Instilling Dreams: The promise of teacher education

Nov 15th, 1999 | By | Category: 11-2: Teacher Education, Editor's Essay
By Marjane Ambler

Allan Demaray, Jr. student taught in the elementary school in New Town. N.D.. where he helped Kim Matthews and Jeremy O'Berry. Photo by Ken Blackbird

Ever since the first schools were built for American Indian children 200 years ago, these students have not fared well. Today nearly half–44 percent–of all American Indian students drop out of high school, more than any other group in the country, according to the Department of Education. Forty percent of American Indian eighth graders score in the lowest quartiles on math, science, and reading tests. The drop out rates and low test scores perplex many parents and grandparents who know their children are not stupid. Why do they perform poorly on these standardized tests?

If the problem is not the students’ intelligence, then is it the teachers and the schools? Politicians would like an easy answer. Some see lower class sizes and technology as the panaceas. Others demand accountability, saying that if a school district has low scores on standardized tests, the taxpayers should not be supporting those schools. For American Indian students, the answers are much more complicated than the politicians would like us to believe. They include learning styles, cultural and economic differences, racism, distrust of schools as the “white man’s tools,” and lack of self-esteem.

Carrie Billy’s personal story in this issue addresses self-esteem. Billy describes children without hope for a bright future. Surrounded by hopeless adults, they come to believe their destiny lies in the gutter. For too many children, the schools exacerbate instead of healing this wound. Too often, the Indian child becomes “dumber” in his or her own eyes at school. Billy says children don’t see people who look like them at the head of the classroom. The public schools on the Sisseton Wahpeton Reservation in South Dakota, for example, employ no American Indian teachers despite 1,200 Dakota Indian students. Nor do Indian students see their own, contemporary people’s accomplishments in their textbooks. They read about Indians only in the past tense, if at all–as people who once hunted buffalo on the plains.

Some teachers arrive with an agenda, the agenda of Indian education for hundreds of years–trying to transform the children into white people. Well-meaning teachers often don’t stay long enough to get to know the students. More than one-third leave each year. The reservation is not home to these teachers, and they feel overwhelmed by the problems and the differences.

Teachers and counselors often discourage students who dare to dream. Della Warrior’s high school counselor advised her against going to college. Warrior, an Otoe-Missouria Indian who grew up in Oklahoma, said she felt devastated, despite her good grades in pre-college classes. Fortunately, she decided not to take that counselor’s advice. She earned a master’s degree in education from Harvard University, served as chairperson of her tribe, and today, Della Warrior is the president of the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe.

The difficulty is not merely the teacher’s race or ethnicity. Non-Indian teachers often inspire Indian students to succeed, and too many Indian teachers come back to the reservation lacking faith in their Indian students. This problem was revealed by research by the Blood Tribe in Alberta, Canada (see TCJ, Vol.VIII, N.4, p.29). Teachers there—both Indian and non-Indian– had low expectations of the students, not believing they would even graduate from high school. In other places, such attitudes by Indian teachers have been characterized as “internalized racism,” and some say that such educators’ minds have been “colonized” by their experiences in mainstream universities’ teacher education programs. For Native students to succeed, their teachers must believe in them.

To address the teachers’ attitudes, the Blood Tribe asked its tribal college, Red Crow, to establish a teacher training program that is culturally sensitive with relevant curriculum. Red Crow and Sisseton Wahpeton are two of several tribal colleges and universities now building programs to train aspiring teachers and re-educate current teachers, as described in this issue. Sinte Gleska in South Dakota was the first tribal college to receive state certification for its education program in 1986, and today it serves as the sponsoring partner for bachelor’s degrees in education at Leech Lake Tribal College in Minnesota and Sitting Bull College in North Dakota. Since 1989, Sinte Gleska University has been the only tribal institution to offer a graduate degree program in education.

Tribal college faculty and administrators walk in two worlds. Many of them have earned doctorates at mainstream institutions of higher learning, and they have returned to their reservations where they have access to the traditional knowledge stored in living libraries, the tribal elders. They are building teacher education programs that bridge these two worlds, meeting state and regional accreditation standards while also meeting the needs of the reservation children. The task is daunting, as described in the article by Jack Barden and Carol Davis. Yet because their programs are relatively new, Barden and Davis point out that they can be innovative.

The tribal colleges provide education degrees within reservation communities, often hundreds of miles from mainstream universities. Cheryl Medearis and Kathy Froelich describe the importance of making teacher education accessible to people—both Indian and non-Indian–who are too committed to their reservation communities to move away. The careers of Medearis and Froelich themselves testify to commitment. Both Medearis, a non-Indian, and Froelich, an Arikara/Blackfoot, graduated from tribal colleges and earned master’s degrees before being hired by Sinte Gleska and Sitting Bull College, respectively, to direct their teacher education programs. On the Fort Peck Reservation, over 90 percent of the teacher aides are American Indians, devoted to the students but lacking the means to attend distant universities. Through distance learning partnerships with mainstream colleges and universities, Fort Peck Community College is determined to turn them into professional teachers.

The tribal colleges attract candidates who are rooted in their communities and keep them rooted. Diné College built its teacher education program on this premise, focusing upon students who are fluent in the Navajo language (see TCJ, Vol.VII, N.4, p.32).

Will the tribal college graduates make a difference for Indian students? Will the test scores rise and drop out rates fall? The tribal colleges clearly are producing more Indian teachers than their larger mainstream university neighbors and thus creating role models for despairing Indian children. The graduates are in high demand, with 100 percent of them being hired immediately to teach on the reservations in many cases. Studies already indicate that this will reduce the teacher turnover; American Indians teaching at schools with high Indian enrollment tend to stay 20-30 years instead of 2-3 years. As the tribal colleges reinforce their graduates’ cultural and community ties, they may avoid “colonizing” the aspiring teachers’ minds through the educational process.

The number of tribal college graduates is still a small percentage of the total reservation teachers, however. It is too soon to say whether the students’ improvements will be statistically significant. In fact, Indian students may never excel at standardized tests, which some argue are designed for middle class, urban, white students. There are many ways to assess students’ education. School principals on the Rosebud Reservation have reported to Sinte Gleska University that Sinte’s graduates are committed advocates for their students. Instead of standardized education, they try different approaches to reach individual students, thus keeping more students in school.

Teacher education has never been more important for Indian Country. The Indian population is much younger than others. Of the 1.43 million Native Americans living on or near reservations, nearly 33 percent are under the age of 15—compared to 22 percent for the nation as a whole. Indian communities need these young people to lift them out of economic depression. For the students to make a difference, their teachers must be well prepared. The students’ dreams must rise above the gutter, and the teachers must believe in these dreams.

Marjane Ambler is editor of Tribal College Journal. For more information about what teachers and parents can do, see the resource guide in this issue, especially the book, Collected Wisdom, and the Cradleboard Teaching Project web site.

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