Nowadays we hear a lot about teachers—from “education reformers,” politicians, business executives, clergy, union leaders, academics—but we rarely hear from teachers themselves. Most teachers I know and come in contact with are eager to talk about teaching and the jobs they do. It is decidedly a very different conversation from the ones pundits, policymakers and critics have. Of course, some teachers will lament the present state of testing, outside interference, and the unreasonable demands of curricula shaped by test results. But most are happiest talking about what teaching has always been about: their students and the amazing things they do (or don’t do). That’s why I’ve decided to start a series of guest blogs, Teachers in Their Own Words, inviting a variety of teachers from different educational settings to share their experiences, to talk about why they teach and who they teach, and to tell the stories that keep them in the classroom. If you’re a teacher and have a story that you’d like to share please feel free to get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Teaching at a Reservation School
Teresa is a third-year high school Math teacher at a small reservation school in NM. She got in touch with me after she read my book, I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup. She told me, “Although my students are not currently incarcerated, many of them have seen their share of a juvenile cell.” (I shared with Teresa a report that I came across about this topic.) In talking about her school, I was struck by her positive attitude, her love of teaching and her concern for and loyalty to her students and their tribal life. I didn’t know much about reservation education and appreciated hearing what her experiences had been. I suspect that many people are like me, and so I asked Teresa if she would share her story with a wider audience. She was happy to but asked that I use only her first name since she wanted to respect the privacy of the tribes with which she is involved.
My school serves two tribes. One has about 8,000 members and the other has about 5,000. The school consists of grades 7 through 12 and has about 350 students. It’s like a large family most days!
We are a public school under the jurisdiction of the public education department not the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Therefore, the academic expectations and standards set for us are the same as any public high school. It is very interesting to note that the students who come to us from BIA elementary and middle schools show a distinct lack of skill. I have not visited enough BIA schools to know why, but I hear it is because the BIA teachers are not held to the same standards we public school teachers are. As a result, the younger students do not progress as quickly as they need to, so they usually enter high school unprepared for the rigor and high expectations.
One of the best aspects of teaching in the school I’m in is that the students are incredibly respectful. Despite their sheltered life on the reservation, they are taught ultimate respect for elders. I believe this respect stems from the fact that my students live in multi-generational homes. It is not unusual for them to live with grandparents and/or adult siblings. In addition, most of the discipline in a family is given by an uncle (not a parent), so it is very common for my students to live with their aunt or uncle. Many of these living variations stem from broken families, abuse (physical, emotional, or substance), and behavioral issues.
Although my students struggle with many negative situations which high school students should not have to face, they show true spirit and stick to one another against the world. I have heard many of them call each other “sister” and “brother” whether or not they are biological siblings. For this, I am grateful to their sheltered life. However, I am sad to learn how many of my students have never left New Mexico, or even their own reservation. I do not think it is “fear” which holds them back. I think they are just accustomed to living with other Natives, so they feel no urge to leave. It is like pulling teeth to convince them to leave home and go to college an hour away, to get their 4-year degrees.
I wish I could convince them to leave for a short time to get a rounded exposure to life off their reservation, and then bring new ideas back to their community! But they usually don’t see the point. They see their siblings still living at home. They know they can get some income from the local casino since it is owned by the tribe and tribal families get a little income from its profits. They don’t seem to want to put forth extra effort to succeed.
Of course, this picture does not accurately describe every student in my school. There are some very bright, motivated students who pass through my classroom every day. Most of those students have fantastic parents who push them, defend them to “authorities,” and teach them how to think. How I wish this described every parent! But ultimately, would that really solve the problem? Is that the “silver bullet”? I don’t think a one-shot solution exists.
Luckily, my school environment has greatly improved over the past 2 years. The teachers and students have developed together a more positive attitude and this has led to escalating test scores. As much as I hate the amount of testing our country requires, I am very pleased to see my students improving in the eyes of the State!
Life on the reservation seems very complicated to me, and I still haven’t figured it out. It is difficult for me, a white woman, to teach my Native students with their very different backgrounds. However, I love the challenge and I love the students so very much! I would not trade this job unless a very strong divine force pushed me to.