Struggle and Success: The State of Teacher Education at Tribal Colleges and Universities

Volume 27, No. 3 - Spring 2016
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struggle-success-teacher-educationThis year marks 36 years of teacher education at tribal colleges and universities (TCUs). From the earliest partnerships between TCUs and state colleges and universities, to the present-day independent bachelor’s and master’s degree teacher education programs, there has been a change in how higher education is designed to meet the uniquely Indigenous way that knowledge is exchanged, leading to greater self-determination. Taking the lead in the effort to bring this vitally important plan of study to Indian Country was Sinte Gleska University on the Rosebud Indian Reservation, which began offering a bachelor’s degree in human services and elementary education in 1979. Since then, nine other TCUs have joined the ranks in teacher preparation programming, including Turtle Mountain Community College (TMCC), United Tribes Technical College (UTTC), Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College (NHSC), Sitting Bull College, Salish Kootenai College, College of Menominee Nation (CMN), Diné College, Haskell Indian Nations University, and Oglala Lakota College. This is a story of extreme challenge and struggle, but also of joy, hope, and sheer determination to make a better life for future generations. It speaks to the history and the future of American Indian teacher preparation. Testimony from the most remote reservation communities to bustling urban centers underscores a deeply Indigenous perspective. The storytellers are the education warriors at these tribal colleges who spend countless hours perfecting their instruction, advising students, searching for funding, striving for accreditation, and developing new programming opportunities so that their Native students can succeed as the new faces of Indian education in their homelands and beyond. At TCUs, departmental chairs, instructors, financial aid officers, counselors, registrars, and others work together with the students and are all part of the tribal college family. Their collective efforts set TCUs apart from mainstream post-secondary institutions. For tribal college personnel, each student represents a vested interest in the future of their tribe.


Although many TCUs have witnessed declining enrollment, those who remain in teacher education programs, such as these students from Diné College, are dedicated to becoming licensed educators. Photo by Ed McCombs

Teacher education at tribal colleges today faces a number of important challenges, including enrollment, funding, accreditation, and high-stakes examinations for licensure. However, in the face of these challenges are true successes: the development of new master’s degree programs in education, the endurance of bachelor’s degree programs currently offered, meaningful partnerships between tribal colleges and local communities, their unflinching dedication to Indian culture and language, and the longstanding relationships between students that will last their entire professional careers. Still, teacher education administrators and department chairs cite a need for collaboration across all TCUs, greater resources in technology, and more faculty to support high-quality instruction. In some instances the conversation turns to areas of deep concern, including questions about the viability of their program, student employment, social disadvantage, and federal regulations which threaten the very existence of teacher education at all TCUs. Ever hopeful, these education warriors have courageously elected to press on in the face of these pressures. Their support of the students in teacher education is beyond what may be expected at a mainstream institution. It is the fabric of the tribal college—indeed the strength of Indian higher education.

For tribal college personnel, each student represents a vested interest in the future of their tribe.

Declining enrollment in teacher education has been a common theme at several tribal colleges. At some institutions, like Sitting Bull College, there have been modest gains in enrollment of students in bachelor’s degree programs. And at Sinte Gleska University, Cheryl Medaris, chair of the Education Department, maintains that growing enrollment is a direct reflection of the university’s allegiance to its mission: “To prepare our teachers to look forward Seven Generations and to be able to instill in themselves and others the Lakota values.” However, most programs are making strong efforts to recruit more students into the teaching profession. At United Tribes Technical College, Dr. Lisa Azure cites the current economy in North Dakota as a major reason for the low numbers in UTTC’s teacher education program. “Our students are typically families with children, so they are taking advantage of the economic opportunities of the state and delaying college,” she explains. Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College, also in North Dakota, faces similar issues. NHSC is in the heart of the Bakken oil formation on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, home to the Three Affiliated Tribes: the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara. Dr. Constance Frankenbery notes that, while enrollment in the bachelor’s program at NHSC is not where she would like it to be, the two-year early childhood education program has served as a pipeline for future growth. Early childhood program graduates provide much-needed support for the Head Start programs on the Fort Berthold reservation. Thus, the two-year degree serves as a stepping stone for these students to meet the academic rigor of the bachelor’s program in elementary education.

At Diné College in the Navajo Nation, Dr. Geraldine Garrity attributes low enrollment to the college’s remote location. “Even with the residential nature of the college, students still struggle to get to the campus,” she says. And online instruction has not been a viable option. Variability in Internet access in many Navajo homes and/or a complete lack of Internet connectivity within local communities has presented challenges for the college. Still, Garrity maintains that the college has made efforts to support distance students through off-campus branches designed to give them an opportunity to complete and submit assignments to their course instructors. However, students still must travel to submit their work digitally, which she says can present a hardship.

Common to all institutions of higher education in the United States today are inadequate funding resources to maintain and continue established programs of study. Public and state land grant institutions are supported with state-legislated dollars; however, many TCUs do not receive state support and thus have to rely on grants and/or funding through their respective tribes and the federal government, which is currently insufficient to meet the rising costs of tribal college operations. Garrity describes her needs at Diné College: “I feel it is mostly in the areas of instructional resources, and of course technology. If we could have the same kind of technology resources here in our division [as compared to the area K-12 schools], we could better train our students to be able to step into a classroom.”


Due to their size and their sense of community, TCUs like Salish Kootenai College can offer support to teacher ed students that non-Native institutions cannot. Photo by Doug Ruhman

In many TCUs with teacher education programs, the current funding streams from the Office of Indian Education and Department of Education are reaching maturity or have closed. “Funding is so important for our students, and right now we have no funding for next year,” says Dr. Cindy O’Dell, head of the early childhood education program at Salish Kootenai College. “We have one grant we are finishing up with the Office of Indian Education and we are hoping for a carry-over year, but last year we lost 90K of carry over.” Tribal college students are also highly dependent upon Pell grants through the federal Title IV program. But in recent years there have been changes in the funding strategies for this source of student financial aid: summers are no longer included, and the number of semesters in which students are eligible for support has decreased. According to Cheryl Medaris at Sinte Gleska University, “Our students [are recognizing the financial aid changes] and are successfully getting through our program in a timely manner.” Swiftly completing a teacher education program will be increasingly important for future students at TCUs as resources become ever more subject to federally mandated budgetary changes.

Another area of significant need in tribal college teacher education programs is faculty. Since most tribal colleges are located on reservations, their rural, remote location can present challenges in recruiting and retaining high-quality instructors. “We have such a tiny, tiny staff here, and they have to do the work of an entire department anywhere else,” observes Dr. Teresa Delorme, chair of the Teacher Education Department at TMCC. “Our greatest need right now is to attract diverse faculty, who really want to come in and work here because they have a sense of community, [are looking to] work with tribal people, and just want to do good work.” Dr. Regina Sievert at Salish Kootenai College adds, “It is almost impossible to find one [a new faculty member]. I did a national search, spent thousands of dollars advertising and couldn’t attract anyone…qualified. So many are looking for tenure to move through the system and that does not happen here. So you have to have a different type of person, who is not a ladder climber, and who is willing to live in a rural area. There are those kinds of people that enjoy this kind of life, but we have not been able to find one.”

While other schools may talk about building relationships and being culturally relevant, tribal colleges live and breathe it.

While institutional support, student financial aid, and faculty shortages present difficulties, the real threat to program success for future Native educators may be high-stakes licensure exams. Across Indian Country, tribal college education program administrators voice grave concerns about the Praxis Core and edTPA exams. These standardized tests are intended to assess pre-service teachers’ basic skill competencies in reading, writing, and mathematics. Graduates of teacher education programs are required to pass either of these exams in order to become licensed in their respective states (each state has a measure of latitude in authorizing which exam is necessary for licensure). In some cases the Praxis Core test has completely stalled the progression of teacher education students in their programs of study. Students find themselves taking the exam repeatedly only to see their score worsen. Chris Fried of Sitting Bull College says, “What we need to do better is prepare our students for the Praxis Core.” Lisa Azure of UTTC agrees but sees the problem as greater than simply preparing students to take the test: “The challenge is helping the students prepare for these tests, learn the content, pedagogy, and theory necessary to be effective teachers—and do it all in a shorter period of time because of the reduced number of semesters they are able to get funded,” she says, the frustration clearly evident in her voice.

Some TCUs, such as Diné College, Sinte Gleska University, TMCC, and UTTC, have begun aggressive tutoring programs to assist their students in meeting the skill level necessary to pass these career-changing exams. The most ironic part of this scenario, however, is that pre-service students are able to successfully pass the education content exams in curriculum, instruction, and assessment, as well as exams on the principles of teaching and learning— truly the heart and soul of teacher education. Yet, the Praxis Core and the edTPA remain serious obstacles toward licensure.

High stakes licensure exams may be the greatest obstacle for TCU teacher ed programs. Photo by Dale Kakkak

High stakes licensure exams may be the greatest obstacle for TCU teacher ed programs. Photo by Dale Kakkak

Other institutions have taken a different approach altogether. College of Menominee Nation is looking at new bachelor’s degree programming which will allow graduates who have not passed the Praxis Core, or who have no intention of becoming licensed teachers in Wisconsin, to seek other options for a career in education. The new bachelor’s degree at CMN would have a greater emphasis in Menominee language and culture, with the target being pre-K children in childcare facilities. The degree would include a certificate in American Indian studies and possibly some courses in business. This would prepare those individuals who may be considering an administrative role in Head Start or similar areas, as those qualified employees must have a bachelor’s degree in education. “We are considering as many options as possible for these students,” says Dr. Cyndi Pyatskowit, faculty in the college’s teacher education department.

It is widely acknowledged that teacher education programs must provide “real-time” occupational experiences in the classroom in order to ensure student success and longevity in the profession. Through these clinical experiences, pre-service students gain much-needed mentoring and support from the greater community of educators in their school districts. Placement of Native students in the classrooms, however, requires tremendous effort on the part of tribal college department chairs and faculty, who must host meetings between community leaders, K-12 administrators, and mentor teachers. In addition, they organize professional development opportunities for the students to enhance their pedagogical skills and they provide purposeful supervision and constructive feedback during the clinical placement portion of the curriculum. The overarching goal is to build relationships based on trust and mutual understanding of the goals sought on both sides. “[It’s about] the whole relationship…we are a new teacher education program and have built a strong relationship with the school districts,” Pyatskowit explains. “Not only the reservation schools but the surrounding schools that serve high numbers of Native students are really starting to look at the tribal college as somebody who can help them serve their Native children better. It should be this way, as our focus within our college classes is built under tribal clan structure.” The overriding message, particularly within Indigenous communities, is that of building and sustaining trusting relationships. In the context of tribal colleges, building partnerships means developing a relationship with those who are most directly impacted by American Indian higher education.

Tribal colleges also build partnerships with mainstream institutions of higher education. Turtle Mountain Community College is engaging in a diversity experience exchange with a state college in North Dakota; Salish Kootenai College has had a longstanding relationship with Montana State University; and Diné College partnered with Arizona State University, which ultimately led to the college’s bachelor’s degree program in teacher education. Whether longstanding or newly developed, building these relationships is important for the future success of all tribal colleges.

Higher education is no longer defined as Euro-centered or mainstream, but rather encompasses a wide range of perspectives, which include minority-serving institutions. TCUs are being recognized as a true force in the goal of providing high-quality, post-secondary education opportunities for students across Indian Country—Native and non-Native alike. As Constance Frankenbery of NHSC so eloquently puts it, “Our motto here is ‘Tribally educated, globally prepared,’ whether you are from one of the Three Affiliated Tribes or not, Native or non-Native, you need to know. You need to understand. . .You need to know about some of the trauma that has taken place throughout the years. You need to understand where families and people are operating from. You need to be sensitive to that.”

In the final analysis, what tribal colleges do best is support their students in a way that mainstream institutions cannot. While other institutions may talk about building relationships and being culturally relevant, TCUs live and breathe it. There is no written policy that states everyone is family within the walls of the tribal college, but this is the reality at TCUs all across Indian Country. “We help them see that college is not as scary as they thought, that we are their support system,” says Frankenbery. “We have been their biggest cheerleaders and their toughest coaches.” Cheryl Medaris recounts an anecdote that underscores this importance of the tribal college community and the supportive role that it plays: “A student told me, ‘You don’t know how many times I wanted to quit, but the people at Sinte…they encouraged me, I’m here where I am today because other people believed in me.’ I thought that speaks volumes because in a large system she would have just disappeared.”

Today, the obstacles are formidable, and TCU educators and administrators in teacher education programs are certainly worried. They are asking for help, but have not been heard. Collectively, their hope is to be able to collaborate and make their programs stronger, more effective, more culturally centered. They all share tangible needs, however the greatest challenge is being able to communicate with others in their position about the future of teacher education at tribal colleges. This is a vitally important conversation, as it could influence whether other TCUs will join in the effort to prepare future educators in their tribal communities. After all, who can deny that tribal colleges have made a great impact on higher education opportunities for American Indians? It’s truly remarkable when you consider the brief time they have been in existence. Teacher education at TCUs is well, but only because of the tremendous dedication of the faculty and staff, the commitment of the students who attend classes week after week, and the support of communities that envision a better future for their children.

Carmelita Lamb, Ph.D. (Lipan Apache) is chair of the Department of Graduate Studies and Distance Education at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota.

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