A higher education is a tool for a better life. But for education to also be a portal for social change in Native communities, a one-size-fits-all approach is not sufficient.
A new guide for educators titled Teacher Education Across Minority-Serving Institutions: Programs, Policies, and Social Justice, edited by Emery Petchauuer and Lynnette Mawhinney (Rutgers University Press, 2017) shares successful teaching practices and teacher education programs from minority-serving institutions (MSIs) across the country. These institutions not only serve communities that are diverse from each other, but they themselves are also different from each other. Yet they share one common thread: MSIs are educating a new generation of diverse teachers to serve their communities and transform the way their students are educated. As a result, they are creating social change and transforming communities in the process.
Contributors explore the work being done by and for educators and students at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs), for Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander (AANAPISIs), and at Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs).
In the TCU arena, two TCU professors’ work are included in this thought-provoking body of work. They have contributed their research about TCUs and the importance of forging relationships with community when creating education programs that serve both preservice educators and children enrolled in early childhood programs.
The book is divided into two sections; Part One: Community Connections and Justice-Oriented Teacher Education; and Part Two: Program Responses to Contemporary Demands.
In short, the Native approach to teaching, in which educators collaborate with parents and the tribal community to integrate unique Native knowledge and cultural understanding into curriculum, best reflects Native community values. The approach is also proven: it grounds children in their identity, building healthy approaches to learning and healthy relationships, and creates positive validation of community ideas, helping students to succeed academically and socially.
For readers unfamiliar with TCUs, the Navajo nation established the first tribal college in 1968 to provide a place-based education experience steeped in language and culture for its community with the understanding that the mainstream model was not working for its people. The founding of the first TCU was the beginning of an education movement in Indian Country. Other tribal communities followed suit in the spirit of self-determination to create higher education institutions to serve their communities. Today 37 TCUs serve American Indian communities across the United States, located on or near Indian reservations, 34 of which are accredited.
In “Learning from the Community: Innovative Partnerships That Inform Tribal College Teacher Education Programming,” Danielle Lansing, an instructor at Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute (SIPI), a TCU in Albuquerque, New Mexico serving tribes across the nation, details how community-based partnerships created a strong, culturally based early childhood education curriculum and pre-service teaching opportunities.
Lansing was the Project Director the Wakanyeja “Sacred Little Ones” Early Childhood Initiative funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation through the American Indian College Fund. The program brought together tribal colleges, communities, educators, and families to address early learning disparities in Native communities to create tribal college readiness and success by third grade. SIPI was one of four tribal colleges chosen for this pilot program.
In 2003 SIPI received approval from the Higher Learning Commission to offer an associate of arts degree in early childhood education, responding to the needs of local tribal communities’ Head Start programs to elevate teacher quality with education and credentialing. In 2010 SIPI opened an early childhood learning center on campus to offer students childcare while serving as a lab school for students enrolled in the early childhood education degree program. Lansing notes this situation offered the perfect environment for creating community-based education partnerships, curriculum and learning materials infused with Native culture, language immersion, and implementing teacher training using these methods and materials through the Wakanyeja ECE Initiative, which commenced in 2011.
For parents with children in mainstream education institutions, Lansing shares that participation in their children’s education is taken for granted, but Native parents were deliberately excluded because they were seen as an impediment to their children’s assimilation. She argues that consulting parents is paramount in defining community culture when creating education programs in order to develop engaged tribal citizens.
SIPI engaged parents of students enrolled at the early childhood learning center through a Photovoice Project. Using photographs, parents answered research questions that asked them to reflect upon community needs and strengths, and to integrate the community’s needs and aspirations for the knowledge they believe their children need to become a healthy Native American. The project allowed parents to act as change agents for their children’s education, many for the first time.
Through the Photovoice Project, parents shared the need for their children to know about their tribal heritage and cultures, their connection to ancestral homelands, kinship connections inherent in tribal communities, the value of Native teachings and knowledge to provide children, and the ability to create harmonious relationships. Parent’s voices helped shape the early learning center’s curriculum, and the project opened an ongoing parent-teacher dialogue.
The Photovoice Project also provided preservice teachers with new opportunities to implement a locally created curriculum, experience fully developed practicum experiences and curriculum that integrate language and culture, and develop strong connections with teachers and community members by sharing special skills or volunteering at community events to become a responsive Native teacher.
Lansing concludes that TCUs are ideal institutions for creating community-based partnerships between tribal nations and families because of their unique missions and tribal communities. These partnerships strengthen early childhood education by creating innovative education practices and culturally infused curriculum that is relevant to their learners while preserving and honoring their cultures and sense of place, and positively impact preservice teachers by building their capacity to create change in their communities.
In “The Future of Teacher Education at TCUs: A Talking Circle of Education Warriors,” Dr. Carmelita Lamb, a former TCU a former TCU chair at Turtle Mountain Community College (serving the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Reservation in North Dakota) and current Chair of Graduate Studies and Distance Education-University of Mary, Bismarck, North Dakota, shares how intertribal and inter-institutional collaboration in the Native community helped empower more Native students in their educational journey without requiring them to leave their communities. She illustrates how collaboration and grassroots-based education has transformed how TCUs implement higher education to meet the unique needs of their communities.
Using the Native tradition of Talking Circles, over a period of five months Lamb interviewed education department chairs to deepen relationships and discern the current status of education programs at TCUs, current challenges, and educators’ vision for teacher education in Indian Country. Her interviews “create a picture of the tribal college system, the cooperative participants in Indigenous higher educational programming, and the future of tribally controlled colleges and universities…”
Lamb delves deeply into the relationships at TCUs between department chairs, faculty, and staff; their many duties; and a shared mission of promoting student success with a focus on “deeply personal relationships” with students. She says this is a distinguishing difference between TCUs and mainstream higher education institutions.
In her study, Lamb works with institutions offering education programs. Sinte Gleska University is the first TCU to offer a four-year bachelor’s degree in human services and elementary education in 1979. They were followed by nine other TCUs. In 2013-14 these 10 TCUs conferred 81 bachelor’s degrees in education, a success that is not small, Lamb says, due to the challenges Native students face in getting an education.
Lamb identifies the concerns and successes of TCU department chairs, including inadequate funding to maintain courses of study, the need for greater technological resources, and disparity in federal funding opportunities across institutions for TCU teacher education programs. Students also continue to face transportation challenges, lack of or shortage of student housing, and funding issues that prevent enrollment or completion, she says.
It is not surprising to anyone involved with TCUs that the same programmatic and institutional successes Lamb’s interviews reveal are the same Lansing identifies as the underpinnings of SIPI’s early childhood education program success. These include building trust-based relationships with everyone impacted by the mission and vision of American Indian higher education; dedication to Native culture, heritage, and language and bringing cultural relevance into the classroom; fostering a collective spirit which honors “the Native understanding of family, connectedness, respect, and validation;” and promoting the strong relationships between student and teacher.
Teacher education faces an uncertain future at all MSIs due to federal accountability programs and today’s changing political landscape. But the work of TCUs has proven, as underscored by Lansing and Lamb, that collaborative and culturally based curriculum have been proven to help Native students succeed while furthering “…the efforts of their ancestors to pursue a better future for all Native people.”