Educator Awards Spotlight: Jerad Koepp (Wukchumni)
2022 Washington State Teacher of the Year Jerad Koepp (Wukchumni) is the Native Studies Program Specialist in North Thurston Public Schools, Lacey, WA, Capital Region ESD 113
For the next two weeks, we’re sharing the wisdom of our incredible regional and state Teachers and Classified School Employees of the Year, in their own words.
What advice would you give someone who is just beginning their career in education?
My advice was the theme of my graduate cohort: teach the child in front of you. This involves adapting pedagogy, materials, relationships, supports, everything to each child and each class. Each new student is a new relationship and culture to learn from and use that knowledge to inform instruction, content, and inspire critical evaluation of curricula. Learning from and adapting to students makes us better teachers. Teaching the child in front of you means adapting the idea of success to terms that are meaningful and relevant to each student. A rounded education is built on respect, relevance, and reciprocity.
What one change in education are you most excited for when we reach our post-COVID reality?
I’m excited for the return of connection and community. As Native people, COVID has impacted ceremonies, powwows, gathering/harvesting, and access to many other facets of our cultural being. Virtual learning has challenged our usual connections to place and each other, yet our resilience helped us overcome. As we transitioned to in-person instruction, I was able to meet one particular Native student in person for the first time and tie a drum together. As we tied and chatted protocol, he shared about his grandpa and how he inherited his drum. Culture is connection and strength.
What do you think is the most important part of your job?
Culture is the most important part of my job. It’s what makes us unique and unites us at the same time. Our cultures ground us, inspire us, connect us, educate us, and are key to honoring our present, our ancestors, and all our plant and animal relations, too. Culture heals. Given the legacy of public education, culture helps to sustain, revitalize, and remind us of our generational strength as we weather challenging times like this most recent pandemic. Our culture also helps us to illuminate and challenge omission and bias in our education system.
What have you been reading, listening to, or watching over the past year that you would recommend?
As I prepare for my upcoming Native Studies cohort for educators, I have several key texts I’m very fond of. They include Treuer’s “The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee” for general knowledge and context, Kimmerer’s “Braiding Sweetgrass” for understanding Native world view and indigenous ecology, Simpson’s “As We Have Always Done,” for understanding Native resurgence and colonial impact, Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s “Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples” for better understanding pedagogy and praxis, and Hopkin’s recent work, “Indian Education for All” to better understand colonial bias in public education and work being done to elevate Native history and culture.
Tell us about a time during COVID-19 that you felt successful as an educator.
I coordinate the guest teachers for our Native Studies classes. Not many students were comfortable having their camera on during class. We had a Native language teacher visit and it was the first time one of our struggling Native students turned on their camera. Not only that, they quickly learned they knew each other and their families were close. That all to rare cultural and community moment positively impacted the student the rest of the year. The teacher left us that day with their word meaning remember the knowledge of the ancestors. That was a transformative experience for everyone.
What was something that surprised you about working in education?
I always knew this as a student, but getting into the profession I am often reminded of the lack of diversity in education both in the classroom and especially in administration. Being a Native educator can be isolating, lonely, and frustrating. Which is why I plan to extend my passion for supporting and advocating for Native students to creating a professional group in our district for Native educators this coming year. As we increase visibility and support for Native educators, we also increase opportunity for Native students and diversity in instruction for all students.
What is one local, state, or national education issue that you think more people should be thinking/talking about?
More people should be thinking about settler colonialism, its legacy and impact on public education, and how non-Native educators can desettle their biases. However, I think that’s ambitious given how many people don’t even see Native people in education, in classrooms, let alone know about Title VI or Title III Native American programs. Public education has a long way to go to increase the visibility and support of Native peoples in education from students to professionals. This is even more relevant as Canada continues to uncover graves at residential schools and Secretary Haaland launches an investigation into US boarding schools.
Describe your perfect day at work.
Perfection is a culturally loaded idea. Let’s talk about fulfilling days. My days can vary a lot including leading professional development, working with tribal leaders, guest teaching, working with small groups of students across the district, to curriculum review just to name a few. This can be helping a student pass a class, teaching one to bead for the first time, creating government to government policies, supporting our Native Studies program, or just having a safe place Native students can visit. Each day Native education has been furthered or Native students feel supported, visible, and valued is a fulfilling day.
When did you decide to work in education and what sustains you professionally?
Growing up, school was something of a second home for me. Teachers were my mentors, friends, and inspiration to become one. My culture exposed to me to different ways of being, knowing, and teaching. The environment is our first classroom and we can learn just as much from our plant and animal relations and story as we can from a classroom teacher. I wanted to bring that indigenous pedagogy into the classroom. Culture, ceremony, elders, and my family continually sustain me as does knowing my work increases the relevance, support, and visibility for Native students and Native education.
What do you wish more people knew about your job?
I wish more people knew that programs like Title VI and Title III Native American existed. I wish more people understood how much an asset these programs are to their district and communities. I also wish that district’s that don’t have a Title VI program, would recognize the need to create and fully support one. Title VI often gets overlooked, underfunded, understaffed, and generally marginalized in education. Despite these challenges, Title VI is the lifelong work of some of the most dedicated, talented, and inspiring educators. Title VI houses a wealth of cultural and professional assets.
Learn more about the Teacher and Classified School Employees of the Year on the Educator Awards website.