Agents of Change for the Classroom: The Growth of Teacher Education at Turtle Mountain Community College

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turtle-mountain-community-collegeTurtle Mountain Community College (TMCC) is one of the original six tribal colleges that were established in the early 1970s. Located in Belcourt, North Dakota, in the wooded, hilly, and lake-filled area known as the Turtle Mountains, TMCC was chartered in 1972 by the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Tribe.

The origin of the college is humble. For the first few years, TMCC operated out of two offices on the third floor of a former Roman Catholic convent. For a short period, the college was situated in the basement of an abandoned Indian Health Service facility. In 1977, TMCC moved into an abandoned tribal building and a Bureau of Indian Affairs facility that had been moved to Belcourt’s main street by a tribal member who had converted the building into a café and dance hall. Later, the college purchased and renovated several old buildings on Main Street, and, as funding became available, constructed new buildings.

Then, in May 1999, TMCC moved to a new campus, where the college remains today. Located just north of Belcourt, trees and vegetation surround the new site, which overlooks Belcourt Lake. The view from the balcony and second-story windows on the south side of the TMCC building is breathtakingly beautiful year-round. Often, a bald eagle sits at the top of a tree near the edge of the lake, seeming to watch over the college. TMCC is his home.

Over the decades, the college has grown from a fledgling institution hosting fewer than 60 students a year to its current enrollment of 500 to 650 students. From its infant stages to the present, the college has served the tribal community in many ways. It offers a variety of programs that help to build local capacity to affect positive systemic change and improve all levels of educational achievement for tribal members.

The newest addition to TMCC is the Teacher Education Department, which offers three programs: early childhood education, elementary education, and secondary science. The department hosted its first elementary teacher education cohort in the fall of 2000. Since then, 107 teacher candidates have graduated from the college. Of those graduates, 88 are employed as classroom teachers or specialists who meet the unique needs of diverse learners. Since its founding, the Teacher Education Department has been making a difference because of its strong commitment to graduating change agents focused on continuous improvement of educational opportunities provided to the pre K-12 youth in the Turtle Mountains.

In the spring of 2015, 16 teacher education students graduated from TMCC’s various teacher education programs. All graduates are currently teaching in schools serving a high proportion of Native students. The college’s teacher education programs are rigorous and enjoy an outstanding reputation. Integral to this academic excellence is an understanding of Native culture, which is woven throughout the curriculum. It is expected that Native values and principles will be embraced and modeled through culturally responsive teaching. Moreover, all three programs are designed around a cohort model of learning, highlighting the importance of collaboration and teamwork as necessary preludes to being change agents dedicated to culturally responsive teaching.

The Elementary Teacher Education Program is committed to helping all students learn. The teacher candidates will receive the opportunity to apply and adapt a multitude of teaching principles to meet the needs of diverse student populations. Multicultural education is taken to heart wherein inclusiveness is seen as an essential component of this program. Consequently, there is a strong commitment to fully implementing best teaching practices that encompass the latest models of inquiry-based instructional strategies which differentiate teaching methods to meet the needs of all the students. Integral to these best teaching practices are exploratory and hands-on methodologies which emphasize engagement, learning as a process, and students’ own ideas and concrete experiences in creating new and deepened understandings of the world around them. In addition, technology is explored in its many formats in order to provide the teacher candidate with as many tools as possible in the pursuit of teaching excellence.

Excellence is also the goal of the secondary science program. The Native Ways of Knowing Secondary Science Program was launched in 2006, and was designed to bring about significant change in how science is taught and understood at the high-school level. The Native perspective has been liberally infused throughout the Native Ways of Knowing project’s core content areas of physics, chemistry, biology, and earth science. Funded by the National Science Foundation, Native Ways of Knowing brought three tribal colleges together—TMCC, Cankdeska Cikana Community College, and Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College (formerly Fort Berthold Community College)—in a collaborative effort to place American Indian science teachers in schools on and near Indian reservations. The emphasis on the Native perspective in teaching the sciences has continued well beyond the life of the project. The legacy of the Native Ways of Knowing project lives on in the secondary science teacher education program, which focuses on “curriculum transformation through culturally responsive teaching.”

Finally, the TMCC baccalaureate degree in early childhood education is a career-oriented program that prepares students to be effective teachers of young children from birth through age eight or third grade. Launched in 2010, graduates of the program must be competent to meet the developmental needs of children and families and the programming needs of a high-quality, early childhood education program. The curriculum is aligned with North Dakota and National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education standards in order to ensure consistency across both agencies. In addition, the program is aligned with the National Association for the Education of Young Children standards for early childhood professional preparation programs. To date, the early childhood education program has graduated six candidates.

The mission of the teacher education program at TMCC is to implement curriculum transformation through culturally responsive teaching. To that end, the Teacher Education Department embraces the Seven Teachings of the Anishinaabe: wisdom, love, respect, bravery, honesty, humility, and truth, embedding these teachings throughout the culturally responsive curriculum. As stated in our accreditation institutional report, “The tenets of culturally responsive teaching form the fabric and soul of the educational philosophy of the Teacher Education Department.”

Teresa Delorme, Ed.D.  is the director of the Teacher Education Department at Turtle Mountain Community College.

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