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5 Guidelines to Live by When You Have Native American Students in Your Classroom

Jackie Cope, Ed.D., Lead Teacher

You may have not realized it, but it is likely you have taught an American Indian student at one point in your career. Many times Native youth go unnoticed, unrecognized, and are highly misrepresented by negative stereotypes. The best way to know whether you have an American Indian or Alaska Native student in your class is to look at the self-identified race/ethnicity section of your school or district's attendance database or check your student's cumulative folder. Being aware of who is in your class is the first step to creating a welcoming environment. Assuming all students are the same and taking the colorblind approach can actually have a negative effect on our students of color. Once you identify whether you have a Native American student there are many guidelines you will want to live by.

Here are the top five guidelines I have identified for teachers who are still learning how to support Native American youth.

It is a custom in America to make eye contact with the person one is speaking to. However, in many American Indian tribes, direct eye contact is not always the norm. In many tribes, it is common to show respect by looking down while being addressed by an elder or higher official. In my personal teaching experience, I saw many student-teacher relationships meet a breakdown in a simple form of communication because the teacher demanded eye contact without realizing that was making the student uncomfortable and pushing the student outside of their culture norms of respect. Educators can pick up on the difference between disrespect and respect through simple mannerisms. For example, if a teacher wants to talk to a Native American student about an undesirable behavior and that student walks up to the teacher, puts their head down, and calmly listens to the directives, this student is displaying respect for the teacher. In this case, do not demand eye contact.

There are many intricacies involved in all American Indian tribes. These complex social structures have many ceremonies, rites of passage, and traditions for funerals, births, and other life events. These events do not necessarily coincide with the public schedule that has been influenced by Christianity. Instead of pointing out low attendance and suggesting families and caretakers bring the student to school every day, find alternatives to help support academics when students are not in the classroom. Provide reading material, missing work, make-up work, or opportunities to share about why a student was absent if they are allowed to share about the event that took place through art, music, dance, writing, poetry, or public speaking.

American Indian time is much different from American standard time. As educators, we refer to this as “think time.” Allowing your American Indian students think time is crucial. Imposing rapid answering or an immediate response can lead to answers that are not all the way thought through or just anything to get the conversation over with. If you want to have a meaningful conversation, let the student have time. This time can be anywhere from 30 seconds, to minutes, hours, days, weeks, or years. It is a common practice that storytellers in oral tradition do not give away the whole story in one sitting. Stories can take various amounts of time to teach and are dependent on the experiences of the listener receiving the story. American Indian students are patient in this sense and are deep thinkers. Many of them have been taught that all good things take time.

Educators have a platform in their classrooms. What educators say and do makes lasting impacts on the students they teach. Providing space for American youth to be who they are in a system that was created to assimilate them is a powerful tool. American Indians students were not supposed to be in your classrooms, it was written into law that American Indians were to be assimilated or killed. The fact that American Indians are here today must be celebrated and honored. One way to hold space for Native youth is to have an American Indian Club open to all students who self-identify as American Indian. Reach out to local tribes near you for support and have monthly meetings for American Indian students to come together and celebrate their culture and themselves. I allow all my Native Club students to do a presentation about their family, history, and tribe if they desire to do so. This helps create space for understanding and connecting. It also gets the student in a position of sharing who they are and helps them take ownership of their identity.

This should go without saying when it comes to educators. Educators are lifelong learners and researchers. Once you use the link below to find out what tribal land you are on, start researching that tribe. Try to find the tribe's official website. Many tribes have education resources available on their website. For example, my tribe, the Washoe Tribe, has a booklet on the history of the Washoe tribe. This text could be used for grades 4–12 for a variety of lesson plans and activities. Getting resources directly from the tribe ensures that you have a resource that is accurate.

Native American Club grades K-5 lesson on American Indians and the Horse. Taught to Jackie Cope by Lakota Elder Steve Tamayo in the summer of 2022.

Following these five guidelines is just the beginning of nurturing the American Indian student in your classroom. As you implement these guidelines, you will quickly learn numerous more guidelines you will want to incorporate into your teaching practices. If you are ever unsure about the information you collected, a text that is questionable, or a social situation has gone wrong, reach out to an elder, a tribal member, or continue to research to understand your situation. Please go to and find out what tribal land you are living and working on. This is the first step to acknowledging the original stewards of our lands and educating yourself about where you truly stand. Reach out to the education department of the tribe or an elder to start a line of communication.

Jackie Cope Ed.D. is a teacher, author, business owner, union activist and a Washoe Tribal member. She started and advises her school's Native Club. She teaches her Native students about her tribe, Washoe, and provides space for her students to learn about their own tribe(s).

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