Culturally Relevant Education in Tribal Settings

by: Anna Baldwin

First, some facts: most teachers are white. In Montana, if you are teaching students of color, those students are probably Native American. Eleven percent of Montana’s school-aged population are tribal members or descendants, while about 90 percent of teachers are white. This means that most reservation teachers are different ethnically from their students. Also, although some white teachers do grow up on the reservation and remain to teach there, many teachers have not experienced reservation culture. They bring their own experiences and expectations of student behavior and priorities to their classrooms, as all teachers do. However, these expectations often do not match what they find.

I focused on designing teaching units that were tribally specific and culturally appropriate, using tribally authored texts and critical thinking strategies to induce children’s’ analytical skills. I was careful to facilitate as much classroom work as I could in place-based learning opportunities and wrote unit plans for the state department of education and other agencies. Several of these projects were published and a documentary was made of me teaching one of those units over about six weeks. These products reach beyond my classroom every day and help other teachers figure out how to fit themselves into a community to which they do not belong but which they serve.

Besides the benefit to others, it was important for my students to see themselves in the curriculum. If we could read a local Native American author’s work, take a field trip to the setting, and maybe even talk to the author herself, it would be a much richer literary experience.

It took years for me to begin understanding the place where I eventually settled and have continued to teach. Then, I had to embrace a truth: I would never belong to it. This reservation does not belong to white people, no matter what their land deed says. Accepting this fact helped me to place myself in a service role in everything I did: teaching, directing federal programs for my district, even winning awards, including the tribes’ distinguished educator award. All these activities are in service of the people of this community, to which I do not belong. Making my peace with this essential fact of fife helped me adopt the best attitude for humility and building community trust.

Anna Baldwin served as a high school English teacher on the Flathead Reservation in Western Montana for 20 years before transitioning to the grants manager position for her district in 2019. Anna has led professional development in national venues and served as a Teaching Ambassador Fellow for the U.S. Department of Education in 2016-2017. She is the recipient of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Distinguished Educator Award and is the 2014 Montana Teacher of the Year. Read Anna’s full story in A Sacred Space: 12 Expert Teachers Stories of Resilience, Success and Leadership or learn more at the Center for Educational Opportunity.