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   from the issue of March 29, 2007

Teaching rewarding, stressful for Native graduates


This is the last of a two-part series on UNL's Indigenous Roots Teacher Education Program. This story centers on students currently enrolled in the program. The March 29 story will feature program graduates who are teaching in Nebraska's Native American schools.

CLASSROOM TALK - Umonhon Nation School students Ricky Saunsoci (left) and Jasmine Tyndall (far right) listen as UNL student Haley Tuttle...
CLASSROOM TALK - Umonhon Nation School students Ricky Saunsoci (left) and Jasmine Tyndall (far right) listen as UNL student Haley Tuttle (center) and UNL employee Diane Ohlson discuss the college experience during a Jan. 4-6 service learning trip to the Macy, Neb., school. Photo by Troy Fedderson/University Communications.


Challenges don't miraculously vanish when students graduate from the Indigenous Roots Teacher Education Program. The current cohort's predecessors in the Native American Career Ladder program admit that adjusting to life as a full-time teacher has its ups and downs. Though many feel liberated by doing what they love - teaching - they also face workplace and professional stress.

Currently, 20 graduates of the Career Ladder program are teaching or working as administrators in Nebraska schools, which is the highest number of certified Native American teachers in the state's history, according to Nancy Engen-Wedin, director of the Indigenous Roots program. Following are two stories of life after graduation.

Long Road Home

The day Libby Webster graduated from UNL, she posed for a photo with about 30 of her relatives, who had traveled to Lincoln from all over the country. She was the first family member ever to graduate from college, and everyone wanted to celebrate her success and show their children what a college graduation looked like.

The road to that day was long and - to risk forcing a metaphor - filled with potholes.

Webster received her associate's degree from Nebraska Indian Community College, and from there enrolled in a Native teacher education program at Wayne State College. Since Webster already had two years of classes under her belt, she figured she would graduate with her teaching certificate in two years, and so she reluctantly committed to the 75-minute commute and signed up. Partway through the program, funding ran out and the courses were cancelled. By then, Webster had taken a significant number of credit hours with no certification to show for her efforts.

"It was so frustrating, I didn't even get to do student teaching," she said.

Instead, she returned to life as a homemaker in Macy, and prepared to move closer to relatives in Montana, so they could help with her children while she finished her degree. Around that time, she got a call about a new teaching certification program that would be established in Macy: the Native American Career Ladder. Classes would be held on the reservation, so students wouldn't have to travel to UNL. Though she initially thought the program - with its monthly stipend and paid practicum - was too good to be true, Webster applied and began classes that fall.

"Throughout those two years, there were times when it got really tough, to the point that I thought it's not going to work," she said. "At times I thought maybe I should just stop, but something would happen or an instructor would talk to me, and they helped me see how going through this was going to benefit me so much. I was lucky enough to feel close to them, so I could tell them how I was feeling, and they would help me with their support and encouragement."

"They always told me, when you walk across that stage in Lincoln you will not believe that feeling," Webster said. "They were right. I was crying... it seemed like a dream. You could see in my face how happy I was that day."

Webster graduated in August 2001, and began teaching fifth grade in Macy. Almost immediately, she noticed that drugs and alcohol repeatedly came up in her conversations with her students. They would ask, "How come we never see you out drinking?" She explained that she doesn't drink, but her students didn't believe her.

"They said, we see every adult out driving throwing beer boxes out their windows," Webster explained. "The kids couldn't believe that there were a number of older people who were alcohol and drug free. They thought drinking was part of being a grown up."

She started reading stories to her students that addressed how to say no to peer pressure. A few months later, she accepted a position with the Red Road Project, which raises alcohol and drug awareness in school aged kids. As part of that job, Webster trains high school students to be peer mentors and counselors to younger children.

"When I started the trainings, a lot of the kids didn't recognize the skills they had," she said. "We would list traits in class - flexibility, altruism, compassion - and I would point out examples of times I'd seen them represent those skills."

When the grant for her Red Road position ended, Macy Public Schools took over paying her salary. The positive effects of her work with the mentoring project have been significant.

"If this (Indigenous Roots) program hadn't come along, I was ready to give up on getting a teaching certificate. If I had to go to UNL to get degree, it would always have been too far. At that time, I thought, 'This is it, then. This is my life.' But then everything changed."

It's never too late

"I was married at 18 and started having kids right away, so I didn't have a chance to go back to school," said Karen Tyndall, a teacher in Macy. "When I was in my 40s and I had kids and grandkids, I figured it wasn't too late to change careers. I figured this was my chance."

When she started taking UNL classes, Tyndall had three children and eight grandchildren. Her situation was not unusual. Engen-Wedin noted that the first three graduates of the Career Ladder program had 17 children among them.

Like Webster, Tyndall and her family struggled to make ends meet. She had to quit her job to enroll in classes, and despite a stipend from the state and a salary from her part-time practicum, she and her husband nearly had their car repossessed at one point. But like Webster, Tyndall knew that sacrifices her family made to see her through the program would be rewarded in the end. Today, she teaches 16 rambunctious kindergartners in her small classroom.

Although she has achieved her career goals, Tyndall has faced a number of challenges as a teacher. Many of her students come from broken homes and families touched by alcoholism and drug use. Some have been pulled from her class to address special needs and learning disabilities. ADHD and other developmental issues are common.

Tyndall also has trouble getting her hands on appropriate teaching materials. Engen-Wedin provided graduates with $100 to buy supplies for their new classrooms, but the money can only stretch so far. Perhaps most significantly, Tyndall has yet to find a community of support among her colleagues at Macy.

"There was an early fear among non-Native teachers that we would take their jobs away, but that isn't really an issue," she said. "I'm the only graduate from my program in my area of the school, and the others aren't welcoming. I more or less stay to my room, so I feel like I am alienating myself from a lot of the other teachers. But they don't make an effort to include me."

Still, Tyndall recognizes that she plays an important role in the community and in the school.

"I think as a Native teacher I am more sensitive to what goes on in the community," she said. "If I see a student acting out, I can ask, 'who are your parents,' and that tells me a lot. I understand where these kids come from. I know their families. I know how to get through to them."

Returning home

Like Libby and Karen, many program graduates are now working in their home communities:

Edna McClure (Umonhon Tribe of Nebraska) is a first grade teacher at Umonhon Nation School in Macy. Amy Lapointe (Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska) is the director of the Headstart Program in Winnebago. Vernon Miller (Umonhon Tribe) is the entrepreneur and business teacher at the Umonhon Nation School. Kathy Holding Eagle (Mandan, Arickara, Hidatsa) is the secondary art teacher at the Umonhon Nation School. Lisa Casey (Winnebago Tribe) is the fifth grade teacher and Don Blackbird (Umonhon Tribe) is the seventh/eighth grade teacher at St. Augustine's in Winnebago. Blackbird is pursuing a graduate degree in educational administration at Creighton University.

Daniela Doenhoefer (Soboba Band of Mission Indians) is a substitute teacher at Winnebago Public School and is pursuing a master's degree in special education at Wayne State College. Veda Webster (Umonhon Tribe), formerly a kindergarten and seventh grade teacher at Umonhon Nation School, is now pursuing a master's degree in educational administration in Oklahoma. Renee New Holy (Umonhon Tribe) is an educational consultant working with Indian Education programs in Montana and Minnesota. Barry Webster (Umonhon Tribe) serves on the Umonhon Nation School Board and Umonhon Tribal Council. Donnelle Saunsoci (Santee Sioux Tribe of Nebraska) is the K-12 Language and Culture Teacher at Santee Community Schools.



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