Indigenous teachers program aims to combat teacher shortage in tribal communities

NAU’s Preparing Indigenous Teachers for Arizona Schools program trains teachers for tribal communities.
Published: Oct. 26, 2023 at 6:05 PM MST
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NAVAJO NATION (3TV/CBS 5) — There’s a national teacher shortage and Arizona ranks near the top with almost 3,900 vacant positions. This can greatly impact Indigenous communities who teach their culture along with the curriculum.

Teachers on the Navajo Nation say they’re hiring people from outside the reservation to fill teaching jobs, creating challenges for students who don’t speak the same language and feel disconnected from their culture.

Tanya Tso is a single mother and is now raising her granddaughter. For the past 15 years, she’s been a teaching assistant in the Navajo Nation. “Being a single mom, I’ve never really pushed forward to keep my education going,” Tso said. “But now that my children are all grown up and in their own, I decided OK, let me try.”

She’s one of 21 Indigenous people enrolled in NAU’s Preparing Indigenous Teachers for Arizona Schools program. They’re halfway through the two-year program that will put them in classrooms within reservations across the state. “It provides a pathway for paraprofessionals, educational assistants, and other people working in schools serving Native American youth in the state of Arizona to become teachers,” said Angelina Castagno, Professor and Chair of the Department of Educational Leadership.

One of the biggest advantages for students in the program is that classes are all online, so they can continue to live and work in their communities. “That’s why I really said, ‘I can do this,’” Tso said. “I can continue to work and continue to support my family and myself.”

While Indigenous kids make up 4% percent of students in our state, Indigenous teachers represent only about 2% of Arizona teachers. “We designed the program specifically because we’d been hearing from community leaders in native nations around the state that there was a need,” Castagno said.

There is a need for learning in the classroom that goes beyond a textbook to connect with their roots. “We want our kids to carry on our traditions, our culture,” Tso said. “With me coming in, I connect with the students more because I use my language to teachers. Everything that I do within the classroom revolves around our culture.”

The second group of students just started classes this month. They’re expected to graduate in the spring of 2025. Tso graduates in June and she’ll be the first in her family to earn a degree. “I want my family to see that if mom can do it, I can do it,” she said. “If grandma can do it, I can do it.”

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