Helping indigenous educators, paraprofessionals become state certified

By C. Brandon Chapman, College of Education

Thanks to two state grants, Washington State University is providing greater access for specific groups of educators to become state-certified teachers.

The grants come from the state’s Professional Educator Standards Board (PESB), which is responsible for oversight of the state’s teacher preparation, certification and continuing education. While there is a traditional route to becoming a teacher, such as through the College of Education’s teacher preparation program, PESB also has four alternative routes.

The first award, for $210,000, is a project called Ti’tooq’an Cuukweneewit AlterNATIVE Route. The project focus is uniquely on Indigenous educators, many of whom are currently teaching in language and early childhood programs within their Tribal communities. The immediate goal is to prepare 15 new teacher candidates, as well as prepare more Indigenous teachers long-term. That will include building a regional teaching certification program on the Pullman campus using Indigenous education models. The project includes collaboration with WSU’s current teacher preparation program, the Northeast Washington Education Service District 101, as well as the Spokane, Kalispel and Nez Perce Tribes of Indians.

The second award is for $140,000 at WSU Tri-Cities, and is giving paraprofessionals in the area an alternative route to becoming certified teachers. It’s a second grant award to this project, which was successfully implemented two years ago. It’s been especially important in high-needs areas where teaching shortages have been prevalent, such as bilingual education, English Language Learner and special education. Additionally, there are some geographic areas of the state that have struggled to recruit and retain teachers. The Tri-Cities area is one of them.

Using past experience toward certification

For both paraprofessionals and Indigenous educators, there’s a common denominator in what they lack to become state-certified teachers: course work and theory.

In a traditional teacher preparation program, the college students complete their course work, which includes vast amounts of theory in teaching practice, curriculum, classroom management and cultural-responsiveness. They are then placed in a school for practicum and student teaching.

These paraprofessionals and many Indigenous educators already have varying experiences in the classroom, including instruction with small groups of students. However, they don’t have the theoretical background that students with traditional training have.

Many incoming students, said renée holt, project co-lead of the AlterNATIVE project, “understand Indigenous ways of knowing, leadership and multicultural epistemology. What they might lack is some of the state-mandated formal coursework.”

Lindsay Lightner, coordinator of the Tri-Cities alternative route project, said their project helps resolve that issue.

“A project such as ours gives them the opportunity to take classes and get that theoretical background,” Lightner said. “It’s been beneficial for paraprofessionals to understand why they have been doing X, Y and Z in the classroom.”

Many paraprofessionals and Indigenous educators have taken some college classes, including teacher preparation classes, but weren’t able to continue and get the full state certification.

“This program has been nice for those who haven’t been able to make that jump toward being a teacher yet,” Lightner said. “It gives them that little boost to make it past the finish line.”

No placement needed

Many Indigenous educators and paraprofessionals don’t require placement into a teacher preparation program since they’re already in their home communities.

“We don’t have to go out and recruit people to move to the area,” Lindsay Lightner said, “instead we’re helping those who already have roots in the schools to progress toward state-approved certification.”

“Statewide, we’re not statistically recruiting a lot of new Native teachers because it was evident that individuals didn’t want to leave their communities to come to a residency program,” said Francene Watson, AlterNATIVE co-director. “But if they are able to stay in their communities, where they’ll end up anyway, it also was evident we might find many more interested in the field of classroom-based teaching. By creating a program in community, our preparation program grows in critical ways, as well.”

By promoting paraprofessionals to teachers, Tri-Cities project co-director Judy Morrison said, it has made things easier on those districts.

“The districts have had to do less recruiting to try and find certified teachers,” she said.

But there’s one component that might be more important — relationships.

Traditionally, once preservice teachers finish with their teacher preparation program and student teaching, the interaction between the program and the school districts end.

“This has really strengthened our partnerships with multiple school districts,” Morrison said. “The way the grant is set up, not only do we get money to support the project, but districts get money, as well. We depend on their support in the schools, which has led to really important conversations, and has led to stronger relationships and stronger partnerships.”

Fulfilling the call to action

Having educators who already know the needs of their respective communities is integral to the success of the whole educational system.

“These educators will know their communities best, so we’re not trying to force new ways of doing things at them, but rather build around their needs,” Watson said. “We’re using what we already have as a tool, but then developing instruction that works for the community.”

Moreover, because the community would best understand its needs, holt said it was a paramount duty of WSU to take part.

“I’m witnessing what’s happening in my Tribal community,” she said. “WSU has a responsibility as a land-grant university to promote the right kind of change. We’ve had individuals in the past who have tirelessly worked to promote the health and sustainability of Tribal education, as it relates to state regulations and teacher certification. But, to create a program that is innovative like this requires help from administration. We have that right now.”

A small change that could be a big change

Sure, an alternative route program that supports increasing the number of Indigenous educators is worthwhile. This first group of students – the “coheart” as holt calls them – is 10 strong. But, what it does long term is slightly harder to measure.

“Western education is a predominantly white system, but we’re experiencing a tremendous shift in the paradigm,” holt said. “We have been working to increase the perspective of all our teachers in the program to one of social justice where everything is being challenged. When you get a non-Western, Indigenous perspective, your students will immediately see the world differently.”

Preservice teachers and the non-Native students they teach will benefit from learning about what has not been taught in the last 500 years, holt said.

“When Native perspectives are taught, student learners at all levels (P-20) get education in a way that humanizes it and emphasizes compassion and empathy.

“Everything is being challenged right now, and the beauty of that is that everyone is going to benefit.”