Throughout my 11 years of teaching, and three semesters of teaching future and current teachers at the college level, I can count on one hand the number of American Indian teachers either already in the field or training to be a teacher. As a Chippewa-Cree woman teaching on a reservation in Montana, I find this disparity frustrating and disheartening.
Growing up in the Denver area, I was acutely aware of the lack of teachers of color. I identified most with minority teachers because, even at a young age, I somehow understood that race plays an integral role in our human relationships. The research is clear–students trust teachers of color more, and students identify more with teachers that represent their own cultural or racial backgrounds because they come from similar places in society and represent hope that they also have leadership potential.
There are many reasons why American Indian people do not enter the teaching field. The Indian boarding school era that began during the latter half of the 19th century continuing till the 1970s instilled emotions ranging from horror to anxiety regarding America’s institution of education. To this day, many elders feel nervous, angry, and afraid to enter school buildings. These emotions are intergenerational.
Though education in general continues to be valued by Indian families, many Indian people do not value education received at a public school. Therefore, our Indian children come to school with disheartened feelings toward schooling. Consequently, how can we expect them to want to be teachers?
Another barrier that discourages American Indian people from pursuing an education career lies in the foundational disparity between reservation and familial life, and the university system. American Indian cultures are built around the family unit. Our families consist of close ties with aunts and uncles who are like parents, cousins who are like siblings, and grandparents who may live in the same home. Likewise, tribal communities are close knit where families rely on one another to help raise children.
Colleges and universities usually do not offer such close ties and communal support to students. When Indian students move from their homes to live in a university setting, they may not feel supported. The disconnect they feel leads to the high dropout rate of Indian students attending college.
The solutions to these issues lie in ensuring that our American Indian youth feel valued as integral constituents of the school community, as well as ensuring communal support at the university level. To encourage American Indian students to attend college with the desire to become educators, we must begin in the early grades.
States such as Montana and Washington have transformed education by requiring schools to meet the needs of Indian students and their families. The value of our cultures and histories transform curriculum through the use of authentic literature depicting American Indian people from a variety of tribes throughout the school year. Indian students see themselves in the curriculum, thereby acknowledging their significant contributions to the school.
Transforming education requires teacher preparation programs to require courses that help future teachers relearn the histories, cultures, and contemporary issues faced by American Indian people. The outcomes of such courses are twofold; non-Indian teachers gain an authentic basis from which to change how Indian students perceive school, and Indian teachers identify with the curriculum. I have participated and taught in two rather different teacher preparation programs.
One program was supportive because it immersed my teaching in authentic tribal culture and issues in education. While this program gave me the tools to support Indian children in a manner I never experienced when I was a child, the other program instilled feelings of isolation and “otherness.” Ultimately, when Indian people identify with the curriculum, feel valued by the education system, and know that they have a voice, they are empowered to make a difference and become respected community leaders.
American Indian people have a wealth of knowledge and values to share with schools and communities across the United States. It is imperative that American Indian people find their voice in classrooms not only to provide a role model for Indian children unsure of the future they hold in society, but to dispel stereotypes and prejudices as teachers in America’s schools.