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December 3, 2012

Teaching on the early 20th Century Alaskan Frontier: Lessons from the Past

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Books make the best gifts.  A couple years ago my oldest sister gave me a copy of a great read A Schoolteacher in Old Alaska: The Story of Hannah Breece, and I highly recommend it to any educators who would like to refresh their perspective on education during the upcoming winter break.

Hannah Breece was a 45 year old schoolteacher when she took a commission from the U.S. Department of Interior to teach in Alaska – a post which she held for 14 years, teaching Aleuts, Kenais, Athabaskans, Eskimos, Russians and mixed European immigrants from 1904-1918.  Now that’s teaching for America!  With a $600 a year salary (after 24 years of teaching experience), she faced brutal winters, famine, funding shortages and even an attack by wild dogs – and her memoir is a testament to her tenacity, wit, and dedication to the art of teaching.

A fair-warning caveat – she was also a woman of her times – many passages in the book are rife with that kind of genuine Euro-centric racism that you only find in people from…well, from the early 20th century.  But nonetheless, she remains an intriguing figure in educational history, and I would like to share some of the incredible lessons and insights Miss Breece offers us educators a century later.

Dilapidated schools: How educators, communities, and government can help

When Miss Breece arrived in Afognak, she found the existing school in a pretty sorry state – broken floor boards, thick layers of soot and dust, raggedy curtains, uncomfortable, backless student benches (and no other furniture), a warped, scarred writing board…basically it was an abandoned shed.  This was her response:

“I thought it was no credit to a great country like ours to be supporting such a miserable-looking institution.  People expected school to be open…but pupils could not come into that dirty room.”

So here’s what she did.

“I rounded up six [older] girls and as many boys who were not only willing but glad to clean the school room…we pulled off the ragged curtains…scrubbed the floor and benches…and the improvement was remarkable.

I had also written strenuously worded letters to Washington, listing what we needed: school desks and blackboards, books and writing materials, bookcases and cupboards, white cambric curtain materials to modify the glare from sun shining on water, and I especially asked for songbooks and an organ.” 

She received all of these items except the organ (which she later procured through private donations) within 6 weeks, conducting class all the while.

Overcrowded classrooms – then and now

As an urban science teacher I have experienced the tribulations of classes with 35-40 students crammed around lab tables, sitting at sink-counters and the like.  It’s a tough world for teachers as districts cut funding and increase what they consider to be “tolerable limits” on teacher-pupil ratios.  It was oddly comforting and disturbing to hear Miss Breece recount her own efforts at managing this problem

“…pupils were flocking in; or I should say flooding in, because many were coming in boats from scattered places.  When attendance reached more than a hundred, I had to divide the school into two sessions: mornings for small children, afternoons for older ones. Sometimes the younger ones would stand outside in the afternoons and howl, but if I had tried to teach so many at once, none would have learned anything.  Four teachers were needed here, I informed Washington, which responded promptly with sufficient additional desks, books and other educational supplies, but sent not even one additional teacher, then or the next year either.”


Teaching, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and Learning

Though Maslow did not develop his infamous hierarchy of needs until 1943, Hannah Breece (like most educators) seemed to have an intuitive understanding that if students did not have a secure foundation, they could not learn.  The following are many examples of how Miss Breece took care of her students and the community – not out of a sense of pity – but because she genuinely saw it as her duty to do so.

“…one of my important duties as a teacher here was to improve standards of household sanitation, especially in the preparation of food and care of the children.  I had food authorization enough to provide one dinner a week for mothers and children and used these weekly events not only as schoolroom parties, but as occasions for morning cooking and hygiene  classes for the mothers and older schoolgirls. On other mornings, mothers who wished could come for sewing.”

“As winter wore on it seemed to me the Aleut children were looking wan and they tended to get restless or listless.  One day several found some laundry starch I had used and set out to throw away.  They ate it ravenously.  I bought a sack of flour and made a thick porridge, adding native cranberries that were small, dark red, and had a very rich flavor along with some sugar…each morning they came early and had all the porridge they wanted”


I found the memoirs of Hannah Breece inspiring, and deeply human.  Her career in Alaska did not occur in an immaculate bubble, and often gives glimpses into the gritty history of imperialism, rural poverty, racism, and the everyday struggles of community.  But it is her staunch determination to teach that I see as the most critical message.  My college mentor once told me “if you want to be immortal – teach”.  I think in this way, Miss Breece will truly live forever.

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