Q&A: New Initiative to Recruit American Indian Teachers

WASHINGTON, September 12 - Native American teachers are scarce, but a new initiative should help to add to those dwindling numbers. Patrick Herrel, senior recruitment director at Teach for America, is working with the new American Indian Teach for America Initiative. 

Before joining Teach for America, Herrel was a member of the Teach for America corps, where he taught history and social studies to high schoolers in Charlotte, N.C. According to Herrel, "Being a teacher was a truly transformational experience that shaped my perspective on the achievement gap that exists in this country, and it led me to pursue a career focused on expanding educational opportunity for all children." 

The following is an interview with Herrel: 

TNS: What inspired the new American Indian Teach for America Initiative, and what is it specifically targeting first? 

HERREL: Native children currently experience some of the highest levels of poverty and are given limited opportunities to succeed in the classroom and in life. Teach For America recently launched a Native Achievement Initiative to help address this inequity and grow our commitment to Native American and Native Hawaiian students. 

Through the Native Achievement Initiative, Teach For America seeks to impact thousands of at-risk Native American students. Our goal is to recruit thousands of talented young leaders to teach in Native-serving school systems that lack sufficient human capital. In doing so, we seek to create a network of individuals with the credibility and knowledge of Native issues to foster long-term education reform. 

TNS: Teach for America's projected five-fold increase in Native American students by 2015 is quite large - how do you expect these numbers to be met? 

HERREL: Our strategy is two-pronged. First, we seek to increase the percentage of Native individuals who join Teach For America. To achieve this goal, Teach For America recently overhauled our Native recruitment strategy to focus more heavily on building key relationships with Native community leaders to help us identify talented individuals who might be strong candidates for Teach For America. 

After just one year of implementing our new strategy, the percentage of Native individuals who joined Teach For America has nearly doubled. This signals to us a remarkable opportunity as we continue to place greater emphasis on recruiting talented Native individuals. 

The second prong of our strategy is to increase our impact on Native student populations. By 2015, we look to more than quintuple our reach to 56,000 Native children per year (nearly 10 percent of the national total). To achieve this goal, we first seek to grow to scale in the regions where we currently serve Native student populations (South Dakota, New Mexico and Hawai'i) and in regions in close proximity to Native populations. 

We also are exploring opportunities to expand to new regions to serve additional Native communities. We continue to build relationships with Native leaders across the country, as well, to engage their guidance and support in our efforts to ensure every student receives an excellent education. 

TNS: How long do individuals tend to stay with Teach for America, and is it important for that time period to change? 

HERREL: Teach For America corps members commit two years to teach in urban and rural public schools and become lifelong leaders in ensuring educational equity and excellence for all children. Of the 20,000-plus Teach For America alumni nationwide, two-thirds remain in education, including 450 who are school principals or superintendents. 

TNS: What benefits has Teach for America noted from individuals teaching on reservations? 

HERREL: Teach For America places corps members in Native communities in Hawai'i, New Mexico and South Dakota. In these three regions, approximately 280 Teach For America corps members impacted more than 11,000 Native American students during the 2009-10 school year alone. 

Research over time from institutions such as the Urban Institute, Mathematica and most recently, from the University of North Carolina, has conclusively shown that Teach For America corps members are effective classroom teachers. Last year in New Mexico, where 75 of our corps members impacted roughly 10 percent of the Native population, the Public Education Department announced that Native students made the most substantial academic growth of any subgroup on the state's achievement test. Additionally, principals who hire our corps members year after year have an overall satisfaction rating of 95 percent. 

TNS: What efforts are being made to reach out to tribal officials by Teach for America? 

HERREL: Teach For America is working to establish relationships with tribal leaders and broad partnerships with Native groups to support our initiative. Currently, we have established relationships with tribal leaders such as the Laguna Pueblo tribe in New Mexico to connect with their scholarship recipients every year. 

We have formed similar partnerships with many other tribes such as Jicarilla Apache, as well. As the Native Achievement Initiative gains momentum, we are eager to continue cultivating partnerships with more tribal leaders and organizations across the country. 

TNS: You've said that due to national recruitment (in an Argus Leader article), college students who may have grown up on Oklahoma reservations felt no connection with tribes in other states - how does this hamper Teach for America's goals? 

HERREL: Although a Native American Teach For America corps member may have personal ties to their tribal community, they may or may not identify with other Native communities. If that individual is motivated to further our mission to end educational inequity by serving on a Native reservation, we will support and encourage their desire to do so. 

Likewise, if that individual would prefer to serve their two-year commitment in a classroom in another Teach For America region, we also will support the corps member's preference to serve where they believe they can have the greatest impact for their students. 

We know from our research that any corps member with the right motivations and capabilities has the potential to significantly expand the academic and life prospects of their students. In every region where our Native corps members teach, we believe they add a diverse perspective to their classroom. 

In turn, our corps members gain an understanding of the unique challenges facing low-income communities, which they carry with them as alumni in their efforts to advance educational and social change across a variety of sectors. 

TNS: How, if at all, is Teach for America encouraging teachers to choose reservation schools or promote the need for new teachers in these areas? 

HERREL: Every Teach For America corps member is given the opportunity to preference the regions where they would most prefer to serve their two-year commitment. These preferences are based on personal factors determined by each individual corps member. Teach For America believes that corps members from diverse backgrounds can help further our organization's mission in any community where they choose to serve. 

We find, however, that as corps members are more educated about the unique need for strong teachers in rural areas, their enthusiasm grows to serve in these areas. As a result we have focused our efforts on building awareness about the challenges and opportunities associated with teaching in regions such as New Mexico and South Dakota. 

TNS: Have you received any student feedback in terms of the benefits of having a Native American teacher? 

HERREL: Over 20 years of observing our best teachers, we have seen that teachers who share a similar background as their students have the potential to have an additional impact on their students because they are uniquely positioned to serve as models of the potential for success in education and in life. We know from research and from anecdotal feedback that students often are able to relate to a teacher who shares their racial, ethnic or socioeconomic background and gain inspiration from their teacher's achievements. 

TNS: Though the number of Native American teachers is rising (to 24), what is the projected Teach for America 2015 goal? 

HERREL: By 2015, we aim to grow from 200 corps members serving Native populations in three regions to approximately 1,200 corps member serving Native populations in at least six regions. 

TNS: Is there a line between teacher and advocate, or are they becoming rapidly synonymous? 

HERREL: Teach For America corps members serve students growing up in low-income communities, often with limited access to basic resources. Our corps members are advocates for their students - both for their personal well-being and for their ensuring they attain an excellent education. Beyond their classroom experience, our alumni go on to become lifelong advocates for education and social reforms. 


Zaher Karp is a freelance writer based in Madison, Wis.