Glenabah Martinez knows firsthand the benefits teachers and students share when they are from the same community. She wants to help fast track Indigenous college grads to teach in public schools.
Martinez (Taos/Diné), taught students from Taos Pueblo but was immersed in the culture and traditions that she shares with those students outside the school.
Now, in her role as a professor at the University of New Mexico, she wants to expand that opportunity for future educators fresh out of college who can be part of reforming public education in the state and modeling a path toward maintaining traditional cultures while becoming leaders.
“We have to not only teach them how to read and write and do things in the Western way, but we have to recognize that they’re getting a strong cultural education at home as well,” she said.
Martinez is looking for recent Native American college graduates or people who are about to finish their degree to take part in a program that will provide them a smooth path to a teaching license with firsthand experience teaching a class in their home community.
“We’re trying to recruit people to become teachers that not only are going to teach but are going to teach in their Native community,” she said. “So we’re talking about teachers to work in rural areas.”
The program is open to Native American students enrolled in UNM’s Department of Education as well as Natives students with at least a bachelor’s degree in a field that can be useful in a K-12 classroom.
Think history, math, music, the humanities and sciences.
The university’s Institute for American Indian Education will facilitate instruction and give students the opportunity to meet education professionals working on expanding Indigenous representation in the classroom, as well as mentorship from Native American education leaders. The program is funded by a $250,000 grant from the New Mexico Public Education Department.
This is just one step in the process to reform public education in the state, Martinez said. She hopes to build off bringing more teachers into tribal communities to further enhance how public schools educate students about Native American issues.
“I would revamp the whole (teacher) certification program that everybody – whether you’re from Clovis, or you’re from Akron, Ohio, and you want to live in New Mexico – you need to know about Native education,” Martinez said, “because you’re probably going to have Native students in your classes.”
Until that happens, she is dedicated to getting students in front of teachers who share lived experiences and an understanding of their traditional culture.
State leaders mandated to reform public education by the court judgment in the Yazzie-Martinez case are facing a teacher shortage but also a major gap in educators representing the students they teach. The program Martinez is recruiting is a response to that lawsuit.
Specifically, the court said that students living in poverty, who have disabilities, who are learning English as a second language and Native Americans were most at-risk because of failures of the state’s public education system.
Native American students make up more than 10% of the total public school population statewide, but Indigenous teachers only account for 3% of the workforce, according to the New Mexico Public Education Department. In predominantly Native American school districts, such as those on tribal lands, the number does go up but is still lagging behind non-Indigenous instructors.
Education officials argue that students perform better when their teacher is representative of their community.
Martinez said teachers from tribal communities understand cultural bonds that might conflict with a student’s classroom participation.
“Native teachers from your own community, they know you, they advocate for you, they support you,” Martinez said. “They totally understand what it means to be an educated Mescalero Apache person.”
For instance, traditional days for ceremonies are not always in line with the school calendar, she said, which can force an absence or disciplinary action if a teacher does not know the community customs that can take a student out of the classroom for days.
“That recognition is only that, that can be given by fellow Native people from your community, because they participate,” she said. “They see them participating in the cultural life of the communities.”