Posts Tagged ‘Native Americans’

Today’s contributor to “Teachers in Their Own Words” is Teresa, a fourth year math teacher at a New Mexico reservation high 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 thoughtful piece, “A Reservation Teacher Considers Change, Traditions and Meeting Students’ Needs,” Teresa raises issues about the constantly changing landscape of schools these days—new programs, new standards, new tests. She doesn’t reject change out of hand because, as she writes, change “is an everyday occurrence” for teachers. But she does question changes that are made with no consideration of student needs or the traditions of the community of which the school is a part. This is particularly important on Native American reservations where tradition is an essential yet endangered part of life. In exploring these ideas Teresa does something that doesn’t occur often enough in schools. She has a conversation with students, asking them for their views and ideas about education and how schools should be structured. It’s refreshing to see that kind of respectful dialog taking place, and it can only enhance her students’ learning.

A Reservation Teacher Considers Change, Traditions and Meeting Students’ Needs

Change.  To some, this word is scary.  To others, it is invigorating.  For teachers, it is an everyday occurrence.

The other day, I had an interesting conversation with one of my students.  To start, the student asked me “How come we don’t go home at 12:30, like in California?”  Now, I know not every high school in CA has a half-day schedule, but apparently this student attended one in the past.  This question led us into an in-depth discussion of why schools are organized the way they are.  Another student joined in on the conversation, and we discussed other options for high schools: why not offer night classes?  Why not let high school students sleep in, go to work in the morning, then come to school for a few hours in the afternoon (perhaps between lunch and dinner)?  And why on earth do high school students go to school for eight hours a day, only to go home and do two to four more hours of homework?

Let me give you some background information.  I was homeschooled all the way through 12th grade.  By the time I was high school-aged, my mom would get me started on my assignments in the morning, then I’d work independently while she kept my 5 younger siblings busy.  If I had questions about math, I would call my dad.  If I had any other questions, I would grab my mom between Fractions activities and Phonics lessons.  Rarely would my work occupy me past 12:30, at which time I would practice my piano, complete my chores for the day, and help keep my youngest sibling entertained.  Imagine my surprise, then, when I entered college and discovered that high school teachers are truly expected to fill 8 hours every day with lessons only, then give their students work to do at home.  Where has family time gone?  When will my students find time to choose personally enriching activities?  When will they have time to make some extra money?  This last question is especially pertinent with my students, high school teens living on a New Mexico reservation, who often help the family “make ends meet.”

Unfortunately, educators have endured so many changes in the past decade that they respond to new ideas with either “What’s the point?” or “Why change it now?”  Every year, teachers face new expectations, new administrators, and lately, even new standards.  But every time these changes occur, teachers sit back and say, “It’ll change again next year.”  They don’t buy-in anymore because nothing sticks around.  As a result, when truly good changes are suggested they get lost in the shuffle, or are placed on the back burner while mandatory (a.k.a. monetarily-endorsed) changes are implemented.  When are schools going to stop and think that maybe all these changes, “improvements,” aren’t as good as they are presented?  When are schools going to figure out how to weed out the unnecessary, unhelpful changes, in order to make room for reasonable, current ideas?  And when are we going to stop requiring students to spend 16 hours a day on school?

In the community where I work, there is a stronger-than-average resistance to change.  I believe this stems from Native Americans’ deeply rooted ties to history.  In this community, students and adults grasp at their traditions, while trying to sweep themselves into the future.  The Native Americans I work with search daily for the balance between the old and the new.  Even in schools, drastic changes can feel like an abandonment of the past, which is like forgetting “where we come from.”  For most Americans, our histories are so jumbled that we do not consider it in our daily decisions (personally, my family stems from about 5 different countries, and I cling to the traditions of none).  Natives’ history, on the other hand, has been so suppressed that they cling to every thread.

I’ve always felt that my schooling experience has been both an advantage and a disadvantage.  I am advantaged because I did not spend the first 18 years of my life going through “the system”; thus, I am completely open to new ideas.  However, as a teacher I am disadvantaged because I do not realize how many of these ideas have been sifted through the system already.  I may not be jaded, but I still swing a little to the other extreme: naiveté.  We teachers need to work together to find the happy medium.

At the end of my conversation with my students, we agreed that the “solution” is to phase out teachers who are stuck in the old ways, and fill schools with teachers open to change.  Unfortunately, this boils down to only hiring teachers who have been teaching 5 years or less.  Never would I suggest this actually take place because then schools would lose the wisdom and experience of our veteran teachers.  But the two generations of educators need to work together to keep schools current.  We don’t need fancy equipment and artistically-designed school buildings.  We just need to be open to reasonable, practical changes.  We need to adjust to meet our students’ needs…  Isn’t that the whole point?


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.