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


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.



  1. Kelly says:

    Wow. This is a look behind the curtain that I hadn’t expected to see. Teresa, you and your fellow teachers are AMAZING!!!

  2. Cori Conrads says:

    wow 🙂 thank you for sharing!

    I am a history teacher, and I’m currently writing a research paper on Native American history as discussed throughout American history textbooks, and how little they are mentioned. I am trying to find someone who would know what history textbooks are taught in reservation high schools.

    Would you happen to know? Or know somebody who would know??

  3. […] school. Teresa has a place of honor in this series since it was an email she sent me about teaching young Native Americans that gave me the idea to ask teachers to write about their experiences as educators. In this […]

  4. Thanks for this port–it’s good to be able to get at least a glimpse into your experiences teaching kids from the rez. For encouraging your students to keep studying (and maybe a reality check), have you thought of recommending Sherman Alexie’s Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian? Maybe they are already familiar with it–I thought it was amazing–funny, tragic, eye-opening for me as a non-Native

  5. Nancy Huston says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience.
    I have taught for 35 years. Now I am looking for my next life chapter. Your experience sounds somewhat the same as mine. I teach in an isolated small west Texas town not far from Mexico’s northern border. The majority of my student are of Mexican heritage. They are very much stuck in a culture that sees no reason to explore choices.
    When the oil and gas companies come here, they profit monetarily for a time, but their spirits suffer.
    How do you view your accomplishments today?
    What have been your most powerful lessons learned from your experiences?

    • David Chura says:

      Nancy, I’ll let Teresa know of your comment so that she can respond. I admire your work, clearly one of challenges but deep commitment, work very much like Teresa’s. Teachers like you and she, and all the other teachers who have written for “Kids in the System” love what they do despite hard conditions, roadblocks, setbacks, and, at times, lack of support. Yet, Nancy, you have stayed with your students because you care about them, their present and their futures. Thanks for your comment and your work.

    • Teres says:

      Hello Nancy, thank you for your comments. I commend you for teaching in a border town – that is quite a challenging situation, from what I’ve heard!
      As far as accomplishments, it is difficult to answer fully, because most of a teacher’s fruits do not blossom until after graduation. I am pleased to report that the college attendance rate of the students at my school has increased dramatically over the past few years. Although many of them still have to take remedial courses, they are willing to shoulder the challenge and give it a try. Additionally, we have had a number of Gates Scholarship winners, and a couple years ago our valedictorian was admitted to Dartmouth University. So you can see, we have made strides toward academic excellence. There is still much room to grow, however!
      I think the most powerful lesson I have learned (so far!) is that every student is truly capable of learning. They all have such intricate minds, it is not always easy to lead them to success. However, their desire is still present, and if you are willing to work with them, they can accomplish more than they believe they can. Too many of our students enter high school saying “I’m dumb” or “I’m stupid” or “I can’t learn.” I have learned that it is my job, as a teacher, to dismiss these false beliefs and lift my students to a more confident level, so they can reach academic success.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s