Shaping Teacher Education to Meet our Distinct Needs

Danielle Lansing headshot

Danielle Lansing

This is the third post in a three-part MSIs Unplugged series on teacher education at federally-designated Minority Serving Institutions from the contributors to Teacher Education across Minority Serving Institutions: Programs Policies, and Social Justice, edited by Emery Petchauer and Lynnette Mawhinney. Authors will draw from their chapter to illustrate some of the important work happening in MSI teacher education programs. We hope this series helps move MSI teacher education into the view of both education scholars and the general public.

Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCU) across the United States were founded to specifically meet the needs of tribal communities through access to higher education and capacity building. More than half of TCUs include teacher education as part of their academic programming. At many TCUs, teacher education programs tend to have the highest student enrollment compared to other offerings. This is due to the motivation of tribal community members who seek to improve the education systems that directly serve their children.

In the past, tribal nations have been excluded from determining how their children might best be served. Generations of American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) families have experienced assimilationist curriculums that necessitated the exclusion of parents to be effective. Consequently, parents and community members have been left out of the equation and were expected to trust in the schools they sent their children too. As a result, many AIAN communities have felt the negative impact of unresponsive educational systems.

I remember the stories my mother told me when I was a child. These stories included being sent away to school as early as third grade. My mother left home to attend off-reservation schools hundreds of miles away from home. She was only allowed to come home during the summers. Much of what she learned was incongruent with the teachings of our family as she was expected to leave her culture at home. As a result, her home life and schooling were very disconnected. Unfortunately, her story is not an isolated one. I often wondered how much potential was lost as future community members experienced an education that could not be translated back into their communities.

Tribal communities continue to grapple with the loss of language and culture as well as the pervasive achievement gap. For many school systems that serve AIAN children, their focus continues to rely heavily on mainstream curriculum and remediation. Teachers trained in mainstream teacher education programs often learn very little about how to shape their curriculum to meet the unique needs of AIAN students. In order for a change to take place, a new cadre of teachers and leaders need to be developed. One that is ready to provide effective educational programs that support the unique needs of AIAN communities.

Part of why I was drawn to become part of the Tribal College Movement, was to participate in developing a foundation for educational sovereignty to emerge in tribal communities. It begins by partnering with tribal communities and including them in determining how educational programs, schools, early childhood centers, and teachers can be instrumental in solving the complex problems that impact student success. For many communities, this necessitates striking a balance with mainstream curriculum and culturally relevant curriculum. In order to develop teacher education programs that can train teachers to maintain a curriculum balanced with AIAN community needs, tribal voices will have to be heard.

As a TCU faculty member, I consider myself privileged to participate in a community of practice that includes AIAN students who represent the distinct needs of their communities. In the safe spaces of our classrooms, we are able to learn mainstream early childhood education concepts but also develop a discourse of how these concepts may or may not support the distinct traditional learning systems already present in our communities. We think critically about how mainstream educational concepts can be enhanced and modified to better address the issues in AIAN communities. These deep discussions come from a shared history that we bring to the classroom. I believe that it is within this focused discourse lies the beginnings of educational sovereignty and solutions to the complex issues that continue to challenge our nations.

We continue to learn that tribal communities are very unique. Generalizations can seldom be made across tribal nations. For teachers to be effective in AIAN communities, understanding these realities is of utmost importance. As a teacher myself, I remember going through a period of relearning each time I entered a tribal community. As a teacher who was trained in a mainstream institution, I don’t ever remember being taught how to enter a community through a learning perspective. I must admit, I felt that I knew what had to be taught. However, as I entered each of the four tribal communities I served, I learned that I was expected to support a great deal more than the academic needs of students. Luckily, I learned quickly that including parents and community members to “school me” on what they felt was important would serve me well. In retrospect, I would have been better off initially if I had entered the field with the expectation that, in addition to the delivery of curriculum, each tribal community also had its own needs that needed to be considered.

For tribal colleges, our missions explicitly necessitate partnerships with tribal communities. Our hope is to continue to work towards striking a balance between the mainstream curriculum and what is culturally relevant. In this way, our teacher education program continues to be informed by the AIAN communities we serve. Our hope is that we are always moving towards building our own systems. We are on that journey now.

Danielle Lansing is a faculty member in Early Childhood Education at the Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute (SIPI). She is a scholar and practitioner who has spent the majority of her career teaching the primary grades in Bureau of Indian Education and tribal contract schools in various tribal communities. Dr. Lansing’s research interests include Participatory Action Research in American Indian and Alaskan Native communities as well as Indigenous research methodologies. She is an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation and credits her family history as shaping her motivation to improve Indian education.

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