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Looking Beyond 'Misfits' and 'Peace Corps Types'

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During the 1970's, elementary education was a popular field among Indian postsecondary students. Today, elementary schools on and near reservations report that as many as one-third of their staffs are Native Americans.

But there are few Indian administrators or secondary-school faculty members, and current trends indicate that there are likely to be even fewer in the future. While Indians are now studying engineering, business, medicine, and law, researchers say, not many are showing an interest in the teaching profession.

Joan Timeche, education director for the Hopi Tribe, says several students from her reservation have left for college with intentions of coming back home to teach "but they find better jobs."

"Sometimes I feel as if we're training them to leave the reservation," she says. "They could be very valuable to us here." She wants the tribe to establish a scholarship program requiring recipients to return to the reservation and teach for a specified period of time.

Others believe the solution is to create programs that prepare Native American classroom aides to attain certification. Half of all Bureau of Indian Affairs educational employees are Indian; most work as dormitory monitors, in cooking or maintenance positions, or as part-time aides.

Similarly, the few Native Americans in public-school jobs most often work as paraprofessionals or bilingual tutors supported by federal grants.

Teacher Sheila Sievers says the Navajo aide in her mathematics classes "is just as good a teacher as me." But without some form of assistance, Ms. Sievers adds, there is little hope that the aide will gain certification.

"She'd like to become a full-time teacher," she explains, "but it's extremely difficult for her to continue her education because she's raising a family."

Administrators at reservation schools believe that the training of more Native American teachers, in addition to its academic benefits, would alleviate the difficulty of attracting employees willing to put up with isolated living conditions.

One superintendent says he relies heavily on idealistic "Peace Corps types" who are becoming much harder to find. Pat Carr of the National Association of bia Educators charges that in recent years reservation schools have attracted more "misfits" than idealists.

In the bia system, poor salaries are also blamed for teacher-recruitment problems. In 1987, according to last year's draft report by the agency, the average salary for public-school teachers nationally was $26,704, while the average bia teacher earned $19,861.

Cecil Spell, academic advisor at the Dzilth-Na-O-Dith-Hle school in rural New Mexico, says the highest-paid teacher there has a master's degree and 33 years of experience, yet receives only $25,900 annually--slightly more than the average at a nearby public school.

Mr. Spell adds that, while the school would like to conform to the Navajo Nation's mandate to promote the native language, few instructors can afford to take the time off or pay the tuition necessary to gain certification in bilingual instruction.

Other educators, however, share the view of Teresa McCarty of the Arizona Indian-education office, who cautions that, like all teachers, Native Americans are molded by an "assimilationist" mentality in higher education "and that's what they have to give to their students."

But Ms. McCarty says she has higher hopes for the new generation of Indian teachers now being trained in innovative university programs and in the culturally traditional community colleges that have opened on reservations since the 1960's.

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