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A Key to Native Students’ Success: Making the Teaching Profession a Home for Native Educators

Students achieve more in the classroom when they have teachers who represent their backgrounds. To support Native students’ success, the Teach For America network is innovating approaches for recruiting and retaining Native educators.

February 27, 2023
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Stephanie García


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Faviola Leyva

Video Producer

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Aggie Ebrahimi Bazaz

Managing Director, Film + Video Projects

Marquita Brown

Marquita Brown

Senior Editor, One Day Digital

When high school senior Jurrien Fowlkes began attending biology class, he gained something unexpected: a teacher who helped him connect with his Native community. He didn’t just learn biology from his teacher, Alec Dugin (Greater Tulsa ’21). Fowlkes learned how to become more connected to his tribe.

“Working with Mr. Dugin and learning from Mr. Dugin brought (out) so much,” said Fowlkes, who is African American, Indigenous American, and part of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation tribe.

“[Mr. Dugin] brought a new outlook on how I view myself as a Native American.” 

That new way of thinking, Fowlkes said, also inspired him to become more involved in and help his community.

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Research shows that Native students like Fowlkes are most successful when teachers recognize their value and know how to support their potential. Accordingly, educators, administrators and thought leaders across the Teach For America network are innovating new models for recruiting and supporting Native educators. 

Together with partners in the regions they serve, they’re developing models which are responsive to Native teachers’ and candidates’ unique needs and which acknowledge traumatic histories between Native communities and educational institutions. 

Fowlkes’s teacher, Dugin, who is Skidi Pawnee, is in his second year of teaching on Muscogee (Creek) Nation lands in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The Teach For America corps member said he chose to teach in TFA’s Greater Tulsa region because he specifically “wanted to serve a Native population of students to empower and to encourage Native students to not give up on themselves.”

Native students rarely have the opportunity to see themselves represented in faculty like Dugin. While Native students make up about 13 percent of Oklahoma’s student body, only 8 percent of teachers in Oklahoma identify as Native or Alaska Native.

Native students make up 1 percent of the public school population across the United States. Meanwhile, teachers who are Indigenous or Alaska Native make up only 0.5 percent of the U.S. teaching force

Research on the educational value of shared identity between teachers and students often shows great benefits. When Native students learn under Native educators, they experience outsized impacts. 

Studies show that increased exposure to same-race teachers leads to increased student attendance, grit and interpersonal self-management, working memory, and improvements in academic measures, including grades

Research also shows positive impacts on graduation rates for students of color with teachers from the same backgrounds. This is especially critical for Native students who have the lowest high school graduation rate of any racial or ethnic group.

Addressing the Underrepresentation of Native Educators

In 2009, Teach For America launched the Native Alliance, which is committed to preserving Native culture and expanding opportunities for Native youth. Working hand-in-hand with Native leaders and communities, the Alliance aims to expand opportunities for youth by growing the number of Native teachers working in schools and building support for Native education.  

Since its founding, nearly 400 Native teachers have been recruited into classrooms across Teach For America’s national network. Fifty percent of those educators continue to work in pre-k-12 classrooms. WaziHanska Cook, an enrolled citizen of the Oglala Lakota nation, leads the Native Alliance.  

“For over 30 years, I've been involved in wanting to bring more Native teachers, who look like me, who look like our students,” WaziHanska said. “We partnered with some of the national organizations that I worked with, NIEA (National Indian Education Association) and others, to actually build a national Native teacher recruitment campaign. Through this campaign, Teach For America, at one time, became the largest recruiter of Native teachers.”

Krystian Sisson, a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, is a recruiter for Teach For America and based in Oklahoma. As a recruiter, Sisson identifies working professionals who may want a career change as teachers. Sisson then supports them through the process of applying to Teach For America.  

“When I think about my own daughter and the experiences I want her to have in education, I want her Native identity to be part of her education growing up,” Sisson said.

“I want her to learn our language. I want her to have the opportunity to learn it alongside her friends. That's way more fun than mom asking you what is the Muscogee word for cow or dog? Having an experience like that is only possible if you have a Native educator in the classroom.”

Krystian Sisson poses with the Muscogee (Creek) Nation flag. Krystian Sisson

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For Sisson, recruiting Native educators, or any educator for that matter, requires a thoughtful approach that takes into consideration candidates’ unique needs and circumstances. For example, she explains, “someone with more financial resources coming out of undergrad is going to have an entirely different set of questions and hesitations than a professional who is making a career change, who has a family.” 

Together, she and her Teach For America colleagues offer workshops for Native candidates. These workshops are meant to offer a safe space for candidates to support each other and forge community through the application process.

“One thing I do as a recruiter when I am communicating with Native people is to share with them my tribal community and let them know that I'm reaching out to them and want to provide them support so that they personally feel like they have somebody that they can talk with,” Sisson said. 

“It's really never our intention to convince Native candidates to get into teaching, but rather to provide support to those who have that desire.”

Meeting Teachers Where They Are 

Guiding Native candidates through the application process can also mean reckoning with historic and harmful relationships between Native communities and educational institutions. Recruiters must acknowledge the harmful legacy of colonialism and adapt processes.  

“What's the best way to bring leaders and educators into a system that, for over 100 years, has gained so much mistrust and has really disenfranchised our communities in terms of, you know, that historical trauma of language, of culture, of spirituality, all of those things?” WaziHanska said.

Josie Green (South Dakota ’14), executive director of Teach For America’s South Dakota region, agrees. “Indigenous educators,” said Green, “are navigating a system that was not only not meant for them; it was meant to eliminate their existence.”

The roots of schooling in this country, Green said, are planted in the erasure of Native cultures and identities. The boarding school era's “entire purpose was to kill the Indian and save the man.”

Given these histories, Green advocates for credentialing strategies which are responsive to and reflective of the lived experiences and needs of Native peoples. Otherwise, Green argues, we risk gatekeeping against highly qualified educators. 

One of the biggest barriers to recruiting Native educators are the requirements for certification and having a four-year degree. Green recommends rethinking the standard qualifications for a good teacher in ways that can better reflect a diverse range of skills.

“I think there's a ton of people who would be incredible educators or already are educators in the community, like the paraprofessionals or the young people who show a lot of promise and skill in their ability to caretake for their relatives,” Green said. “They may have the skills that show a resilience, sustainability, persistence and strength. And we don't have systems that are set up to fairly dig into what type of qualifications are needed in a classroom.”

WaziHanska (center) leads Teach for America's Native Alliance. WaziHanska Cook
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One way to create opportunities for the profession to recognize a wider range of candidates and qualifications is to remove barriers to licensure. 

Teach For America’s New Mexico region is innovating in this area by providing microgrants to first-time teachers and working professionals who have committed to teach anywhere in New Mexico. These $500 microgrants cover the costs of taking teaching tests, background checks, and licensing. 

“We know barriers such as upfront costs for licensure and background checks can be especially burdensome for Indigenous teachers who, because of systemic oppression, are more likely to come from low income households or to be caregivers to relatives,” said Missy Wauneka (New Mexico ’05), the executive director of TFA New Mexico. Microgrants support “new teachers in high needs New Mexico schools, with an emphasis on teachers who are from the communities where they’ll be teaching.” 

In addition to financial support, the region provides one-to-one guidance throughout the application process “to ensure teachers, in particular Indigenous teachers, have a strong start,” Wauneka added. 

Teach For America New Mexico also partners with organizations who are advocating for and even successfully changing teacher certification requirements across the state.  

Leading Educators through Alternative Pathways, or LEAP, is one such TFA New Mexico partner. LEAP is chipping away at some of the barriers that Green references by advocating for and even successfully changing teacher certification requirements across the state. LEAP allows candidates into their program if their GPA is below a 3.0. The team also has conversations with applicants to learn about their college experience. 

”We found time and time again that it was either a struggle at first entering into college or they had to work multiple jobs, or maybe they were a single parent who was navigating the college system,” said Dr. Kim Lanoy-Sandoval, an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation and LEAP’s co-founder and program administrator. “So we lowered the GPA requirement and we found that many times, those teaching candidates were our best teachers because they had perseverance like we hadn't seen.”

The “bar” is being a good teacher, Lanoy-Sandoval said, and there are many ways to demonstrate that. 

“Your ability to pay upfront costs or fill out paperwork have nothing to do with how good of a teacher you’ll become.”

Missy Wauneka

Executive Director, TFA New Mexico

New Mexico '05

“Perseverance, caring about kids, creating an environment of care, safety, knowing the content, incorporating universal design for learning in your ways of teaching, that's the bar,” Lanoy-Sandoval said. “We're not looking for good test takers. We're looking for good teachers.”

Six regions, which predominantly serve Native students across the Teach For America network, now feature a pilot program that includes community perspectives in teacher candidate interviews. Community members in South Dakota, including youth, collaboratively interview and evaluate TFA teaching candidates to decide who is hired to teach in their schools. 

Green said the team asks questions related to their community. Questions also explore candidates’ knowledge of or interests in concepts such as decolonization, landback and tribal sovereignty. 

“Community gets to be involved and community should be involved given the history of Indigenous education that so many things are imposed,” Green said. “Our community has always wanted to be the ones who decide who it is that is going to teach their children, as it should be.”

Many hands surround a table while molding and cooking bread Native students gather around a table and mold fry bread

Alec Dugin leads an Indigenous Students Association, where students learn how to make fry bread.

Alec Dugin

Retaining Educators 

A hiring model which identifies teachers who can integrate and be responsive to a community’s priorities and histories becomes even more necessary given national efforts to encourage teachers’ longevity in the profession. 

For Diane Katzenmeyer-Delgado, a teachers’ coach with LEAP in New Mexico, cultivating commitment to the teaching profession needs to include opportunities for teachers to express their leadership. Katzenmeyer-Delgado said LEAP’s best tactic for retaining Native educator pathway students is their “wraparound supports.” 

These supports include ongoing coaching and mentorship relationships, as well as encouraging teachers' agency to advocate for their students' needs. 

"When (teachers) feel supported," Katzenmeyer-Delgado said, "they're going to stay and they're going to take more risks and they're going to improve their practice."

Educator Dugin agrees, but said systemic changes are also needed to sustain educators who are aiming to build generational wealth for their communities. 

“If you're someone doing 60, 80 hours a week and only being paid for 40 of it, you're not going to keep those people, especially for Native people, where they need to help their community,” Dugin said. With higher paying jobs, they're going to be more easily able to accumulate capital and go on to create programs to help their communities.

Ultimately, recruiter Sisson said solutions to recruitment and retention have to be as diverse as Native communities themselves. 

“Strategies that may work for one community may not work for another,” Sisson said.  

For Green, what unites these myriad efforts across recruitment and retention, is the urgent need for schools to be transformed into extensions of community, into welcoming spaces for Native students and educators alike. 

That’s what is at the heart of Green’s work in Teach For America’s South Dakota region and a mission her 6-year-old son is already understanding. She recently asked him how he would describe what she’s trying to accomplish. 

“What do you think my job is?” Green asked. “And his response was, ‘You are trying to make school like home. You're trying to make school reflective of our home.’”

Moreover, Green said, “we're trying to … find home in a place that is very much originally not supposed to be that.”

Story Credits: This audio story is produced, written, and edited by Faviola Leyva, Stephanie Garcia, Marquita Brown, and Aggie Ebrahimi Bazaz. The written story is edited by Kelly Pratt. Kayla Camacho is the narrator. Music is by Olivia Komahcheet also known as Liv the Artist. The team is grateful for production and research support from WaziHanska Cook, Terrius Harris, Amber Masters, Rebecca Belletto, Stephen Bell, and PodPeople. Many thanks to all the educators and regional leaders who participated, including the Los Angeles, South Dakota, Greater Tulsa, and New Mexico Teach For America regions. 

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