Hope for High Need Schools: Are We Listening?

I recently attended a Tea for Teachers with Acting Secretary John King, along with teachers from across the country who work to address Native American students’ unique needs. We were invited to introduce ourselves, including our tribal affiliation. As the introductions looped around the table, I was keenly aware that I have no tribal affiliation. I’m not even Native.

So, why am I here?

In South Dakota, many teachers ask the same question. In our high-need, reservation schools, we often have less than a single, certified applicant for each opening and find ourselves “getting by” with long-term subs much of the year. South Dakota salaries have vied for last place for decades, and our reservation schools aren’t “rural”; they’re “remote.”

More importantly, our Native students are taught by very few certified, Native teachers. They may have a local Lakota classroom aid helping out, or a volunteer Unci (Grandma) program, but the teachers are mostly white. Many of those teachers are asking, honestly, sincerely and with great love for their students, “Why am I here? I don’t know their stories; I fumble with their customs and their language. Why am I here instead of someone better suited to this community and these students?”


Educators discuss the unique needs of Native Americans students during Tea for Teachers gathering at ED.

At the Tea, we talked about certifying more Native teachers at the state and the National Board levels. We discussed language-immersion programs and curriculums embedded with cultural elements. We heard about models informed by traditional Native-teaching approaches. At the center was the idea of Self-Determination. South Dakota’s historically oppressed communities, still grappling with the audible echoes of U.S. “Kill the Indian to Save the Man” educational policies, need to be empowered now.

Why am I here? Partly because I want to stretch the typical one-year stint for a new teacher in a reservation school into two years… or five… or a lifetime of growing into the fabric of a community as authentic as pure-prairie soil or winter-blue South Dakota sky. But, first and foremost, I’m here to say we must listen

The dark history of colonialism begins and ends with non-listening. In our high-need schools, there is time for speaking, facilitating, nurturing, admonishing, researching, scaffolding, conferencing, and maybe even for testing… but none of it is worth one-allocated cent if it doesn’t begin with listening.

And so, this Tea for Teachers has given hope; staff at the Department of Education listened to these stories of our Native students and communities. Teach to Lead helped our WoLakota Project when someone said, “Hey… we ought to listen to teachers!” And after I returned to South Dakota from our Tea, I read words about the new, perfectly named Best Job in the World grants:

…a nationwide effort to dramatically transform the job of working in a high-need school in order to better attract and retain talented, committed and accomplished teachers…to support comprehensive, locally-developed, teacher-led efforts in our highest-needs schools.

Someone’s been listening.

Dr. Scott Simpson teaches South Dakota Indian Studies to teachers at Black Hills State University in Spearfish, South Dakota, works with high-need schools, and is a Learning Specialist with Technology and Innovation in Education.