My Story: Why I’m a Teacher in Ketchikan, Alaska

Peter Stanton
5 min readMay 17, 2018

In starting to write on Medium, I thought it best to start at the beginning—who I am and why I do what I do.

Peter Stanton yoo x̱át duwasáakw. Dleit ḵáa ḵa Waashdan Ḵwáan áyá x̱át. Kichx̱áanx’ yei x̱át yatee. Ḵoo at latóowux̱ x̱at sitee.

I am a teacher in my hometown of Ketchikan, Alaska. Ketchikan—originally Kichx̱áan—is on Taantʼa Ḵwáan ḵa Sanyaa Ḵwáan aaní, Lingít Aaní, or the land of the Taantʼa and Sanyaa people, Tlingit Country. I feel it’s especially worthwhile to introduce myself in Lingít, because it’s the language that’s been spoken on this land for over 10,000 years.

Ketchikan is a vibrant community of almost 14,000 people built on the southwest edge of Revillagigedo Island. It’s a stunning place, wedged between forested mountains and bountiful waterways filled with hundreds of islands. My wife and I both grew up here, but it isn’t really inertia or family ties that keep us living here: It’s a true sense of purpose and belonging, and a sense that the comfort and community spirit we feel in Ketchikan would be tough to find anywhere else.

Pennock, Gravina, and Annette Islands, viewed from Deer Mountain in Ketchikan

My grandparents came here in the 1950s for my grandfather to work as a chemical engineer with Ketchikan Pulp Company, and they’ve been here ever since. My grandma went on to start a political career, becoming the first (and still only) woman to serve as Ketchikan’s mayor. My father grew up in Ketchikan in the ’60s and ’70s, and then returned with my mother in 1994, when I was three years old.

My love for Ketchikan has only grown and matured over the years. When I was younger, most of my interests and passions lay far away — in learning about the geography and history of other places around the world. These passions led me to Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., to study international relations. There, I quickly realized that a bureaucratic career in government or international development would not bring me much joy. Instead, I intensively pursued my passion for history.

Eventually, I realized that some of the most interesting and important histories I could study had been at home all along: During my senior year as an undergraduate, I devoted myself to writing a thesis on Tlingit history (Lingít ḵa Waashdan Ḵwáan, the Tlingit and the Americans: Interactions and Transformations, 1856–1896). Writing and researching in D.C., I learned more about Alaska than I ever had before, and I finally began to understand the true value of my homeʼs Indigenous heritage, which Iʼd often taken for granted.

my brother, sister, and girlfriend (now my wife), supporting me at my graduation in D.C.

At the same time, I concluded that a life in academia was not for me. I believe that learning about history can have transformative power for everyone, not just college students, so I knew I wanted to become a high school teacher. I enrolled in the University of Alaska Southeast to earn a masterʼs degree in teaching, and soon found that the best place to work as a student teacher back in Alaska would be my alma mater, Ketchikan High School. I spent an intense, productive year working with three great mentor teachers in the history department, and I gained new perspectives on education that I’d never considered as a student.

Back when I was in elementary school, I had many Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian friends—kids from the three Indigenous nations of the Ketchikan area. As I moved on through high school, however, these friends disappeared: For all sorts of reasons, they weren’t in the same classes I was, they went to the alternative high school instead, or they dropped out of school entirely. When I was a teenager, I didn’t think about these events as any sort of pattern. I didn’t spend much time—if any—thinking my school might serve certain students poorly.

Now, when I examine the high school curricula in Ketchikan, I see there continues to be room for improvement in paying greater attention to Indigenous traditions and knowledge. There has been important progress made in classrooms during just the last few years, but there’s still a long way to go. When I look at Ketchikan’s teachers, I see incredibly few of them are Native, even though a third of the school district’s students are. When I look at the statistics, Native students are greatly underrepresented in Advanced Placement courses, but greatly overrepresented in suspensions. The Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian languages are all critically at risk, but the school district still does not pay a single employee to support any one of them. I am determined that these facts need to change, and Native students deserve better experiences in our public schools.

After finishing my student teaching in 2014, I was offered an amazing opportunity: Ketchikan Indian Community hired me as a teacher for the Tribal Scholars Program, an alternative high school program for Native students. At Tribal Scholars, I spent five years helping to foster a community learning environment with a small group of students while engaging in cross-curricular, place-based, and culturally-enriched learning. We delved into local history, worked on learning all three local Native languages, studied the science of subsistence foods, explored indigenous conceptions of math, and so much more.

During my first year at Tribal Scholars, I was tasked with teaching history and government courses, while helping out with math. By the next year, I was needed to take over leading the math courses as well. As a result, I taught a huge variety of math and social studies courses with Tribal Scholars over the five years I worked there, and that time was filled with exciting opportunities and challenges.

I love my work, and I love my hometown. I now teach full-time at Ketchikan High School, teaching courses such as Alaska Studies, Advanced Placement history courses, and a new Indigenous History course I developed. During the 2022–2023 school year, I am taking a sabbatical to write a book on the Tlingit nineteenth century, using the thesis I wrote ten years before as my foundation.

Teaching in the place I grew up isn’t just an enjoyable thing to do, but I believe it’s the right thing to do — and, perhaps, the best thing I can do. Young people across the United States desperately need teachers and mentors who understand them—especially people who come from their own communities.

I’ll keep doing my small part in Alaska, and hopefully all of us can help raise up new generations of youth who are supported, understood, and destined to thrive.

[Last updated October, 2022]



Peter Stanton

I’m an Alaskan history teacher in Ketchikan writing a book on the Tlingit 19th century. I also write regularly about language, reading, travel, and politics.