Juneau School District retirees reflect on their careers, the pandemic and what’s next

Lucy Potter, principal at Sít’ Eetí Shaanáx – Glacier Valley Elementary School, sits in her office. Staff covered the floor in balloons. (Katie Anastas/KTOO)

School is out for summer in Juneau. For retiring teachers, principals and other school staff, this end of the year is especially bittersweet.

Over the last two decades or more, they’ve watched the district expand to new campuses, weather the pandemic and incorporate Alaska Native language and culture into the curriculum.

Three retirees reflected on their time in the Juneau School District and shared what’s next.

Henry Hopkins, teacher at Yadaa.at Kalé Juneau-Douglas High School

Henry Hopkins (left) and Donald Héendei Gregory teach students at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé the science and tradition of Tlingit halibut hooks on March 5, 2019. (Photo by Zoe Grueskin/KTOO)

For nearly 20 years, Henry Hopkins’ outdoor biology class has been at the forefront of Juneau’s efforts to incorporate Alaska Native knowledge and language into local schools.

“I spend a lot of time in that in-between world,” Hopkins said. “If you want to get detailed knowledge about the environment, I think a good place to start is with the people who live there. If you’re ignoring that as a Western scientist, you’ve lost a whole lot of information.”

Hopkins was working as a fish biologist in Western Alaska when he first considered teaching.

“I was standing in a river, measuring fish, late in the fall with ice chunks coming by, and I figured I wasn’t going to be doing that for the rest of my life,” he said. “The next step for a biologist was to be in a cubicle writing reports, and that did not seem attractive.”

So he returned to UAF – where he’d moved to from Germany to get his biology degree – and earned a teaching credential. Then he taught in Dutch Harbor, then Wrangell, then Delta Junction before settling down in Juneau. 

He’s been in the Juneau School District for 23 years.

“My classroom overlooks Gastineau Channel,” he said. “There aren’t too many teachers that can watch orcas swim by as they’re teaching.”

After working as a technology mentor for teachers and helping set up the district’s homeschooling program, Hopkins started teaching outdoor biology. He transformed the class into one that highlighted Lingít science and subsistence. He invited classroom guests like Donald Gregory, who taught the students about halibut hooks

Conversations in those classes eventually led to the school adopting a Lingít name.

“In my outdoor biology class, we talk a lot about names, names of the landscape,” he said. “In English, we name things after people many times. In Lingít, you name things after their properties, after their character.”

His students wondered why Juneau-Douglas High School didn’t have a Lingít name like some of the other schools in the district. After the students met with the Douglas Indian Association, Fran Houston gifted the name the school has today: Yadaa.at Kalé, which means “beautifully adorned face.”

After retiring, Hopkins plans to work with Sealaska Heritage Institute to mentor other teachers as they incorporate Lingít knowledge into their science classes.

“I think, historically, our school system has done very poorly with Native students and the Native community,” he said. “I’ve been trying to bridge that gap from the first day I taught.”

Gretchen Kriegmont, counselor at Thunder Mountain High School

Thunder Mountain High School counselor Gretchen Kriegmont sits at her desk. (Katie Anastas/KTOO)

Counselor Gretchen Kriegmont has been at Thunder Mountain High School long enough to work with the children of former students.

“I had a kid come in the door, and I was like, ‘Who is your dad? I am 100% sure I taught your father,’” she said. “Seeing whole families grow up, from kindergarten all the way through, it’s pretty amazing.”

After she retires, she’ll lead educational psychology classes for aspiring teachers at the University of Alaska Southeast.

“It’s really timely now,” she said. “Giving the teachers tools to realize that they’re not just going to be teaching their content. They’re also going to be teaching psychology, and there has to be a philosophy.”

Kriegmont started teaching at Yadaa.at Kalé Juneau-Douglas High School in 1997, after she and her husband moved to Juneau from the Midwest.

“It was the most school-spirited place I’d ever seen,” she said.

Once Thunder Mountain High School opened, Kriegmont moved there to teach history, psychology and sociology. She got her master’s degree and became a school counselor. 

Kriegmont said she wanted to help students grow academically, emotionally and socially – and help teachers encourage that growth in their students. During the pandemic, that balance became more important than ever.

“We persevered, and I think that’s what education is about and what high schoolers are about,” she said. “You see the resilience that high schoolers offer and the magic that they bring to society.”

That magic has started to come back in full force, Kriegmont said. She’s watched students who had virtual seventh and eighth grade become successful ninth and tenth graders. Students who missed out on homecoming dances enjoyed prom earlier this month. 

As these seniors look ahead, Kriegmont said more and more of them are wanting to travel or pursue a trade before jumping into four-year degree programs.

“It’s reframed how I have conversations with students,” she said. “I think students are reevaluating their goals.”

Kriegmont hopes her UAS students will enjoy teaching as much as she has.

“The classroom is a microcosm of society,” she said. “You will teach every type of person, and they will enrich your life if you allow them to.”

Lucy Potter, principal at Sít’ Eetí Shaanáx – Glacier Valley Elementary School

Lucy Potter, principal at Sít’ Eetí Shaanáx – Glacier Valley Elementary School, sits in her office. Staff covered the floor in balloons. (Katie Anastas/KTOO)

Lucy Potter’s office was filled with colorful decorations during the last week of school. Staff filled her office with balloons, and students wrote cards.

“I want you to be happy when you quit your job,” one student wrote on neon pink paper. “You are the best principal ever.”

Potter is hopeful she will be happier. She’s been the principal of Sít’ Eetí Shaanáx – Glacier Valley Elementary School for the last nine years and watched some of Juneau’s youngest students go through the pandemic. 

“I don’t want to compare myself to being a nurse in the medical field, but we were first responders,” she said. “It was a really difficult couple of years. Very, very demanding in a very different way.”

Teachers quickly moved classes online. Potter oversaw distribution of food and laptops for kids who needed them. Once students came back in person, one positive test could send a whole classroom back home again. 

Potter said teachers are still trying to help kids catch up academically. They’re also seeing more behavioral and emotional challenges among students. 

Potter teared up when she talked about the changes, and how they’ve left teachers exhausted. 

“They put their whole hearts into educating our students,” Potter said. “What I’m seeing as a result of that – not only teaching but doing a lot of social-emotional learning with them and helping them through these really difficult residual effects from COVID – I think they’re really tired.”

Potter is, too. That’s one of the reasons she’s retiring. She said between Superintendent Bridget Weiss leaving and the Alaska Reads Act going into effect in fall, it was a good time to move into a less stressful job.

The Reads Act requires teachers to develop reading plans for individual students, meet with their families and consider holding them back at third grade if they’re not reading at grade level. Potter is worried about how it will affect teachers who are already feeling overworked. And she thinks holding students back can do more harm than good.

“Many of our families are just making it by – they’re working two and three jobs to provide for their family,” she said. “And some of them aren’t as involved in their children’s education. I worry that the Reads Act is creating even more of a divide for families that are economically disadvantaged.”

Potter has seen all of these factors – bigger workloads, more behavioral challenges among students and a lack of appreciation for teachers – lead to a decline in the number of people applying for teaching jobs. She said it’s more important than ever for new teachers to find supportive communities at their schools.

“It’s super rewarding, but you can’t do it alone,” she said.

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