Meet the 2022 Washington State Teacher of the Year: Jerad Koepp

Sep 25, 2021, 2:07 PM
The state educators of the year. Jerad Koepp is in the front row, center. (Photo courtesy of OSPI)
(Photo courtesy of OSPI)

Jerad Koepp was named the 2022 Washington State Teacher of the Year. He is a Native American specialist for the North Thurston County Public Schools.

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“Being a Native educator in my capacity is pretty non-traditional from what a lot of people consider a teacher to be,” Koepp explained. “So a big part of what I do is I provide cultural and academic support to roughly 230 Native American students from over 50 tribes in all 22 of our schools, such as helping students with their classwork and academics, doing cultural education, small groups, large groups, professional development.”

“All over the district, there’s a lot of diversity and creativity,” he noted. “That is a wonderful part of this job.”

Koepp is Native American himself. He’s Wukchumni, which he described as a small tribe from central California.

KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross asked what it may be that Native American students need that a white or Black teacher may not be thinking of and therefore might not be able to serve the students properly.

“Native Americans kind of hold a unique place,” Koepp replied. “Sometimes we’ve been kind of referred to as the most recognizable invisible minority. And when you have that lack of visibility, when you cover stories such as Thanksgiving, which is coming up, Manifest Destiny, Westward Expansion, the Wild West — all of these have different representations of Native Americans that tend to conceptualize them as episodic, that we’re trapped in the past.”

“I still run into adults today that are surprised that Native Americans can still exist,” he added. “So there’s a lot of work that we can provide for our teachers and our students to increase that visibility and to humanize and contemporize the Native American experience within this country.”

Dave says when he was growing up, they were basically taught that America was an empty nation except for the Native Americans. He says he grew up assuming that Manifest Destiny was fine, it wasn’t stealing somebody else’s land, it was something ordained by God.

That said, he points out that we’ve seen how critical race theory has introduced us to parts of American history that were never re-examined or never even taught to begin with. Aside from a lot of public events in Seattle now acknowledging that they’re on Duwamish land, Dave asked if the teaching of American history has changed to at least consider how it felt on the receiving end of Manifest Destiny?

“Public education still has a long ways to go, but in Washington state we’ve been making steady progress, especially with the implementation of the Since Time Immemorial curriculum, which is a statewide mandate to teach tribal history and sovereignty in our education system,” Koepp said. “It’s a great resource that’s been approved by all 29 tribes. But there’s so much more to the depth of the American experience and the American story.”

The U.S. system of government, Koepp says, was influenced in part by Native Americans.

“That was something Congress officially recognized in the early 80s,” he said. “Native Americans have played an inseparable role in this nation’s story. And it really is an inspiring and illuminating experience to be able to see these often overlooked and misrepresentative narratives.”

Koepp says he, thankfully, works in an area that embraces telling the whole story, and hasn’t received much pushback. Dave pointed out that there seems to be this feeling that if you teach a version of American history that includes the unsavory parts, the way we treated slaves and former slaves, the Chinese, the Native Americans, it’s somehow unpatriotic.

“So much of any sort of the uncertainty, the anxiety, or some of the concerns about a lot of what is being taught comes from a lack of information,” Koepp said. “There’s no revision going on. It’s really we’re just turning the page and telling the whole story, and it’s been my experience that in order to have a sense of healing and to increase community, we all need to be able to hear and understand each other’s stories.”

“We really see some positive outcomes with similar work to what has been going on in Canada for several years with their truth and reconciliation committee,” he added. “A lot of the student input coming out of that nation-wide work that they’re doing up there and recognizing the traumatic legacy of residential schools in Canada is the sense of, I think, empathy, and sadness, and a desire by all these future adults to have that sense of healing and to build on that sense of connectedness, and to make sure that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past.”

Listen to Seattle’s Morning News weekday mornings from 5 – 9 a.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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Meet the 2022 Washington State Teacher of the Year: Jerad Koepp