Sealaska Heritage

NEWS_Ketchikan educator wins SHI’S “Teacher of Distinction” award

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Honor given during SHI’s 2022 Culturally Responsive Education Conference

Aug. 12, 2021

A Ketchikan teacher was honored with the 2022 “Teacher of Distinction” award by Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI) today during SHI’s Culturally Responsive Education Conference.

Teresa Dl’a Gwa T’awaa Varnell, a teacher and cultural coordinator for the Ketchikan Gateway Borough School District, is also the lead facilitator and teacher of SHI’s Through the Cultural Lens program, which seeks to integrate Native cultures into schools through extensive orientations and an annual conference with educators.

Varnell was a solid candidate for the award because of her ability to lead challenging conversations with Native and non-Native educators in a safe and respectful manner, said SHI President Rosita Worl.

“Teresa’s ability to guide conversations among educators on Native cultural values, societal structures, intergenerational trauma and the history of boarding schools has helped us open an important dialog,” Worl said. “These conversations can be challenging and uncomfortable, but she has helped create a community where people feel safe delving into these topics.”

Her work also enables teachers to take the next step in professional development towards cultural relevancy and place-based practices.

“When one drops a pebble in a still pond the ripples cross to every part of the pond. Dl’a Gwa T’awaa has dropped the proverbial pebble in Ketchikan and in other Southeast Alaskan communities,” wrote one person who nominated her for the award, “and the result is that the teachers she works with are now having an impact on their colleagues as they go back to their schools and classrooms…her impact is felt by countless students.”

Varnell accepted the award on the main stage today.

“I am not the one accepting this honor; this honor belongs to my ancestors…and to the future generations who will do this work,” Varnell said.

Varnell attended Haskell Indian Nations University and completed her bachelor’s degree in education at the University of Alaska, Southeast.

Her grandmother is the world-renowned master Haida basket weaver Delores Churchill, and every woman in Varnell’s family is a teacher of weaving or a language learner.  

Varnell was trained in traditional Haida ways; those principles and values remain the core of her everyday life and shape her passion, perspectives and beliefs about modern education. 

The award came through Preparing Indigenous Teachers and Administrators for Alaska Schools (PITAAS), a scholarship program at the University of Alaska Southeast that is funded by SHI. The honor comes with a $4,000 award, which will go to the Ketchikan Gateway Borough School District. Varnell is a graduate of the PITAAS program.

Sealaska Heritage Institute is a private nonprofit founded in 1980 to perpetuate and enhance Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures of Southeast Alaska. Its goal is to promote cultural diversity and cross-cultural understanding through public services and events. SHI also conducts social scientific and public policy research that promotes Alaska Native arts, cultures, history and education statewide. The institute is governed by a Board of Trustees and guided by a Council of Traditional Scholars, a Native Artist Committee and a Southeast Regional Language Committee.

CONTACT: Kathy Dye, SHI Media and Publications Deputy Director, 907.321.4636,

Caption: Varnell at the podium accepting SHI’s Teacher of Distinction award today at the institute’s Culturally Responsive Education Conference in Juneau. In back, from left: Irene Dundas and Ronalda Cadiente Brown, M.A., associate vice chancellor for Alaska Native Programs and director of PITAAS. Photo by Stacy Unzicker, courtesy of Sealaska Heritage Institute. Note: media outlets are welcome to use this photo for coverage of this story. For a higher-res image, contact