Training Our First Teachers

The Clare Swan Early Learning Center is changing the way early childhood teachers approach the classroom

Jamie Small enrolled in the Training Our First Teachers (TOFT) program after moving to Anchorage from Quinhagak. Her cousin, CSELC Teacher Grace White, encouraged her to join TOFT to find work as an early childhood teacher.

Carrie Hackett had been working in rural Alaska for a few days before it dawned on her: The students of the Western teachers Carrie was assisting hadn’t been taught to raise their hands when they wanted to answer a question.

“So the teacher thinks they’re just sitting there blankly,” Carrie explained. “But that’s what they’re supposed to do around grownups!”

It wouldn’t be the last time Carrie was struck by the differences between westernized education and Alaska Native culture. Now, as the teacher trainer for the Clare Swan Early Learning Center (CSELC), Carrie is putting her experience to use.

Last summer, five students graduated CSELC’s 600-hour Training Our First Teachers (TOFT) program with their Child Development Associate (CDA) credential. They’re the first cohort to experience a newly revised CDA curriculum that incorporates cultural responsiveness.

Changing the Way We Teach

CSELC Teacher Erika Chambers helps a child with an art project during a recent family event.

When CSELC first began training early childhood education teachers, it was clear something wasn’t working.

“The traditional method was, you’d throw a book and a workbook at someone and say, ‘Read that, fill this out, write seven 500-word essays, and you’re done,’” Carrie explained. “But that wasn’t suitable for a lot of our Alaska Native teachers in training.”

With the new curriculum, designed under an Administration for Native Americans socioeconomic grant, teachers in training spend two weeks doing intensive training before going into the classroom. Throughout, students have support from mentors and trainers, plus opportunities for experiential learning in addition to videos and readings.

The TOFT curriculum not only allows students to get into the classroom faster, Carrie said, but with the added support, it empowers students who may have had trouble being successful in traditional school.

“In addition to responding to our students’ needs, we’re giving them more of an appreciation for thinking of teaching as a profession and encouraging them to pursue additional educational,” Carrie added.

Culture in the Classroom

TOFT Teacher-in-Training Saiieda Joseph gets some hands-on learning in the classroom.

The new teachers aren’t the only ones benefiting from the new curriculum. TOFT also examines cultural practices among Alaska Native people and how they influence early childhood education.

For instance, at CSELC, there’s a notable difference in volume between the Yup’ik Immersion classroom, where teachers speak only Yup’ik, and the western-style classrooms.

“If I weren’t familiar with Yup’ik culture, I might think the teachers are being too controlling,” Carrie explained. Instead, the Yup’ik classroom reflects the way the teachers speak to the students — softly, helping the children internalize a quieter, slower-paced way of doing things and emphasizing a cooperative atmosphere.

“Educators will often hear generally about Alaska Native cultures, but they might not have in-depth knowledge about what Alaska Native cultures have to say about child-rearing,” Carrie added. “Because when we talk about culture, we talk about food, or respecting Elders. We don’t talk about the way people treat children.”

TOFT aims to change that with its first cohorts of students. The program is also broadening the conversation to include the whole state.

The Wisdom of Raising Children

This year, CSELC has also begun developing a culturally responsive training for people who coach and certify teachers. Carrie hopes to offer the training in hub communities across the state, where each one- or two-day workshop can engage teachers and teacher-trainers in a conversation about early childhood development.

CSELC Teacher Grace White gets a toddler settled for a snack in the Yup’ik Immersion classroom.

“The cool thing we’ve been finding in our class,” she said, “is that often, the traditional Native wisdom is actually marching in line with what’s considered best practices in childhood development.”

For instance, when Carrie lived in rural Alaska, she was told she would likely see parents pre-chew food, then give it to their very small babies. In fact, Western medical recommendations now suggest that parents should introduce solid foods to infants earlier than previously thought, and that food should be introduced closer to its natural state.

“It’s interesting,” Carrie reflected, “because the wisdom of raising children over time came to the same conclusion as Western scientific methodology. The fact is, we’ve also known how to raise children.”

Job Security

Daisy Konst completed the TOFT program while her son attended CSELC at the same time.

Earlier last summer, when she was still in training, Daisy Konst attended the same school as her son. Her three-year-old boy spent each day in the CSELC Yup’ik Immersion classroom while Daisy worked toward her CDA, teaching younger students in a classroom just down the hall.

In August, Daisy graduated the TOFT program; now she can apply for a job in early childhood education.

The likelihood of her landing a job is high, too. With her CDA, she has completed the first major step toward becoming a professional educator. What’s more, the need for early childhood educators in Anchorage is high. In rural Alaska, the need is even greater.

“Students who graduate from this program won’t want for a job,” Carrie said.

We are now accepting applications for our next TOFT cohort! Applicants should submit an application and a letter of recommendation. Questions? Contact Carrie Hackett at

Learn more about CSELC here.