The things we do and say today, we do not for ourselves. We do this for the children, grandchildren, and those yet to come.
—Traditional prayer of the Oceti Sacowin
(Seven Council Fires)
The present generation of American Indian, college-aged young adults are by their own accord fulfilling the “prophecy of the Seventh Generation.” According to this prophecy, after seven generations of living in close contact with Europeans, young tribal descendants who are growing up today will find ways to bring back their culture and language.
The purpose of this case study was to conduct a descriptive analysis of a teacher education licensure program for American Indian preservice teachers at a tribal college. Graduates of the program gave their perspectives on what contributed to their successful completion of the program and meeting state licensure requirements. Participants were 10 American Indian graduates of the tribal college elementary education baccalaureate program that was the setting for the case, all of whom have met state licensure requirements and are currently practicing teachers. Methods for data collection encompassed qualitative surveys, documents and archival records, and open-ended interviews. This data triangulation was used to increase the internal validity of the study.
“It takes a commitment from the students that they are going to do it. But it also takes people, like we had here at our college, who believed in us, mentored us, stayed until 6 o’clock on Friday afternoons.”
The participants who were part of this case study have faced challenges in their lives that would have caused others with less tenacity and resolve to lose sight of their goals. One said it best during her interview: “I’ve been hungry, cold, scared, seen people die and way more death than a kid should and other things I won’t go into. But I’m here!” Yes, they are here. And they have experienced success by achieving one of their life goals—becoming professional educators. They are the young tribal descendants, referred to in the prophecy of the Seventh Generation, who are overcoming adversity and fulfilling their roles of mending the broken hoop. Their journeys have only just begun; they are actualizing the prophecy and realizing their place as professional educators who will most certainly make a difference in the lives of numerous children and their families.
The characteristics of qualitative research methods are grounded in understanding the meaning of people’s experiences based on their perceptions, and not that of the researcher. Interviews are a common source of this type of information and were included as a data source in this case study. These experiences are described within the context of a setting, referred to as a “bounded system” in case study research (Stake, 1995, p. 2). In this case, the tribal college teacher education program and the research participants are integrated to form the bounded system that is the object of the study.
Before the data collection began, I obtained approval from two Institutional Review Boards, one from the tribal college, the setting for the case study, and one from the institution through which I conducted the research. The graduates were contacted by email, inviting them to participate in the research. If they wished to participate, I arranged a time to meet individually and for them to sign the informed consent forms.
Participants were graduates of the teacher education program at a tribal college and met the requirements as professional licensed educators in the state of North Dakota. All of the graduate participants were female. This was not intentional; to date, all of the graduates of this teacher education program have been female. All but one of these women came from reservation communities in the northern Great Plains. The majority of the graduate participants have children. They care for their own children, in their own homes, and they are pursuing a dream for themselves and their children. They have experienced trauma and heartache that most of us will only read about in fiction. They have witnessed and been victims of violence, drug abuse, and alcoholism. One was estranged from her mother until she was out of high school for reporting her mother’s boyfriend for sexually abusing her. One witnessed her father kill himself. Another was left home alone with five siblings, all younger than eight years old, opening cans of food to eat until the social services agency came and removed them from the home. And yet another forged her mother’s name so she could leave for boarding school at the age of 12 to escape sexual and physical abuse perpetrated by family members. They are breaking free from the clutches of drugs and alcohol and are “walking the red road” of sobriety. They are aware of their Native culture, some know their language, and many practice Native American traditions. The data collection process began with a series of qualitative surveys, distributed electronically. I then conducted individual interviews with five of the participants after the surveys were completed. These five were selected because they (a) were all graduates of the teacher education program at the tribal college and were licensed teachers; (b) had attended other colleges and universities besides the tribal college and hence were able to draw some comparisons; and (c) are, as American Indian professional educators, members of a group often underrepresented in higher education and the teaching profession.
I devised questions which I emailed to the participants two weeks prior to the actual interview. Each interview lasted approximately 50 to 60 minutes. After each interview was concluded, the participant and I visited briefly about the next steps in the process. They were assured that the information they provided would be reported anonymously. I then transcribed the responses as recorded and gave the reconstructed account to the participant. The participant then read the responses for accuracy and message, and edited some of the wording of the responses.
Results from the study’s qualitative surveys indicated four primary themes as contributing to the participants becoming licensed teachers: (1) a rigorous program with high expectations for performance; (2) student financial grant support; (3) extensive professional development opportunities; and (4) competent, caring faculty in diverse settings (see Figure 2). There were questions that had emerged from the survey responses, however, that remained unanswered and needed to be addressed in order to complete this case study. To respond to the unanswered questions and confirm and expand upon themes that surfaced during the surveys, I conducted the individual interviews.
One of the interview questions was based on a study by Pavel et al. (1998), which reported that Native students entering college possessed an unusually high number of risk factors that threatened their ability to succeed. These risk factors are (1) financial independence; (2) having at least one dependent; (3) being a single parent; and (4) being enrolled part-time, part of the year. Five of the five graduate participants interviewed affirmed that the Native American students in colleges and universities they attended possessed these four risk factors. Based on the interview responses, however, the consensus ended there. The graduate participants shared varied perceptions about whether these four risk factors are what prevent Native students from completing their college degrees. When asked if there were other factors they felt were more significant for Native students finishing college than those identified by Pavel et al., one of the participants responded as follows:
I somewhat agree with Pavel that these risk factors do prevent some from finishing college but I also feel that sometimes there are other factors as well such as how much effort you put into your college courses. I have seen that sometimes people just don’t put in the effort needed to complete courses therefore they end up quitting and just not finishing. Sometimes it seems that people look for reasons, like these risk factors, but ultimately many of the Native students I know lack commitment. This isn’t necessarily their fault. They just don’t know what they want to do with their lives. It’s hard to be committed when you don’t have a passion for something or you don’t know what your options are.
Another graduate participant elaborated on this same concept:
The people I knew who finished college had these factors and overcame them. The people I know who did not finish also had these same factors. I don’t believe these four factors, in isolation, are what cause Natives to drop out. There are bigger things than these, like the pull of a way of life that’s miserable but hard to get out of. It’s easier to stay down because then you don’t have to be responsible for anybody or anything or do the hard work required to change it. Some people don’t finish school because they don’t know what they want to do with their lives. They go to school just for something to do and don’t look at it as a career or life changing thing.
I then asked the participants to identify circumstances that enable students typically underrepresented in teacher education programs, specifically American Indian students, to achieve success. One participant provided this perspective:
It takes a commitment from the students that they are going to do it. But it also takes people, like we had here at our college, who believed in us, mentored us, stayed until 6 o’clock on Friday afternoons to visit with us when we were feeling lonesome or insecure, and who were more like family than teachers and advisors. They know the balance between being hard on us, and demanding we get things done, and nurturing us and bending the deadlines when we needed it but still making us accountable.
Another participant identified a level of commitment as a requirement for success:
They have to have somebody who thinks they can do it. They have to have somebody who they respect who will be disappointed in them if they don’t achieve this success, almost like a parent. You here at this college are like parents to us. We don’t have that from our own families. You believe in us and we respect you so we don’t want to let you down. We think if our teachers here think we can do this, maybe we can. A lot of us have never had anybody expect anything from us.
Another participant responded more specifically to some of the circumstances contributing to American Indian student success, and the challenges accompanying these circumstances:
I have seen friends struggle with working part and full time jobs while juggling coursework at the same time. I have seen friends struggle with being single parents and dealing with things from sick children, having no vehicle, not enough money for personal needs, and also with trying to adjust to a new environment. I myself have overcome many of these barriers while trying to finish college. I was a single parent of two boys and I worked a full time job. I had to work to support my family. I did not receive any child support nor did I receive any state services. It was a hard struggle at times because my hourly wage wasn’t that much and it barely made ends meet at times. Trying to complete your homework assignments in the evenings with two children was hard at times. I was very thankful that I had access to a laptop from my employment that I could complete my assignments at home, rather than coming to campus to the computer room. I could see how my friends who had little ones struggled in this area as well, because they would have to find babysitters for their little ones, just so they can complete their assignments.
“I could go to my advisor with any obstacles or hardships and I never felt that I was going to be judged. I felt they genuinely cared about their students’ success by the way they treated us.”
Finally, I asked the graduate participants to suggest one thing colleges and universities could do to increase the graduation rates of their teacher candidates, excluding funding, housing, daycare, or a laptop. One participant responded to the question with the need for a sense of community, feeling part of a group, possibly like being in a cohort:
I do think that American Indian students would be more likely to complete their degrees here because the college is much smaller than larger city colleges and I feel that most students feel that they are part of a community. I feel that when you feel like you are a part of something that is going to make you want to do better and complete your courses. . . . Also being a part of the education program community, you see that everyone is coming to class and completing their assignments and in turn that makes you want to do the same.
The next participant response also included reference to flexibility with meeting program requirements as well as allowing for and recognizing individual differences:
At this college, we were each looked at as individuals. I didn’t pass my PPST until the semester before I student taught. If I had been at a different college, I probably would have been kicked out, not allowed to continue in the program. But here, they kept working with me and helping me improve my skills. The teachers worked with me, one on one, helped me do practice tests and tutored me with math for almost two years. As long as I was making progress, they kept encouraging me that I would get there. I attended school on a reservation where most of the children did not speak English. I didn’t know some of the material that was on these tests. But when it was taught to me, I learned it. When I finally passed, I think they were as happy as I was.
Yet another graduate participant put it this way:
Providing genuine student support and educational guidance are two factors that largely influenced my success. Throughout my education classes I was always met with encouraging words and was told that I was going to be a “great teacher.” This may not seem like a big deal to some but I had never been told I was going to be good at anything when I was growing up. There were times when I maybe didn’t do things to my top potential and my advisors and teachers called me on it and made me feel like I could do better. They were more like friends and family rather than advisors and teachers. . . I could go to my advisor with any obstacles or hardships and I never felt that I was going to be judged. I felt they genuinely cared about their students’ success by the way they treated us.
Following the interviews, I conducted an analysis of the responses to the questions using holistic coding (Miles et al., 2014). The overall theme was that success in the program is dependent upon a commitment from the student, coupled with support from the teacher education program. Anumber of the responses indicated the level of commitment necessary from students who do not graduate from their programs as lacking for various reasons. But when the graduate participants referred to their own personal experiences, and their success with graduating with their degrees and meeting licensure, being fully committed was an overarching theme.
The individual interview responses of the graduate participants— tribal descendants who are overcoming adversity and fulfilling their roles of mending the broken hoop—included a wealth of insight into the participants’ experiences in their journey to becoming professional educators, actualizing the Seventh Generation prophecy, and making a difference in the lives of numerous children and their families. Their invaluable perspectives have implications for tribal, public, and private institutions of higher education intent upon increasing the number of licensed American Indian professional educators in classrooms throughout the United States.
Lisa J. Benz Azure, Ph.D. is the vice president of academic affairs and chair of the Teacher Education Department at United Tribes Technical College.
Miles, M.B., Huberman, A.M., & Saldaña, J. (2014). Qualitative Data Analysis: A Methods Sourcebook (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.
Pavel, D.M., Skinner, R.R., Farris, E., Cahalan, M., Tippeconnic, J., & Stein, W. (1998). American Indians and Alaska Natives in Postsecondary Education (NCES 98-291). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.
Stake, R.E. (1995). The Art of Case Study Research. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.