Teacher Preparation

‘More Than a Demographic’: The Important Work of Cultivating Native Teachers

By Kaylee Domzalski — November 17, 2021 9 min read
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Growing up, Tyler Sumpter never considered becoming a teacher. She lived on the Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation but attended public schools just outside of her community in Sparks, Nev., where just 2 percent of the student population is Native and Alaska Native. Her teachers did not look like her.

“I always thought I was going to have a Native teacher at my school,” Sumpter said. “I just never did.”

As an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma and part of the Pyramid Lake North Paiute Tribe, Sumpter remembers being frustrated that her school had lessons around Columbus Day while she had to miss out on the celebrations for Indigenous People’s Day that took place at the schools on her reservation.

It wasn’t until she attended Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan., as an undergrad that she had her first Native teacher. Sumpter’s experience is similar to that of many Indigenous youth and other students of color who spend their formative years without seeing educators who share their race or ethnicity.

Native and Alaska Native students have the lowest graduation rate of any racial or ethnic group, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, with just 74 percent finishing high school. Studies have shown there’s a positive impact on graduation rates for students of color whose teachers look like them and can affirm their identity and foster a meaningful relationship with them.

Finally making that connection with teachers in the college setting helped Sumpter realize that she wanted to be a teacher—the kind she wished she’d had as a K-12 student. With that goal in mind, she applied and was accepted to the University of Oregon’s Sapsik’ʷałá Teacher Education master’s program.

‘Our state wants more Native teachers in the classroom’

Sumpter is part of a cohort of eight Native students who graduated from the Sapsik’ʷałá program this June.

For nearly two decades, the Sapsik’ʷałá teacher education program has worked with Oregon’s nine federally recognized tribes to create a career pathway to address the tremendous gap in Native teacher representation in the classroom.

According to a NCES 2020 report, there are nearly 3.5 million K-12 teachers in the United States, but only 0.5 percent of them are Native and Alaska Native. The majority of Native and Alaska Native students attend public schools, where they make up roughly 1 percent of the student population.

“Schools have been sites that harm Native communities and that have sought to assimilate Native communities. But schools aren’t the same as education,” said Leilani Sabzalian, an assistant professor of Indigenous studies in education and the co-director of the Sapsik’ʷałá program. “So our program is really about reclaiming that idea of education, helping Indigenous students see themselves as teachers, and then helping those Indigenous teachers shape and impact the lives of Indigenous youth.”

These goals are also, in part, mandated by the state of Oregon. In 2017, the Oregon legislature passed Senate Bill 13, also known as the Tribal History/Shared History law. The law requires the state education department to create a K-12 curriculum around Native history and culture and direct funding to the nine federally recognized tribes to create place-based curriculum that immerses all Oregon students in the histories and cultures of the tribes closest to them. It also provides funding for teacher professional development about Oregon’s Native communities. Many of the Sapsik’ʷałá program’s alumni who have gone to work in Oregon school districts now help lead this professional development.

“Our state wants more Native teachers to be in the classroom,” said Sabzalian, who is an Alutiiq Alaska Native. “The students coming out of our program recognize that teaching students about their treaties, for example, and about treaty rights, is an important aspect of civic education.”

Leilani Sabzalian is co-director of the Sapsik’ʷałá Teacher Education Program at the University of Oregon.

Students lean into their identities while training

Identity is a pillar of the Sapsik’ʷałá program. In the weekly seminars, students share stories from their families and tribes—talking about cultural touchpoints such as beadwork and harvesting maple syrup—to foster community within the cohort. The program also encourages its aspiring teachers to draw on their personal and tribal backgrounds in their lesson planning. Sapsik’ʷałá students also hear from Oregon tribal community elders to foster intergenerational connection.

Stephanie Wright is an enrolled member of the Klamath Tribes from southern Oregon, which is one of the nine sovereign tribes the program collaborates with to shape its direction. But when she first entered the program, Wright felt like she wasn’t connected to her Klamath heritage and she worried the other students would not see her as Native. She thought that her appearance and growing up in Springfield, Ore., away from her tribe, would make her seem like an imposter.

Hearing from her cohort on things like their favorite traditional foods and the intricacies of weaving and cradle-making made her realize she knew more about her heritage than she thought. And it reinforced for her that she could acknowledge her students’ different cultural backgrounds by relating them to her own.

Sabzalian says this is why it’s important to create pathways for more Native teachers.

“When someone like a teacher affirms who you are, it has its own special power,” Sabzalian said. “When our Indigenous teacher candidates feel comfortable and confident in who they are as Indigenous people, I think they’re [more likely] to help students feel comfortable and confident in who they are.”

Sapsik’ʷałá students pay nothing to be in the program, but they agree to work for two years in schools with a high percentage of Native students after graduating. The Sapsik’ʷałá program is funded in part by the U.S. Department of Education’s Indian Education Professional Development Grant program.

“I think programs like Sapsik’ʷałá, that’s what they’re for, to help people like me, who can’t afford to go to school to be a teacher,” said Wright. “I didn’t have to have a job [while I was training], which was amazing. I could spend all day just working on homework, and that would be my focus and I didn’t have to feel guilty.”

But after graduation, Sapsik’ʷałá students can still face challenges that are unique to their identities as Indigenous educators, such as being the only Native teacher in the school or district and struggling to find a community of support. Some move hundreds of miles, far from friends and families, to find schools that have high percentages of Native and Alaska Native students. Some work in rural, underfunded schools with high teacher turnover rates.

State policies can also make this work tough. “We try to do the strategic work of helping our educators think critically and carefully about how they can infuse Indigenous education into their own practice, while also understanding Oregon state standards, understanding Common Core,” Sabzalian said. “But that’s a complex task, and it’s a very complex task for first-year teachers.”

On top of this, Sumpter and Wright’s cohort entered the profession in the middle of the pandemic, as teachers across the country dealt with heightened professional burnout.

Federal data show that 8 percent of teachers leave the profession every year, and younger, often early-career, teachers are the most likely to leave. An Education Week survey showed that the challenges from the pandemic have also spurred more teachers to consider leaving.

“The Indigenous teachers coming out of our program are more than a demographic,” Sabzalian said. “They offer meaningful representation to schools. … How are you going to support them? What are you going to do as a leader or policymaker to ensure that they stay in the classroom?”

’I feel like I’m drowning’

Wright began teaching 9th grade English this summer at White Swan High School in Washington state. Three weeks into the school year, she felt overwhelmed. She didn’t have her school-issued laptop yet, her printer wasn’t working, and she was having trouble navigating the attendance system. She also felt like she let her students down after finishing one of her lessons earlier than she had planned.

“I feel like I’m drowning, and everyone keeps saying that’s normal. And I’m like, but why is that normal?” she said.

Stephanie Wright graduated from the Sapsik’ʷałá master’s program at the University of Oregon in the spring of 2021, and began her teaching career at White Swan High School in Yakima, Wash., this fall.

Teachers at White Swan, her family, and other alums from the Sapsik’ʷałá cohort have helped her regain confidence in her teaching skills. Wright has also relied on her mentor, the cooperating teacher she worked with as a student teacher, to double check her lesson plans and give her advice. The Sapsik’ʷałá program pays stipends for these mentors, chosen by the students, to help support them for the first few years after graduation.

Despite the first few weeks of stress, Wright has been excited to share stories from her family and her tribe with her students outside of the reading projects she has set up in her lesson plans. She hopes that small cultural details will help her connect with the other Native students in the classroom, even if they don’t share the same tribal background. The first week, students asked her about the beaded lanyard she wore. When she told them that she made it, they were impressed.

“I’m proud of myself,” Wright said. “It’s so stressful and tiring, but it’s only [been] three weeks. I need to get used to things and learn things and, then, I think I’ll be happy.”

‘That’s part of our history’

Over 300 miles away on the edge of the Olympic Peninsula, Sumpter is still trying to figure out what it means to be the kind of figure for Native-teacher representation that she wanted in school. She moved to the Quileute Reservation in La Push, Wash., to teach 7th through 10th grade history at the Quileute Tribal School, a K-12 Bureau of Indian Education school.

In the first month Sumpter helped her students organize a walk for the National Day of Remembrance for U.S. Indian Boarding Schools, also known as Orange Shirt Day, which was created to recognize the experiences of residential school survivor Phyllis Webstad and others impacted by boarding schools in the United States and Canada.

In the classroom, her students were learning about the legacy of boarding schools, which were first established by the United States as an attempt to erase tribal identity, language, and culture though the Civilization Fund Act of 1819. To foster healing, Quileute students, families, and other community members showed up to read the names of boarding school survivors. Sumpter and another teacher also performed a smudging ceremony, which is the burning of sacred herbs to cleanse a person or space.

It’s the kind of cultural event that she’d longed for her high school to do when she was a student and one of the many she’s excited to experience at Quileute Tribal School. Celebrating Quileute traditions and sharing her own to create a classroom environment that encourages Indigenous identity was what drove her throughout her time in Sapsik’ʷałá.

“Just doing those kinds of things is what I have been excited about [as a Native] teacher,” Sumpter said. “That’s part of our history. That’s who we are.”

Coverage of equity, culturally responsive teaching, and the Native population is supported in part by a grant from the Meyer Memorial Trust, at www.mmt.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

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