I AM UAA: Panigkaq Agatha John-Shields

November 1, 2011

M.A. Educational Leadership ’03
Assistant Professor of Education
Hometown: Nelson Island, Toksook Bay, AK
Fun Fact: Developed the UAA Indigenous Values Gathering Series

Panigkaq Agatha John-Shields is mesmerizing to listen to. She talks about her ancestors in pictures that cover her office walls—her mentors and her family. She talks about the need for values-based and culturally responsive education. And she talks about her path to UAA and how she came to develop the Indigenous Values Gathering Series that meets every Thursday in the Native Student Services Center on campus. It’s hard to take notes; it’s easier just to listen and take to heart the lessons she wants to pass on.

I AM UAA Agatha Johns-ShieldsAgatha grew up in a Yup’ik village on the southwest coast of Alaska, on Nelson Island, knowing as early as the 4th grade that she wanted to become either a teacher or a counselor. After graduating from high school, she pursued an undergraduate degree in secondary education (starting in Bethel and ending in Fairbanks) with the intent to go back to Nelson Island to be a teacher. “But then life happened,” she says.

Her plans for teaching didn’t change, but her location did. She ended up meeting her now husband in Fairbanks, where he was stationed with the military. They decided Bethel was an easier place to continue their courtship, and after getting married, he could travel between Anchorage and Bethel while she raised their growing family in a Yup’ik community.

One of the biggest needs she recognized while working in Bethel for the Lower Kuskokwim School District was for Native children to learn their language and culture. She was one parent among many who helped with the planning and approval process for an immersion program turned charter school to be established in 1998: the Yup’ik Immersion Charter School.

“Starting with kindergarten, every year we would add a grade,” she explains. “We continually grew grade by grade until 6th grade. It was K-6 for a long time, and then they added a preschool. The long-term goal is to go all the way to junior high and high school. I was involved as a parent, then I became one of the immersion teachers, then in 2001 I became the co-principal.”

Due in part to the politics of the immersion school requiring a Yup’ik-speaking administrator, Agatha pursued her master’s degree via distance education at UAA, finishing in 2003.

“I took the initiative to get my degree because some people said it could not be done,” says the mother of six. “That was my encouragement; to show them it was possible. I felt like it was a duty to do so for our language and culture. To show the community, both supporters and opposers, that the program was working.”

After nine years teaching and eight years as principal at the Yup’ik Immersion Charter School, Agatha and her husband decided it was time to transition their family to Anchorage in 2010. “My husband does not speak Yup’ik, has not grown up with the culture, but he never questions what my values are and continually encourages me to teach them to our children. Seeing that he was there for us so that we could learn our language and our culture in Bethel for 17 years, I told him now it was time to give back to him.”

Again embracing where life took her, Agatha followed up with the contacts she made at UAA through her master’s program and a statewide professional development grant. She felt the transition to teaching at the university level would be a good one. She currently supervises intern principals in the Anchorage School District, those who are in their last year before final certification as administrators. She is also developing a culturally responsive educational leadership program for Alaska Natives, the Consortium of Alaska Native Leadership Engagement and Development (CAN-LEAD). And for the greater student body at UAA, she developed the Indigenous Values Gathering Series.

“I developed the curriculum this past summer, taking the traditional values of all the different Native groups that were put together by the Alaska Native Knowledge Network.” she says. “Values of respect, caring, family, compassion, giving thanks, sharing, hard work—the list goes on. Not just looking at education as academics, but as a focus on the whole person. If you want to learn, to share, to be around other people—Native or non-Native—you are welcome at these gatherings.”

Agatha describes these gatherings as a way to feed the soul. Remembering values can be as fulfilling as a traditional Native meal. And there is also an objective to cross-pollinate with other programs on campus to become one large extended family. In fact, she attributes much of the success of the gatherings so far to those partner programs: Native Student Services, Alaska Native Studies, Cama-i Room, the RRANN program and the College of Education.

Agatha was recently honored with the President’s Award for Education from the Association of Village Council Presidents and the Eileen Panigeo MacLean Education Award from the Alaska Federation of Natives. Both awards recognize an Alaska Native who has demonstrated strong commitment, competence and sensitivity in the education field, and whose accomplishments have improved educational opportunities for Alaska Natives. Join her on Thursdays at the Indigenous Values Gathering in Rasmuson Hall 108, and you’ll see why she deserves such high honors.

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