Tips on working with AI populations

In the summer of 1999, well before my requirements for my Master’s Degree in Education, and therefore my licensure to teach, would be fulfilled, my wife was hired to coach a collegiate volleyball team four hours from where we were living and I was going to school.  Initially I figured I would have to remain behind for at least a semester in order to complete my degree (heck, I hadn’t even student taught yet), but upon further investigation, I discovered that the state of Montana allowed for a provisional license that would allow you to attain licensure and then have three years in which you could complete your degree requirements.  I chose seek my provisional licensure and immediately started searching for a teaching position in the region of where we would be moving to in north-central Montana.  I figured that cold-calling school in the middle of June was not going to get me very far, and the first half of the day proved as such, but after exhausting all of the opportunities in the immediate vicinity of the town we would be living, I expanded my search to the closest towns in the area.  Three phone calls later, I called the superintendent of Box Elder Schools, and he was as surprised to hear from an English teacher looking for a job as I was to find that there was actually an English teaching position available this late in the hiring cycle.  After discussing my situation, we scheduled a meeting for a couple of days later when my wife and I planned on being in the area.  I could hardly believe my luck, but what happened next nearly deflated the bubble of excited I was building.

I called my advisor/mentor to see if he could put together a quick letter of recommendation, and when I told him where I was applying, his response was, “Box Elder, huh?  Looking for  a baptism by fire are you?”   My response was, “What’s that supposed to mean?”  What he let me know was that Box Elder was a reservation community that consistently ranked near the bottom of state’s schools in standardized test scores and graduation rate, and that the disciplinary incidents there were extraordinarily high.  As my heart began to sink, my internal optimist kept telling me that thing would be just fine.  Hey, you’ve got to start somewhere, don’t you?  With no other positions available in the area, I wasn’t exactly blessed with a lot of options, so I told myself to just give it a chance.  My excitement was still there, but it was now spiced up with a little dash of apprehension and a pinch of fear.

Two days passed, and the meeting was upon me, so I showed up at the 4B’s café to meet with the superintendent, dressed in my best and armed with a whole notepad full of questions.  When he met me at the restaurant, my first impression of him did not exactly bode well for alleviating my apprehensions.  He was heavy set man in his sixties, dressed in old, worn-out jeans, a scraggly t-shirt, and he looked like he hadn’t shaved in at least a week (his normal attire I would come to find out later.)  The first question out of his mouth was, “How much do you know about our school?”  After informing him of the little I really did know, he began a litany of things he felt I “needed” to know before deciding to begin my career there.  His first bomb was that the school had had five English teachers in the last five years.  The second was that discipline write-ups had been over 800 over the last school year in a school of around 100 students.  He did add that that was down from over 1100 the year before!  He was entering the second year of a three year contract, and this was his primary focus.  My thoughts were now becoming, “What am I getting myself into?”  I may be an English teacher, but I know enough math to understand that averaging eight write-ups for every student in the school was not a desirable thing.

I’m not going to say that being a 6’4”, athletically built man that could coach football and basketball got me the job, but I’m also not going to kid myself into thinking they didn’t play a role either.  This superintendents philosophy was one that discipline had to come before the learning could take hold, a philosophy that I came to find out was right on target.  I spent the rest of the summer preparing myself to teach, armed with all the vim and vinegar of anyone fresh out of college ready for that first job, but I’m not going to lie, I wasn’t sure my education in education had prepared me for the adventure I was about to partake in.  Needless to say, it really didn’t, so it’s a good thing that my survival instincts were strong, and my fight overcame my flight.

The journey I would embark on would be the most challenging, yet the most rewarding experience of my life.  I learned much more than I ever dreamed of teaching, and most of it was nothing that a college course could ever do justice to.  Whether you want to call them aphorisms, or just observations, the following are many of the lessons I have learned as part of my experiences of teaching on the reservation.


Don’t expect less of your students, even if they do.  For many of these kids, their whole lives have been lived having lowered expectations based upon perceptions by the world around them.  If you allow the students to live down to those expectations, guess what?  They will!  On the other hand, if you are the one that is pushing those students to transcend the negativity and challenging them to be more than even they think they are capable of, the rewards will be immeasurable, both for your students and for you.

Respect lives on a two way street, and the students have the right-of-way.  Every teacher that I’ve ever seen fail in teaching on the reservation was one that came in thinking that respect was something that could be demanded of the students without reciprocating it.  American Indians are a people of great pride, and if they feel they are not being respected, they will not show it in return.  This is not to say that the students are in charge and demanding respect, but there has to be a balance.

Reservation culture and American Indian culture are two entirely different things.  Reservation culture is something that was created when whites began displacing American Indians from their homelands and sequestering them onto parcels that were often far removed from their native homes and often devoid of the staples that allowed them to maintain their culture as they had practiced it before the settlers arrived. American Indian culture is the most beautiful, caring, and welcoming culture I have ever experienced.  It honors and respects families and education, and shuns the use of alcohol and drugs.  It rewards hard work and despises gluttony and laziness.

Positive in = Positive out.  American Indian students have hopes, dreams, and aspirations just like everyone else, and we as teachers must work to foster and reinforce them within our students.  I ban words like can’t and try from my classroom because they are cop-out words that allow for failure.  One of my greatest  pleasures as a teacher is to take students that don’t believe they can and keep pushing them until they can.  The reward is that much greater and the impact on the child is almost immeasurable.

ALL kids want to be safe.  For many of our students, school IS that safe place, so it is our responsibility to make sure it remains that.  It is the place where they know they will be fed, they will be warm, and they will (hopefully) have someone looking out for them.  We have to be that open door for many of our students that have had so many doors closed on them throughout their lives.  We have to be that person that stops to listen and offer help when everyone else has turned their back on them.

If you are white, you really don’t have a clue what the lives of these students are really like, so don’t pretend you do.  There’s a big difference between sympathy and empathy when it comes to things like racism and prejudice.  No matter how much people believe they think they can know or understand what a child is going through when faced with such experiences, if you have never been the recipient of such hatred first hand, you really don’t know.  What you do have to be is the person that helps to reinforce the fact that that type of behavior is not acceptable and also to preserve the part of the child that is most affected in such circumstances, their self-esteem.  We have to be that positive beacon in the sea of negativity, but pretending to truly understand when you really don’t has the potential of being even more detrimental.

You will be accused of being racist.  If you are a person that is outside the race of the group that you are , experience has shown me that this accusation is usually brought about by the family of a lazy kid.  This that rears its ugly head when a student is covering up some sort of shortcoming.  In my first situation, I was confronted by a student’s mother who was expressing her son’s concern that I was being racist towards him because I called on him to answer a question that I “knew that he didn’t know the answer to.”  My response to this was, “And how is it being racist to single your son out of a class that is comprised of all American Indian students?”  After having no response, his mother was much more open to listening to my concern about her son’s failure to pay attention in class.  From that point on, that mother and I were on the same page, and that relationship continued on down through two more of her children that would be my students in later years.

As a teacher, don’t be afraid to be yourself.  I grew up being taught mostly by teachers that presented a certain persona as a teacher, but one teacher in particular was always exactly who he was.  He told jokes and sang and danced and didn’t do so behind a façade, he did it all right there for all of us to see.  It was so easy for us to be ourselves as well when we were around him, and I always told myself that if I were to become a teacher, that is exactly what I would be as well:  myself.  Little did I know that I would end up spending the majority of my career teaching on the reservation and this strategy was hands down the single most important strategy I had for connecting with my students.  The biggest thing necessary for any teacher on the reservation is gaining a level of acceptance, not just within the school environment but also within the community, and the most effective way of doing so is to make yourself visible within the community and allow people to get to know the real you.

You will offend people through your ignorance of culture and environment.  The greatest strategy for overcoming your ignorance boils down to two things: education and communication.  If you are going to work in an environment that has a predominant culture other than your own, it is YOUR obligation to learn about that culture, and often the best means of doing so is through communicating with the people of the community, especially the elders.  When people in the community, especially your students, see you making an effort to participate in their culture by attending such things as pow-wows, community events and even simply sporting events, they gain an appreciation for the fact that you are willing to see where they come from.

You will gain a new understanding of family.  The definition of family for American Indians is not the same definition you may know or understand.   Many of the students I taught were being raised by Grandma or Auntie, and they had come to identify their cousins as brothers and sisters.  Often, I would have students that were being raised outside of any biological family connection and the family that was raising them was the family they identified with.  Another very interesting concept of family comes about with name identity.  By law, a school must identify a child by the name on their birth certificate, but that is not always the name the child chooses to identify with, for a number of different reasons.

You will become involved in situations that will make your blood boil with anger.  Inevitably, if you work at a school on a reservation, you will become a witness to the ugliness of prejudice that many of your students face on a never-ending basis.  I constantly took my students to activities out within the local community, as well as out into the region and often out-of-state, and it never ceased to amaze me the “first impression” that would follow as you escorted a group of American Indian students.  The stares, the moving of your group to the back of the restaurant, the following of your students when they were shopping at the mall, and sometimes even the not-so-subtle refusal to even let you into a place of business.   As a usually outside observer, I would become enraged every time I would witness such blatant prejudice, but, sadly, my students would often just shrug it off with a level of acceptance that showed that this wasn’t their first experience with such attitudes.  u given the chance, though, my students’ behavior served to tear down many of these preconceptions through their politeness and respect.

You will become involved in situations that will make your heart burst with joy.  I recently received a note from one of my former students that literally brought a tear to my eye.  It was an invitation to this girl’s graduation from college, which in and of itself doesn’t really seem like a real emotion stirrer, but knowing this girl’s life circumstances, it truly was just that.  You see, I first met this girl as her advisor when she was a 13-year-old 8th grader that showed up to the school with her 28-year-old mother.  Did I mention that this girl was also four months pregnant? After visiting with them, my commitment to her  became making sure she stayed in school and graduated from high school, something that no other person in her family had ever done before.  Not only did she do so, but she was the valedictorian of her class, standing on stage with her four-year-old son at graduation.   Her note simply said, “Hey Handley, just wanted to let you know I’m graduating from Northern tomorrow. Couldn’t, and probably wouldn’t have done it without you.  Thanks for being there.  Say hi to your family.”  And that is why I am a teacher.