PHOENIX (AP) – Shannon Begaye did not aspire to be a teacher. She thought she would go into law for the money, then into computers for the fun. Mostly, she wanted to live in the world outside of her tiny hometown on the Navajo Reservation.
Yet, here she was in Ganado Primary School, teaching learning-disabled kindergartners.
She pointed to her mouth and told her charge, “Eric, you’ve got to talk.”
The 6-year-old looked at the sign-language alphabet that runs across the wall of the classroom. They might have to communicate by sign, but Begaye is determined that Eric live up to his promise.
By all accounts, Begaye will be a superior teacher when she completes her education, her roots sunk deep in the reservation. It’s a place where students often struggle to learn from teachers who do not understand Navajo culture.
Begaye, 29, had twice left the reservation. As it turned out, she needed her Navajo family to help find her gift. Now, the reservation needs her.
Ganado lies about 300 miles northeast of Phoenix on the Navajo Reservation, which spills over parts of three states. At last count, Ganado was home to a little more than 1,500 people. One gets there by driving long stretches through high desert broken by red-cliff mesas.
But Begaye felt most isolated when she left the reservation.
She first left in 1998 when she moved to Mesa.
Metro Phoenix was intimidating, especially to a recent high school graduate who was working temporary jobs and going to community college. Eventually, she found reasons to go home.
She left again in 2006 to live briefly in Hawaii, where locals treated her as a fellow Native American. She loved it but could not always shake Navajo prohibitions.
“For us, we have to be real cautious due to our culture,” Begaye said.
Her father warned her to pray to the ocean before going in: It’s considered to have a life force. The constant offer of Hawaiian shellfish was a problem because Navajos believe shellfish can make you spiritually sick.
“That was the hard part about being out there because I had to watch what I was doing, where I was going and what I was eating,” Begaye said. “Some people take it seriously, the culture, and my father is like that.” Her mother, Mae Begaye, was not surprised when her daughter returned.
“All Navajo children leave the reservation, but they always come back,” she said. “This is home.”
The adventures gave Begaye new confidence and perspective. They prepared her for what came next. One of the jobs she had found after high school was working as a teacher’s helper. People there told her she had remarkable patience with children, and she started thinking about pursuing education.
A friend told her to go see a professor in Chinle about a pilot Arizona State University program that paid for tuition, books and student teaching.
Most students learn about the program through word-of-mouth, though recruiters scour the reservation to find potential Native American teachers. The Navajos’ Chinle Unified School District was the first to launch the ASU program, called Project WIN, for “With Indian Nations.”
Reservations across the West are launching similar programs. Research shows that Native American children who live on reservations have unique learning styles and that it is easier to teach Navajos how to be teachers than it is to teach Navajo culture to Anglos.
“I have noticed, as a white teacher, these kids just respond better to Navajo teachers,” said Debbie Savage, a special education teacher who supervises Begaye.
In Chinle, 98 percent of students are Native American, but just over half of the teachers are Navajo. In the Tohono O’odham Nation, which will start the program this summer on its reservation near Tucson, nearly 80 percent of the teachers are non-Native American.
Many of the Anglo teachers in Chinle came to the reservation straight from college, said Franklin Elliott, a Navajo ASU instructor who coordinates Chinle’s program.
They come from Minnesota, Maine, Wyoming and places in-between. The culture-shocked teachers usually leave as soon as they can, causing rolling turnovers that affect curriculum, training and student performance, Elliott said. Some years, the district has had to hire as many as 75 teachers to replace fleeing non-Native Americans.
“It’s a whole different language and culture,” Elliott explained. “Not only is it remote, but about 98 percent of the population is Navajo. It’s the distance between places – all the little communities are separated by 10 to 15 miles. It’s how all the students have clan relations.
“One of the reasons (non-Native teachers) leave is they don’t immerse themselves in the local culture. They keep themselves outsiders.”
For Native Americans like Begaye, the teaching program is appealing. Like her students, she lives Navajo culture. Education provides some of the few professional jobs on the reservation. And, practically speaking, the program allows Navajos to earn their credentials without relocating to urban areas. ASU comes to them. “For most of my students, it’s very hard for them to leave because of family obligations and jobs,” Elliott said. “We’re looking at longevity for people here.”
Students commit to teach for three years at any U.S. school where the student body is at least 30 percent Native American.
Begaye’s innate Navajo desire to blend with the 14 other students made for a nervous start. The Chinle classroom’s laptop view of far-off ASU West, in Phoenix, was disorienting. “The first time I walked in, I kind of felt uncomfortable, like those other people are watching me,” she said. When the instructor asked questions, the students would hit the mute button, discuss it, and then go back on the live feed to give combined answers. It helped put Begaye at ease.
After the first week or so, she felt at home.
Three semesters later, Begaye faced her mandatory term of student teaching. Her mentors advised her to try kindergarten, where she could be creative. She teamed up with Roslyn Elliott, an Anglo woman who had come to Chinle to teach 14 years ago, became fascinated with the culture, and ended up marrying Franklin Elliott, the ASU coordinator.
Both Elliotts noted Begaye’s natural rapport with the children, but her fear of failure left her on edge. Still, by the end of the semester, more kids were achieving than struggling. Begaye decided to seek a master’s degree and found a job as a special education instructional aide in Ganado. Once again, she adjusted to the comfort, and the tedium, of home.
Begaye lives with her parents in a modest house layered with baskets and family photos. Her mother’s half-finished Navajo rug hangs from a handmade loom in the dining room, and a flat-screen computer system sits in the living room. Four other relatives live there.
Driving around Ganado in her beloved Chevy pickup, Begaye points to her grandmother’s house, the family’s ceremonial hogan, an admired aunt’s house. Her mother’s family has lived here for generations.
“I like the community here,” Begaye said. “People are all generous. They’ll greet you as your own relatives: ‘Hello, daughter.’ ‘Hello, grandma.’?”
ASU recruiters can lure Native American teachers like Begaye. In the end, teachers have to find their own reasons to stay.
Eric James, 6, gave Begaye her first taste of success.
Intelligent but non-verbal, he arrived in class hitting and kicking.
Still, Eric was drawn to Begaye. And she was drawn to him. She looked at Eric’s file and saw that he lacked written goals or objectives. She would rely on techniques she learned at ASU.
But first she had to reach him. “I came right out and I told him, ‘Eric, I’m here, and I’m going to teach you. But you need to listen to me. You have to learn to talk to me.’ Just going through that process built a bond.” Others noticed, too. For one thing, Eric no longer hits and kicks.
“It’s like I touched this child’s life,” Begaye said, sounding a bit surprised. “And he can trust me. I actually made a change in this child.”
She believes she has the key to reaching learning disabled children.
“It’s your personality and your ability to share yourself,” she said. “These kids can sense your thoughts and your feelings. It’s like they are inside of a shield. And the only way they can open up their barriers is if you’re willing to open yours.”
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