OKREEK, S.D. - Teaching in one of the same classrooms she sat in as a student decades earlier, 46-year-old Crystal Night Pipe could have left Todd County in search of a higher paying position, but she chose to stay in the community where she grew up.
The lead teacher at Okreek Elementary School, one of nine elementary schools in the Todd County School District, Night Pipe is working on a second master's degree through distance learning while she serves as an administrator at the small rural school.
Night Pipe teaches in a classroom of sixth- and eighth-grade students preparing to make a leap into high school 16 miles away.
In a community where there are no businesses and just a post office, the school serves as the center for the community with parents frequently volunteering and attending extracurricular events. Night Pipe's connection with her community is deep.
Her journey to become a teacher wasn't an easy one. She found herself overwhelmed when she was bused to Todd County High School, away from relatives and all that was familiar to her. A shy student, she said she feared she would be a victim of frequent fights at the high school. She dropped out when she was 17.
A year later, she began working for the school district as a teacher's aide. At first, she said she didn't like children, but later found her job exciting and she was enticed into the education field. She began to take classes. Although she didn't receive college credit, she did get a pay raise which helped her pay for college.
She helped the district write math and science standards which earned her college credit. Interested in becoming a teacher, she enrolled in classes at Sinte Gleska University and graduated with a bachelor of science degree in education. In 1994, she received her master's in education.
Night Pipe, who has worked at the district for 27 years, began working as a certified teacher 10 years ago at Happy Valley. She taught at the rural elementary school for four years before being transferred to Okreek elementary.
She served as a National Aeronautics and Space Administration ambassador and worked for NASA for two summers in California at the Trident Research Center. Working with American Indian educators from across the nation and Canada, she found their goal of integrating culture into curriculum a universal.
"We talked about incorporating culture in education. We all had the same thoughts, but we did it differently."
The educators from different tribes each brought their stories of the roles different animals, seasons and people played in their tribal cultures.
Still committed to early exposure to cultural elements in the classroom, she often looks for elders willing to share Lakota culture with her students.
Growing up in a time when very little of her culture was brought to the classroom, Night Pipe candidly admitted she is still learning.
Her master's thesis explored bringing culture back to the children.
"If we give these kids back their language and their culture, they will know who they are and respect their culture."
Integrating culture into classroom studies is as much about heightening self-esteem and teaching children respect for themselves and their community as about heritage and tradition, Night Pipe said. And, integrating cultural elements into curriculum is challenging.
Even when elders come to talk about culture, they some times refuse to share some of the more specific information about certain aspects.
Night Pipe said a man who addressed one of her classes about medicinal plants told the students a rare healing plant was available only in their area of the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation. However, he wouldn't tell students which plant it was.
That story illustrates how opportunities to teach children fully about the culture are missed, she said.
During a recent interview, Night Pipe was preparing for a visitor who was to teach her students how to craft tribal regalia, an art which escaped her during her youth.
She searched archives across the region including those of the universities of South Dakota and Nebraska to bring cultural enlightenment to her classrooms.
Receipt of a five-year, Title VII grant to focus on teaching the Lakota language thrilled her. "I was never so happy in my life," she said.
The $100,000 grant allowed her to pursue her passion of studying the culture by helping her students learn the Lakota language through a variety of hands-on experiences.
"We have a drum group. They built their own drum"
Taught by an experienced drum maker, students tanned a hide and stretched it across the drum.
Each day, classes begin with the flag and honor songs, Night Pipe said.
Her connection to the area where she grew up also has made a difference because parents are more comfortable in approaching the school, making communication and expectations more easily expressed.
"It really does make a difference. I don't know if it is because I'm an Indian or I'm related. I would say it is because they are comfortable with me and they know me," she said.
"We get 95 percent participation for family nights for example."
But what really keeps Night Pipe at the aging elementary school with its peeling paint and small classrooms are the children. She can look at any number of higher-paying jobs in the region, but said her home is most important.
"The reason why I received my education is because I wanted to stay here and help my relatives, family and community. I would never think about leaving."
And, teaching isn't just a daytime job for Night Pipe who spends many after-school hours helping students with an assortment of projects.
"Sometimes they are with me all day and all night. Just like a bunch of little ducklings," she said.
Giving those students the tools to enrich their lives and their interactions with the people in the community is reason enough to remain, Night Pipe said.
"I'm always going to be here, so I better do it right now. I'm always going to be here."
Her favorite subjects in school were reading and English. Though she has come to particularly enjoy teaching math, her most favorite is science which she likens to "cooking in the classroom."
"I like reading and I have my students do a lot of reading," she said.
If she could change anything about her surroundings, Night Pipe said she would opt for longer days in the classroom, a bigger school building and greater flexibility in what she teaches.
"I would make longer days. It just seems you just started doing things and all the sudden you have to go home."
Night Pipe said people interested in the profession should be prepared to work hard and be willing to depart from a schedule.
"Be prepared to work, be prepared to be flexible. Your job is never done and you have to keep students challenged."
Her own challenge was raising two sons while working and going to school. She was determined to pursue her profession even when it meant little time for her children and few moments for herself.
She recalls how she often took her children fishing or to the park to allow herself time to read assignments while the two boys played.
"My boys suffered. The hardest part every single day was I got so tired. I had to have the money and the education."
Night Pipe remembered sitting at the kitchen table at 4 a.m., sometimes studying all night before packing things up to head to work.
She said her boys benefited from watching her study and work. "They saw the importance of education."
Night Pipe often calls the high school to check on how her students are adjusting to the move from their sheltered elementary setting to the high school environment. With pride she remembers going to commencement exercises for the first group of students who attended her classes. Since then hundreds of students passed through her classrooms.
"If I sat down I could write down every name of every child I taught."
Night Pipe is a true pack rat, keeping every possible resource. Though the years, she has acquired a box of momentos, including artwork she hangs on the walls at school each season.
"Everywhere I go I buy something I can use in the classroom."
While her small school shows its age and space is limited, Night Pipe says she has resources available that are the envy of teachers in other districts.
"What they tell me is we have more advantages than they do. They can't believe the computers we have or the construction papers we use. Each year we get $300 to decorate a classroom while they often get $50 or less. We're pretty fortunate to have all of this," she said.
Night Pipe watches young teachers arrive and leave each year largely because the community has few entertainment resources for young adults. Higher salaries and more things to do during their leisure lure many teachers away from the small schools, she said.
"A lot of people want to come and teach here, but they don't want to live here because there is nothing to do here," said the dedicated teacher who finds every spare moment of her time filled with students, family and friends.