University of Arizona program providing a path to enlisting more Native American teachers

Tucson, AZ | Submitted by Jeremy Garcia, Ph.D.

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In Arizona, a persistent teacher shortage is impacting students in all corners of the state. The shortage is especially challenging in tribal areas, which are often isolated geographically. The Department of Teaching, Learning, and Socio-cultural Studies in the College of Education at the University of Arizona has a vision of identifying and training Native American teachers, who can return to their tribal lands and become nation-builders in their community.

Through discussions with Tribal leaders and education stakeholders serving Native youth and families, U of A learned that there is a high demand for Native teachers who are from respective tribal communities. In particular, the resulting Indigenous Teacher Education Project (ITEP) will better equip teachers to create stronger communities, starting with the youngest members enrolled in K-8 schools. ITEP integrates Indigenous language, culture, knowledge, and values into the teacher training. This creates future educators who will be better able to draw from tribes’ belief and value systems in daily classroom learning.

Beyond that, research has shown that students who learn from educators of the same racial/ethnic background perform better academically and are more engaged in the learning process. This is critically important, since Native Americans remain behind other ethnic groups in academic achievement. According to the Arizona Education Progress Meter, while 78 percent of Arizona youth graduate from high school in four years, that drops to 67 percent for Native Americans. Only one in five Native third graders are proficient in reading, compared to nearly half for the general population.

Currently covered by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, ITEP funding helps cover the costs of tuition, books, and dependent support for students. Participants are obligated to teach in a school that serves Native American students for the same number of months that they received funding from ITEP. The first round of funding covered 15 students, who represent a variety of tribes, including Diné (Navajo), Hopi, Tohono O’odham, and Pascua Yaqui Tribes. So far, 11 have graduated and are making plans to return to teach in tribal schools and/or public schools serving a high percentage of Native students. The ITEP team is creating a sustainable program so that ITEP can continue and grow in the future.

ITEP courses cover everything from the history of Native education to the creation of Indigenous curriculum and pedagogy. Courses that are required of all teachers to be certified are indigenized – they include languages, values and guidance on instruction from an indigenous lens. For instance, when teaching students about environmental topics, educators might share how to use Western methods of measurement alongside traditional values in a blending of the systems to support student achievement.

Interest in the program is high. Hundreds of individuals have expressed interest and tribal nations from all over Arizona are taking notice. ITEP leaders have even been invited to speak with other universities across the nation about their successful implementation of the program.
By making their education more relatable, ITEP graduates will be able to better engage youth in the educational process. Aimed at those who have an associate’s degree, the two-year journey is completed with a bachelor’s degree and teaching certificate. While it will help propel young students toward a better path, it’s also allowing individuals to further their own careers and long-term learning potential.

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