Passion for identity: Mt. Edgecumbe science teacher nominated for Alaska Teacher of the Year

Chohla Moll is a nominee for the 2018 Alaska Teacher of the Year. She’s a high school science teacher at Mt. Edgecumbe School in Sitka. (Photo by Wesley Early, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

The State Department of Education will pick Alaska’s Teacher of the Year next month.

This week we’ll have profiles of each of the five finalists, from across the state.

Chohla Moll is a science teacher at Mt. Edgecumbe High School in Sitka. Moll’s teaching style is rooted in making sure her students know about the culture and history of the land around them.

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When asked how she’d identify herself, Moll begins by explaining the meaning of her name.

“My name, Chohla, is a Cherokee word, and it means cardinal, like the red bird. And my middle name is Agehya, and I share my middle name with my daughter,” Moll said. “And so Chohla Agehya in Cherokee means ‘cardinal woman,’ and my daughter is Walela Agehya, and she’s a ‘hummingbird woman,’ one of these days when she’s not five.”

Moll is Cherokee and was born in Colorado, but moved to Sitka early in life when her father got a job at Sheldon Jackson college. She grew up immersed in two Native cultures.

“I started learning Tlingit in the Sitka Native Education Program when I was five, and so, I identify with both of those cultural backgrounds,” Moll said. “And I have a really strong connection to place in Sitka, with the Tlingit people.”

Both of Moll’s parents were teachers. So is her sister. Moll initially thought that she’d be a rebel and just be a scientist, but later she changed her mind.

“I was so excited about all the cool things that I was getting to do in Glacier Bay National Park where I was working for the USGS biological research station, and on the research vessel, and getting all this cool oceanography stuff,” Moll said. “And then I went into my sister’s classroom, and I realized that’s really fun, too. And when you’re in education, you’re surrounded by givers, and you get to be a giver.”

The Department of Education highlighted Moll’s passion for sharing her background in the world of science with her students as a main reason for her nomination for Teacher of the Year. She teaches life sciences: biology, marine science… stuff like that. Her class load includes beginner level integrated science as well as more specific courses.

“I’m right now teaching a field research class, so I get to kind of take that background that I had in research and get to expose kids and give them some real hands-on experience doing real stuff and asking real questions,” Moll said.

Moll says she isn’t just focused on tying her students to where they live physically; she also wants them there culturally. Mt. Edgecumbe has students from villages across the state, and Moll says she works to relay her sense of place in her teaching, as well as connect the students back to their homes. She gave an example of a student from Savoonga.

“And he started asking questions about the stable isotope ratios of carbon and nitrogen in walrus and in his subsistence food, his whales. And so his mom sent him samples down, and he was actually able to test them,” Moll said. “And then he found a conference that was happening in Nome. And he was the only high school student presenter at the conference, and he was able to make that connection back to home, even while he was away from home.”

Moll says creating a passion for identity and connections between her students and their homes is the biggest source of pride for her. Well, that and being a mom and an auntie.