HAYS-LODGE POLE, Montana—When Aloha Shortman asked her sixth-graders to find Italy on a world map during a social studies lesson last August, they couldn’t do it. One student’s finger landed on Brazil. Others grew bored and restless. Shortman quickly shifted gears, searching for a way to make a lesson on the Roman Republic relevant to a group of American Indian students in a remote Montana community.
“What about the Law of Twelve Tables?” she asked, referring to the foundational Roman legislation. “What does this remind you of, in our culture? What do we have that’s like it?”
Several hands shot up. “The tribal code?” the first student answered correctly.
“Exactly,” she said.
After 11 years teaching, Shortman has a seemingly instinctive gift for redirecting a lesson if students aren’t responding. But if you ask her what makes her a great teacher, she discounts natural ability, experience, or training. First and foremost, she cites her status and cultural heritage as a American Indian.
“The students here really have a lot of trust issues because of things that have happened to us,” she says. From the mid-19th to the mid-20th century, American Indian families were forced by law to send their children to government-sponsored boarding schools, which were often far from home and run by assimilationist white educators. Many white teachers physically or sexually abused their students, and that historical abuse, combined with modern-day discrimination, colors how American Indian children view white teachers.
Across the country, America’s teaching force grossly fails to mirror an increasingly diverse student body. For the first time in the country’s history, more than half of public school students are nonwhite, while the most recent figures show that 82 percent of their teachers are white. The Center for American Progress reported last May that almost every state has a sizable diversity gap in the classroom.
In recent years, a handful of Montana districts have been trying to change that, recruiting more teachers like Shortman to instruct a group that’s often overlooked in conversations about teacher diversity, yet potentially has the most to gain from positive improvements: American Indian students.
Though every other major ethnic group in America has seen improvements in students’ reading and math scores in recent years, American Indian students’ scores haven’t budged. Experts point to the lack of teacher diversity as one potential explanation, and on some reservations, school leaders have become increasingly convinced that hiring more American Indian teachers like Aloha Shortman could help their struggling schools succeed. They believe that even the most sensitive white teachers who arrive on their reservations can’t do as much as American Indian teachers who share their students’ culture. American Indian teachers, they reason, might also be more likely to understand issues that affect so many of their students, such as intergenerational poverty, substance abuse, and suicide.
“My obligation is to hire the best teachers, hoping that we would get American Indians,” says Margarett Campbell, Hays-Lodge Pole’s superintendent. “Because they’re going to be invested if they know the students will be their neighbors.”
The percentage of American Indian teachers in Montana has barely increased since the mid 1990s—rising from 1.9 percent in the 1995-1996 school year to 2.3 percent today. Yet many teachers and administrators are optimistic about the future of American Indian education in Montana. Denise Juneau, a member of the Blackfeet tribe, was elected as Montana’s superintendent of public instruction in 2008, becoming the first American Indian person in Montana to win a statewide election. And in the tiny communities of Hays and Lodge Pole, there has been a significant increase of American Indian teachers: In 1997, only 38 percent of the district’s teachers were American Indian, but that percentage is now 78.
These efforts raise a question that resonates throughout the country: How much does a teacher’s race, class, and culture matter in the classroom? Do American Indian students need American Indian teachers in order to succeed?
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