Jara Colelay grew up playing teacher. 

Colelay, her three younger sisters and their cousins used to gather at Grandma’s house and file the chairs and tables into rows of desks. She stood at the front, notepad in hand, asking the class questions like “What is five plus two?” 

Students would come and go to lunch and to recess, and Ms. Jara would write up a hall pass in case anyone had to leave the classroom. 

When she got to the University of Arizona, teaching was no longer a game, but a reality she is now close to achieving. 

Colelay is one of 11 students currently participating in the Indigenous Teacher Education Program through the University of Arizona College of Education. The five-year-old program is training teachers how to support students in Tribal communities while increasing the number of skilled Indigenous teachers in Arizona. 

According to data from the Arizona Department of Education, in 2021 the gap between Indigenous students and teachers in public state schools was about 45,000 people: 45,667 native students to 1,151 native teachers. 

In Indigenous school districts such as Baboquivari in the Tohono O’odham community, roughly 20% of teachers are Indigenous, according to the program’s website

Those discrepancies cause a disconnect between Indigenous students and their culture. 

“I feel like joining this program in general helped me see my identity for who I am, because I used to be afraid to be Native American,” Colelay said.

On a one-day trip to her aunt’s classroom at Leman Academy last semester, Colelay practiced a science lesson with elementary school students. They shot their hands up, itching to learn more about her. “What do you do? Where are you from?” they asked. 

She shared her background with the class. Colelay, 21, comes from the Fort Apache community; her mother is Diné and her father is White Mountain Apache and Salt River Pima.

Jara Colelay poses in the ITEP lounge at the College of Education on Oct. 16. Colelay is a senior at UA and will begin student teaching in Spring 2024. Credit: Noor Haghighi

Colelay was raised in Whiteriver, but she considers Seven Mile her home. Here, where her biological grandmother was also the “neighborhood grandma,” children played along the streams and ditches in her yard. They built bridges and waited for their parents to pick them up after school. 

“I’m Native American too!” a little boy in her aunt’s class replied to Colelay. He was ecstatic to see someone like himself studying to be a teacher. Colelay’s aunt often reports to her that the little boy wants to see her back for another lesson.

Colelay had no such experience in primary school in her homeland, where most of her teachers were White or Filipino. 

In 2022, the Arizona Department of Education’s Teacher Input Application found that approximately 1,100 teachers identified as Native Indian or Alaskan Native in public schools according to the Arizona Office of Indian Education. 

This is 2% of all public school teachers in Arizona. 

“Not seeing the representation of Native teachers back home on my reservation was motivating me to be a teacher,” Colelay said. “Now that I’m older, I want my sisters to see themselves in their teachers.”

Colelay said she believes many Native Nations have an apprehension toward higher education because of the history between Indigenous peoples and boarding schools where students were forced to assimilate to Western practices through educational and religious teachings and sometimes abuse. She said they also often don’t receive resources and support at the university level. 

The UA Fact Book notes that just 2.5% of total UA faculty identify as Native American. The number has increased, however, a whole percentage point since 2017 when it was just 1.5%. 

The percentage of Native students has also steadily increased since 2014 from 2.8% to 3.7% as recorded in Fall 2023.

Jeremy Garcia and Valerie Shirley smile in the ITEP lounge in the College of Education on Nov. 9. Garcia and Shirley are the directors of the program. Credit: Noor Haghighi

Teachers as nation builders

Indigenous Teacher Education Program co-directors Valerie Shirley and Jeremy Garcia are both associate professors of Indigenous education in the Department of Teaching, Learning, and Sociocultural Studies. Shirley is a Dean’s Fellow for Indigenous Education in the College of Education at the UA. 

Shirley, who is Diné, and Garcia, who is Hopi and Tewa, grew up in their homelands and continue to research education in Indigenous communities. Last year, the two published the book “Indigenizing Education: Transformative Research, Theories, and Praxis.” 

The combination of their lived experiences and research have shaped the framework they use to prepare their teacher candidates, Garcia said.

Those frameworks are: Teachers as Nation Builders; Indigenous Knowledge, Values, & Language; Critical Indigenous Theories and Pedagogies; and Justice-Centered Education.

Colelay said implementing Indigenous knowledge into the common curriculum is especially powerful for her. 

“The curriculum now is like ‘You have to go by the book,’ but ITEP is teaching you that ‘No, you don’t have to do that.’ You can bring your own teaching and culture into the classroom,” she said. “You don’t have to have students count to one in English. You can do it in Apache or Navajo.”

Colelay is currently pursuing her practicum in a kindergarten class at Santa Clara Elementary School. Only one of her students is Native American, but she is still introducing traditional tribal toys and vocabulary to the class.

Shirley and Garcia, like Colelay, explained the generational trauma of boarding schools that has been passed down to Indigenous youth. And alongside those internal conflicts are the external pressures that Indigenous youth face, especially when moving away from home.

The program financially supports students by funding their tuition, fees, housing, a living stipend and travel, according to their website. Socially, it can still be a challenge.

“It took me so long to get used to living here — just liking the city in general,” Colelay said. 

Colelay wondered whether she belonged and what she was doing away from home.

Leaving home is something that Shirley identified as a recruitment challenge for the Indigenous Teacher Education Program. 

“A lot of the time, the potential candidates have cultural responsibilities in their home communities,” Shirley said. “They have families, and so they would have to leave those cultural responsibilities and sometimes uproot their families to move to Tucson.” 

Garcia added that a substantial portion of the program’s potential candidates are older students who want their children to finish high school back home. 

“There’s a variety of factors that come into play, so we’re learning from that. We’re learning from conversations with other leadership,” said Garcia. 

In September, Shirley and Garcia met with the leadership of the White Mountain Apache nation. They concluded that students are interested in joining the education program, yet their local responsibilities keep many home.

Sometimes a role model can help. 

Colelay’s aunt and UA alumna Alisia Valenzuela, who lives in Marana, was a big help with her transition from White River to Tucson. She took her out to dinner and the movies, and guided her when she was learning how to navigate the Tucson roads. 

As an Indigenous teacher herself, Valenzuela continues to inspire Colelay’s journey through education. 

“I see so much of me in her, and she told me the same too,” Colelay said. 

Establishing a thriving Indigenous education program

When the Indigenous Teacher Education Program started in 2018, Shirley and Garcia set a goal to graduate 50 students within 10 years. 

They achieved that goal in five years.

In graduate school during her teaching years, Shirley came to realize the glaring discrepancies between Native teachers and students through critical teacher prep programs. 

Without Indigenous knowledge in classrooms, she said, Indigenous students were missing out on an opportunity to preserve their culture, fight injustices and rise above stereotypes.

Shirley and Garcia began their journey when they hosted a meeting inviting all 22 Native tribes in Arizona for discourse at the UA College of Education — the first meeting of its kind. The tribes consulted about their vision of the ideal Native teacher and learning environments.

One month later, they received a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Indian Education to officially form the Indigenous Teacher Education Program.

The couple presented teaching as an essential way to preserve native knowledge and values and stressed the importance of empowering youth to sustain their Indigenous identities.

The program prepares teachers to develop curriculum around topics like social and environmental justice: a few things that Indigenous youth are often stripped of, Shirley said. When teachers enrich their class discussions with these lessons, they are serving their communities and inspiring their students to do the same, she explained.

Elaina Leon has posted Hiaki greetings and vocabulary in her classroom at Johnson Primary School. She graduated ITEP in 2021 and is set to graduate with a master’s degree in 2025. Credit: Noor Haghighi

The future of Indigenous teachers

Third graders in Elaina Leon’s class at Johnson Primary in Tucson hop up the rainbow-colored steps to Room 5. They greet Ms. Leon and their peers in the endangered language of Hiaki: Lios Enchim Aniavu. 

Leon grew up away from her Native community of the Pascua Yaqui people in a non-traditional setting, but she always felt compelled to reconnect with them. When she heard about the Indigenous Teacher Education Program during her UA College of Education interview, Leon saw an opportunity. 

She graduated from the UA in 2021 as a member of the Indigenous teacher program. Now, while studying for a master’s degree, Leon is implementing the four pillars in her own classroom at Johnson where Principal Rosaisela Cota calls her a “superstar.” 

“It’s all coming together: me learning about myself, and me learning about how to teach Indigenous youth and then us all working together,” Leon said.

Right now, she is helping the Pascua Yaqui develop curriculum for a new early childhood center. 

Leon spends her summers preparing students in the Pascua Yaqui community for their next academic year. They engage in math and English-language-arts classes as well as culture classes that involve field trips and hands-on activities. 

She sees these youth growing their own Native knowledge, she sees the rising number of Indigenous teachers, and it gives her hope.

Corrections & Clarifications: An earlier version of this story misstated the source of the grant funding. The story has been updated.

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