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Sometimes students in the smallest of places have the biggest needs. Children suffering from poverty, neglect and rock-bottom expectations aren’t only found in the ghettos of Harlem and the slums of New York City. Sometimes they’re found in the tiny, 37-student school in Akhiok, Alaska. That’s where Elaine Griffin found them.
Since she was a child growing up in upstate New York, Elaine had been fascinated by the stories and pictures of Alaska The natural beauty and rugged landscape of Alaska appealed to her adventuresome spirit and love for distant cultures. While working as a librarian in New Mexico, she learned of openings at the two-teacher school on Akhiok, she and her husband grabbed for the dream.
When she arrived at the isolated, roadless village on the tundra at the southern tip of the Kodiak Island in 1974, the reality she encountered did not quite match her dream. Though the landscape was incredible and awe-inspiring, she found a group of students plagued by alcoholism, teen pregnancy and suicide. She found a community where students thought their lives began and ended in this desolate outpost, a community of children without dreams.
Undaunted, she and her husband began re-working the school, collaborating with the community and giving her students hope. Under her leadership, the small schools at Akhiok and the nearby village of Chinak set unprecedented records for student achievement and high school graduation. She helped to raise standards and to implement a demanding and culturally-relevant curriculum. A world traveler herself, she opened up kids’ mind to the wonders of the world outside their tiny village. The students from the specks on the map began to dream and, with Mrs. Griffin’s guidance, started to achieve those dreams. Many students even participated in foreign exchange adventures themselves.
“There are many ways a teacher can positively influence learning,” Griffin explained, “including a love for books and a regard for multiple world views. But the most important thing to me is to forge an unbreakable bond with each student based on mutual respect and admiration.”
Spoken like a true Teacher-Hero. This heroism and excellence was recognized by President Clinton when he awarded Elaine Griffin the 1995 National Teacher of the Year. Even seventeen year later, her accomplishments and words resonate. Like great teachers everywhere, Elaine realized how important it is not only to raise standards, but also give students the love, support and dreams to attain those standards.
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