UArizona Program for Indigenous Teachers Will Expand With New Federal, State Funding

College of Education building

Sara Mae Williams almost didn't pursue a teaching degree.

In the fall of 2020 – as a first-semester transfer student at the University of Arizona, with credits from Tohono O'odham and Pima community colleges – Williams was leaning toward political science.

But then Williams saw a flyer for the Indigenous Teacher Education Program. The program, based in the College of Education, helps students studying elementary education tailor their curriculum to the unique needs of Native elementary students.

The flyer was a reminder, not an introduction. Williams had served from 2011 to 2019 on the board of the Baboquivari Unified School District in Sells on the Tohono O'odham Nation.

Valerie Shirley

Valerie Shirley

The program's founding co-directors, Valerie Shirley and  Jeremy Garcia, both associate professors of teaching, learning and sociocultural studies, had presented the program before the board during Williams' term. After seeing the flyer, Williams still wasn't sure the program was a fit, but enrolled to see what it was like.

It only took one class.

"The first class that I ever took with both Dr. Garcia and Dr. Shirley changed my mind," Williams said. "I knew for sure this was where I needed to be. Their approach to education, going about it by indigenizing education, was amazing to me. I finally felt like I was at home."

The Indigenous Teacher Education Program, or ITEP, will now be able to provide an academic home to many more Indigenous teacher candidates thanks to $2.4 million in new funding to recruit and prepare Indigenous future teachers around Arizona. The program has received $1 million from the Arizona Department of Education and $1.4 million from the U.S. Department of Education's Indian Education Professional Development program.

"The Indigenous Teacher Education Program is one of many ways the University of Arizona has committed to serving Native American students and communities throughout our state and region," said University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins. "This latest round of funding proves that the work that Dr. Shirley, Dr. Garcia and their ITEP colleagues are doing is having a real impact, and I look forward to seeing how this important program carries that work even further."

Teaching as a Form of Native Nation-Building

ITEP began in 2016 with an initial grant from the Indian Education Professional Development program with the mission of increasing the number of Native American teachers in schools that serve Native American students. ITEP has worked with Native American teacher candidates from the Tohono O'odham Nation, Pascua Yaqui Tribe, Hopi Tribe, White Mountain Apache Tribe, Navajo Nation and the Tewa community. A critical component of ITEP is building partnerships with various schools and Native nations.

Jeremy Garcia

Jeremy Garcia

"Such partnerships allow us to not only be accountable to them, but it opens opportunities to co-create innovative ways to engage Indigenous teacher education," Garcia said.  

To that end, ITEP teacher candidates are taught to incorporate Native cultures, languages and values into their curricula and teaching.

"Historically, when we think about educating Native students, it's been an assimilative process where students were taken from their families and homes and placed into boarding schools," Shirley said. "Through ITEP, we're working to revitalize and sustain Indigenous knowledge systems – the histories, cultures, philosophies and languages. The process is about reconnecting because, historically, it's been about disconnecting."

The ITEP program is available to Native students completing the last two years of a bachelor's degree in elementary education. The program helps teacher candidates get the final certification they need to be elementary educators. Many candidates come as transfer students from community colleges, while others are university students in their first or second year.

"ITEP at the University of Arizona has opened pathways for modifying an existing program to support the unique preparation of Native teachers," Shirley said. "The program is guided by a framework that elevates Indigenous teacher candidates to see themselves as teachers and Native nation-builders working to sustain the identity of Native youth and the goals of their respective sovereign Native nations."

ITEP programming includes talks by invited Indigenous knowledge-holders who support the sustainability of respective Native cultures and values, Indigenous language revitalization efforts, and tribal sovereignty.

Funding Recruitment, Retention and Expansion

The federal funding – $1.4 million over the next five years – will provide support for tuition and academic fees and expenses, such as books and technology, as well as living expenses, mileage to elementary school sites and certification fees for up to 15 teacher candidates.

The $1 million in state funding will provide support for up to 17 community college students who plan to transfer to UArizona and participate in ITEP.

"With COVID-19, financial constraints impacted those trying to complete associate degrees," Shirley said. "This funding will help support them."

The state funding also will help the program expand to allow certification for early childhood education, which includes pre-kindergarten to third grade. ITEP currently provides certification only for elementary education.

"The demand to increase the number of Native teachers and educational leaders serving Native students and schools has been evident across varying national and state reports on American Indian and Alaska Native education," Garcia said. "Considering national and state data regarding the low numbers of Native teachers in the past two decades, ITEP is contributing to meeting the goals of increasing the number of Native teachers serving Native students. However, we also recognize there is a unique process in preparation that honors the sustainability of our Indigenous identities while braiding opportunities for academic achievement."

Indigenous Teachers Empowering Youth

Before Kristy Pavatea entered ITEP, and later graduated with the first class in 2019, she worked as a teacher's assistant at Second Mesa Day School on the Hopi Reservation. While there, she found ways to incorporate Indigenous traditions into lesson plans – such as including connections to traditional Hopi food dishes in a math problem.

"That kind of turns something on in their brain because they're connecting to prior knowledge, and it really helps with their learning," Pavatea said. "I think it's in those moments where I asked, 'What more can I do to support these children and enrich them?' That's one of the biggest things that I found with ITEP. They are strong on Indigenous values and beliefs, as well as empowering Indigenous students to be knowledge-holders who activate and sustain generational change."

Pavatea now teaches fourth grade at Pueblo Gardens PreK-8 School in Tucson. She said she turns to her lessons from ITEP often to find ways to think critically and creatively about developing lessons that incorporate students' own traditions and values.

"When my students know who they are and where they come from, we're able to have rich discussions in our classroom," Pavatea said.

Williams also hopes to engage in those rich discussion and plans to return to the Baboquivari Unified School District – this time as a student teacher – in fall 2022.

"I feel like I need to go back and look at it through the lens of ITEP," Williams said.