“A good education can change everyone; a good teacher can change everything.”

That’s one of the many adages about the crucial role a teacher plays in a student’s life. It’s an even more impactful one when the instructor resembles the children who look to them for guidance.

 It’s why UNM’s Institute for American Indian Education (IAIE) is working to fill a critical shortage of Indigenous teachers in New Mexico’s 23 Native Nations. 

The Native American Teacher Preparation Program] (NATPP) is a new scholarship initiative from the IAIE which offers aspiring Native American educators a path towards a teaching career for Indigenous communities

Karina Todechine

“Even though there's a teacher shortage, we are able to approach it not just numerically, but dynamically from different perspectives. I think that's such a huge thing for this program to tackle, but I mean, we're doing it,” NATPP Administrator Karina Todechine said.

 NATPP’s foundations began with IAIE’s ongoing efforts to recruit Native people to the teaching profession. They were brought to the forefront after the New Mexico Indian Education Act revisions.  This act was updated in 2019 following the landmark case, Yazzie/Martinez vs. The State of New Mexico.  A judge ruled  the state had failed dismally in providing equitable education for all New Mexico students. In that ruling, one of the key areas for improvements highlighted was the importance of Native American teachers working in Native communities. So, the New Mexico Public Education Department gave the NATPP the green light, along with $250,000.[GM5] 

“That was a lot of work. It just didn't happen overnight,” Associate Professor in LLSS and Director of the Institute for American Indian Education Glenabah Martinez said. “I had been working on this project for about four years prior to us getting funding.”

UNM undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in this program experience a specialized education focused on Indigenous history, teachings and beliefs, fully funded.

“Having Native teachers with a critical consciousness of understanding the history of education in terms of it being a very much of a white man's project, is the foundation of this project,” Martinez said. “If we have an epistemology, a curriculum that is very Western-based, or very Eurocentric, we're not going to be making changes.”

 There’s a lot to be said, Todechine says, about why New Mexico is the perfect state for a program like this to begin.

“The foundations of Indigenous education in New Mexico are very unique. We are also one of the states that has the largest population of American Indians,” she said. “It's really important for us to help students who are in this program understand that.” 

One of the program’s pride points is its unique Saturday sessions. Accomplished Indigenous educators come and speak to students about their career paths, lived experiences, while offering answers and advice.

“We're having these conversations like ‘what are the barriers, why is there a teacher shortage?’ and then giving our students the tools to evaluate them,” Todechine said. “Even though our students might not be doing their field experience in a school that has a lot of Native students, we're starting to realize that just being a Native teacher is something that has value.”

The NATPP provides a plethora of resources to its cohort besides its bulk scholarship component. That includes mentorship, research, professional development inside and outside the classroom, as well as assistance with the PRAXIS test and the Language, Literacy, and Sociocultural Studies master’s program completion. It even takes away the worry of licensure and test fees, and covers costs of Indian Education-focused conferences.

“After working with the students and seeing how much of a difference having access to test preparation materials makes, I think this is something that just blew me away. I think that's making a world of difference for them,” Todechine said.

In addition to the program’s financial support and career growth, the NATPP has a special role in inspiring future generations of Indigenous youth, and giving back to the communities students grew up in themselves. It even goes back a step further than those enrolled at UNM. 

“Faculty are able to share additional opportunities with them, and I think that it really ties back to a lot of these Indigenous knowledge systems where you where you're mentored and you speak with elders not just in the community, but in your field. I think that's very helpful for students,” Todechine said. 

Johns Hopkins University has found a positive impact on graduation rates, for students of color, when they have teachers who look like them. The connection built on identity and appearance creates a deeper bond, and motivation to learn and achieve. 

“We need teachers in certified positions not only as role models, but advocates for our kids,” Martinez said. “That’s being advocates for the children, for the families and the community members in those settings where they might be making a decision.” 

Preparing  more teachers to excel in Indigenous communities and Native-serving schools, then, could have an impact on the lower graduation rate Native students experience. That’s 65% compared to 75% for high school diplomas, and 9% compared to 20% with college degrees.

 “We're trying to build their disposition, as historically conscientious and politically conscientious teachers. This is for Indigenous teachers to not just recognize how to teach language, arts or math, but how to incorporate an indigenous perspective into those content areas because that's where we're missing the link." – Glenabah Martinez

The NATPP also provides a  role in trying to undo the untold damage left behind by the Indigenous Boarding Schools which began in the late 19th century. These infamous schools attempted to strip hundreds of Native students of their language and culture, and are currently under investigation by the Department of the Interior.

“It's been like 250 years since 1776,” Martinez said. “It took hundreds of years for the systems that exist to be where they are right now. That's what this is about. It's preparing them with the real challenges of what it means to be Indigenous in New Mexico, and

Glenabah Martinez

recognizing the racist past and racial hierarchy and how that continues to operate.”

If there’s anything else left to justify the dire need this program fills, it’s the numbers.

Nationwide, there are an estimated 3.5 million K-12 teachers in the U.S., but under 1% of them are Native and Alaska Native. Here at the state’s largest school district, Albuquerque Public Schools data reports 10% of its students have tribal affiliations, despite only 1.2% of teachers employed identifying as Native American.

Even though the NATPP is filling the quantitative need, it’s much more than that.

“They are working to increase their knowledge across the board. Our students are not just benefiting indigenous students. They are also making a difference in public school settings and even beyond that,” Todechine said. “The group of students that we have this year really do want to take what they're learning here at UNM back to their own Native communities.” 

“We're looking for changes in the dispositions of teachers, so it's very small and it may not be realized for a while. We're just trying to do our best, not only to increase the actual number, but also focus on the quality of teachers that we're putting out there,” Martinez said.

Martinez and Todechine are spending this semester working with state lawmakers in the capitol for additional funding for this program. An increased amount could add money for teachers’ classroom supplies, along with of course, more teachers. 

“In reality, I think that representation is only going to go upwards from here. With that, I think people are going to realize the value of programs like this, which has the foundations to spur growth in several areas of the state,” Todechine said.

Interested applicants can see the requirements and learn more about the program at the Institute for American Indian Education.