Andrea Thomas teaches third grade in Shiprock, New Mexico, which is part of the Navajo Nation. She has been teaching for eight years and is a Teach Plus New Mexico Policy Fellow. As a member of the Navajo Nation and the Navajo Nation Board of Education, Andrea believes it is important to incorporate Diné (Navajo) culture into the classroom whenever she can.
“I do that by tying in our teachings, culture, philosophy, and other things that I am aware of,” she said. “From the first time I stepped into the classroom, I felt as a Diné teacher I had to pass on something that was taught to me within our cultural teachings and places: Navajo people get together to do things, value one another, it’s always been about your community or the people around you and how you interact with them.”
For example, the colors blue, yellow, white, and black have sacred meaning for the Navajo people and also represent the cardinal directions. She incorporates those principles on a basic level for her students throughout the day.
“It doesn’t go into depth because I know not all families practice that, but it’s part of being Navajo and going to school in the Navajo Nation. I feel like students should at least be offered the opportunity to learn because maybe their parents don’t know and a lot of [our culture] gets passed down from generation to generation.”
A day of COVID teaching
Like so many other marginalized groups, the Navajo Nation has been hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.
‘We have families that are living in multi-generation homes, with large families,” Andrea explained. “So it has created a lot of stress and anxiety for families in deciding how they wanted to send their kids back to school.” Because of that, Andrea’s school has been virtual since March. There was a one-week period where the school attempted a hybrid method, but COVID cases increased and they were forced back to virtual learning.
Andrea, who has two sons who are students in the district, teaches from home. Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays are instructional days. Pre-COVID, Wednesdays were early-release days for the students, but they are now used as flexible days.
“Since the pandemic, we have used our Wednesdays as a PD day, so we’ll have staff meetings, collaboration, PLCs,” Andrea explained. “Since September, our third grade has used those Wednesdays as a way to contact our parents and have a parent-teacher conference weekly.”
The disruption of last spring required Andrea and her grade team to take stock and evaluate where their students were academically and what they needed to learn this year.
“We didn’t want them to be online for a long time each day,” she said. “We wanted to keep it short and concise and really look at the needs of each of our students and because not all of them have access to technology, we really had to be flexible in the beginning. We had to say OK, what standards do we really want to focus on? Our overall goal as third grade teachers was for our students to know how to read and know how to look at text.”
On instructional days, Andrea starts the morning at 8:15 with a social-emotional check-in with the students. From there, the students have different blocks of subjects and special classes, including a Diné language class for some. Andrea uses her planning period to create paper learning packets of the material she taught earlier in the day for students or call home for the students who weren’t in class in the morning.
Aside from burnout, Andrea is cognizant of not keeping her students online for too long because of the lack of internet access. Early on, many families were exceeding the data and hotspot allotments on their phones by being in virtual classrooms all day.
“The challenge in all of this is the lack of technology and infrastructure,” Andrea said. “A lot of students didn’t really know how to use technology tools prior to [the pandemic].”
Last year, Andrea taught fifth grade with students she had been looping with since they were in third grade. When schools closed in spring, many of her students had no access to devices or internet connection to work from home. She started a Donors Choose campaign and was able to crowdfund Chromebooks for her class.
She let her students take the Chromebooks with them to sixth grade, which meant that her new third graders have struggled with access to devices. It wasn’t until November when all of her students who needed them got usable devices, even though they were of varying age and quality.
Andrea considers five students out of her 15 students to be remote, meaning she doesn’t hear from them as much and they don’t have stable access to the internet; she creates paper packets for them to work from.
“I spend a lot of time planning how to go about making packets so that they are simple enough for parents to be able to work through them with their child,” she said. “We try to create a visual for them that allows them to help support their child when they can.”
She’s also started offering after-school tutoring for the remote students in hopes that parents are able to get their kids to Wi-Fi buses or other sources of internet so they can connect with her. Thus far, the main attendees have been the students she already sees throughout the week.
Solutions and Systemic Changes
Teaching remotely has allowed Andrea to differentiate her instruction, give more attention to those who need it, and connect with her students in a way she really enjoys. One of her advanced students, Katelyn, exemplifies this.
“When she comes into my small-group meeting time, it’s just her and I and she gets to talk about the things she’s interested in. We get to read books and have conversations that I can’t normally have with the rest of the class, and that’s very exciting for her.”
The traumatic history between Indigenous people and the U.S. education system continues to resonate in the way families interact with schools and because of that Andrea wants to see professional development opportunities that are tailored to Indigenous educators.
“I wish we could be offered professional development from our cultural teachers, or people who can help us to connect what it is in our Native culture and how that can be tied into this Western philosophy of learning that we have going on.”
Moving forward, Andrea believes schools and districts should prioritize teacher voice and partnership with families in order for students to succeed.
“If [leaders] actively talk to teachers, they bring their voices to the table. That is one way of demonstrating that they’re trying to hear what’s happening and what’s going on within the schools,” she said. “I feel like [the pandemic] has given me a good opportunity to work in collaboration with the families, help them to better understand the education system, and know what’s expected of their child.”
Kathy Pierre is Senior National Coordinator of Communications and Media at Teach Plus.