vision, dental, and [in most districts] life insurance are all part of teachers’ benefits packages, generally worth about $15,000 annually—although some districts’ packages are worth more than $20,000 a year.

Additionally, because of Alaska’s geography (many of its schools being in hard-to-reach areas), more than half of Alaska’s school districts provide subsidies for housing, generally from $3,500 to $6,000 dollars annually (but as high as $11,000 in the Bering Strait district).

Like most states, teachers’ salaries in Alaska go up with educational degree and number of year served. About a fifth of Alaska’s school districts also grant additional longevity bonuses to teachers who remain in the district for at least 10 years.

Alaskan teachers are also enrolled in the state’s Teachers’ Retirement System (TRS). As of 2012, teachers pay eight percent of their salaries into this fund, while employers contribute an additional seven percent. Employee contributions are vested immediately; employer contributions fully vest after five years. Upon retirement, teachers have their choice of several payment options, including lump-sum payment and lifetime annuity.

What are the credentialing requirements in Alaska?

In order to be licensed to teach in Alaska, you must have at least a bachelor’s degree and complete an approved teacher preparation program. If attending school outside of Alaska, you must complete a nationally recognized program based on the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) standards. After completion of such a program, prospective teachers must pass a general skills examination such as the Praxis I (although applicants from other states may take the test particular to their state, such as California’s CBEST or Washington’s WEST-B) as well as the Praxis II content test for their subject area.

Alaska teaching licenses come in three tiers: an initial license (which may be obtained while enrolled in a teacher preparation program, as long as the teacher completes the program within two years), a professional license (requiring coursework in Alaska studies and Cross-Cultural Communications), and a master’s license. Additional information on these and other certification matters can be found at the Alaska Teaching Certification website.