Where are the teachers? Last year, there were over 400 teacher vacancies in the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) school system, according to leaders within the federal agency. Tribal schools on the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations in South Dakota continue to receive an average of less than one application for every open position. This teacher shortage is a significant barrier for over 40,000 K-12 American Indian students attending the more than 180 BIE schools across 64 reservations.
The absence of diverse teaching talent—including Native educators— can close doors on academic and life opportunities before they can be opened, and limit the number of positive role models reinforcing students’ potential for college and career. As a result of this and other factors, we’re faced with some startling realities: the dropout rate of American Indian/Alaska Native students is twice that of their White peers, and less than half of Native students graduate from high school, compared to the national average of 86%.
Together, we can change this and give our Native students the high-quality, culturally responsive education they deserve. Tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) have a huge role to play in strengthening the pipeline of educators to BIE and public schools serving American Indian students. Each year we celebrate students graduating with a bachelor’s or master’s degree from the many quality programs offered by our 37 TCUs across the country. These graduates represent the future of our Native teaching force. Their knowledge of the community and culture—not to mention their geography—make them uniquely positioned to work in BIE and Native-serving schools.
Tribal colleges also serve Native students by offering their expertise to graduates from other universities, helping to inform their classroom practices. At Teach For America, we believe that all kids deserve access to an excellent education regardless of their zip code. We see committed college graduates and professionals from all walks of life, from backgrounds of both privilege and poverty, dedicating their time and talents to serving Native students as classroom teachers. Teach For America corps members in Native communities benefit from the wealth of experience and knowledge tribal colleges have to offer. For example, South Dakota corps members enroll in courses at Sinte Gleska University and Oglala Lakota College that focus on implementing culturally responsive teaching, and they learn and gain a deeper understanding, appreciation, and respect for the history of the community in which they’re living and working.
Tribal college graduates’ knowledge of the community and culture—not to mention their geography—make them uniquely positioned to work in BIE and Native-serving schools.
There are additional ways for TCUs to contribute to the teaching workforce in Native communities—and that’s where you come in. If you’re a tribal college student or alumnus, whether you’ve studied education or another field, Teach For America’s Native Alliance Initiative (NAI) could be your route into the classroom. Our NAI corps members teach across New Mexico, South Dakota, Hawai’i, Oklahoma, Washington, and Minnesota. Last year, our corps members collectively taught nearly 9,000 children from Native backgrounds.
The initiative is celebrating five years of working in partnership with tribal communities to provide an additional source of effective teachers, advance student achievement, and increase opportunities through culturally responsive teaching. Teach For America’s NAI has received formal resolutions of support from the Oglala and Rosebud tribal councils, and the BIE recognizes Teach For America as an additional teacher pipeline in all BIE-operated schools.
Our Native alumni go on to become lifelong leaders in the movement to expand educational opportunity in tribal communities. For instance, alumna Anna Berg LaDeaux is the assistant principal of Todd County Middle School in Mission, South Dakota, and former corps member Kristin Szczepaniec now works on culturally responsive teaching and Indigenous education management at the Native American Community Academy Inspired Schools Network in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
We’re grateful for the ways in which TCUs prepare and support Teach For America corps members, and are humbled to serve Native students and communities across the country. Together, we can bring more teachers into Native communities so every classroom and every student has a great teacher who understands them—and who works relentlessly to achieve and support the education goals and dreams for our students, families, and communities.
You can apply to Teach For America at https://www.teachforamerica. org/teach-with-tfa/how-to-apply.
Robert Cook (Oglala Lakota) is the director of Teach For America’s Native Alliance Initiative and a National Indian Education Association board member.