In "Indian" Country, Back-to-School Season Kicks Off Without Teachers

An unfilled teaching position can be devastating for kids. This is all-too-common in Native schools.


Thursday, September 6, 2012

Robert Cook is managing director of Teach For America’s Native Achievement Initiative. Cook will be leading a session on Improving Education in Rural America at Teach For America’s inaugural Alumni Awards and Educators Conference in Detroit on July 18, 2013. The conference gathers alumni teachers, school leaders and school systems leaders from across the country fora day of networking and professional development. Travel stipends are available. Alumni educators: register today.

Hau Mitakuyapi,

Recently, our youngest son began his journey as an eighth grader in the Rapid City School District and today he is firm in his schedule: pre-algebra, science, English, Orchestra, PE, reading and social studies. Last week, my wife and I had the opportunity to meet all of his teachers and tour the school and his classrooms.  I feel good about the educational opportunities provided for Caleb and his friends.  Unfortunately, that is not the case for many of our Native students here in rural South Dakota or on my home reservation of Pine Ridge, located just 80 miles away.

A young female teacher with long brown hair helps a middle-school boy with a mohawk with an assignment on his computer.

For twenty years I had the honor to work as a classroom teacher in our tribal schools serving Native children.  I often share my story of how I never had a job interview until I was hired for my present job at Teach For America.  The stark reality is very few of our teachers working in tribal schools have job interviews, and the reason is our tribal schools have less than one applicant for every open teaching position.  Recruiting great teachers to serve in our tribal schools is a challenge.  Despite the obvious beauty of the landscape and rich history of our tribal culture, many of our tribal schools are rural, isolated, and provide limited housing options for our students and families. Even access to the basic needs of fresh food and quality health care is often hours away.  

All this being reality here year after year, I thought I’d check out the Bureau of Indian Education jobs website to see what the teacher shortage looked like at the start of a new school season.  The BIE oversees 187 schools located across 23 states and serves over 50,000 Native children.  It is frustrating to know that while we are welcoming students back to school across the country there are scores of teaching positions still open and tribal schools still searching for teachers. No wonder that for so many of our Native students the academic achievement gap is widening.  

Perhaps an open teaching position in a major city can and is typically filled quickly, but unfortunately that is not usually the case for an open teaching position in an underserved rural tribal school. The result of that vacancy can be devastating for children who don't have access to the support or resources of a caring, supportive teacher. The responsibility to ensure quality effective teachers for every student attending tribal schools is more than a federal responsibility. It is a call to action and a moral responsibility for every person who feels inspired to ensure every student has access to a great education.  I challenge those who want to battle for education equity to bring your fight to "Indian" country. Together with our allies we can make sure our Native students are reaching their fullest potential.   

Hecetu Yelo

Robert Cook is managing director of Teach For America’s Native Achievement Initiative. Cook has served for 20 years as a teacher and administrator in American Indian education. Most recently, he was principal of Pine Ridge High School on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.  In May, he was appointed by President Obama to serve on the National Advisory Council on Indian Education, where he will advise Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on federal efforts to improve education for Native children and adults. An enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe (Oglala Lakota), Cook received a bachelor’s degree in secondary education from Black Hills State University and a master’s degree in education administration from Oglala Lakota College. He is married to Daphne Richards-Cook, and they have two sons who attend public school in Rapid City, S.D. 


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