Do American Indian students benefit from having American Indian teachers?

Academic research says that the answer is likely yes, while not an iron-clad rule. But when the topic came up at a recent legislative hearing in Montana, a handful of Republican legislators pounced on the notion that American Indian students learn better from American Indian teachers.

“I take great offense to this,” said Rep. John Fuller, a Kalispell Republican and former teacher who previously served on the Board of Public Education. “If you want to perpetuate racism, take that attitude.”

However, several educational experts said that not only is the attitude not racist, but that trying to change racial discrepancies between teachers and students can lead to positive academic outcomes.

Salish Kootenai lobbyist Jordan Thompson made the original comment during a Feb. 20 hearing before the House Education Committee about a bill designed to address teacher shortages, especially in rural schools and reservation schools, by improving access to teacher training for those with rural roots.

“Students do better when teachers look like them and/or understand them,” he said.

Rep. Brad Tschida, a Missoula Republican, made an unusual request for a personal comment to address Thompson’s testimony after the hearing.

“Sometimes we have to be cautious about how we approach things,” Tschida said.

Fuller's comments came during a Feb. 22 vote on the bill. 

The responses show a reluctance to embrace intertwined racial and policy issues in education.

“Those who suggest culture and politics are not embedded in schooling are refusing to listen to years of research which support this,” said Montana State University education professor David Henderson in an email.

'A real mismatch'

Jioanna Carjuza asks her classes each year: How many teachers of color did students have during their K-12 schooling?

“It’s never more than four or five, no matter where they went to school, Chicago or Livingston, Montana,” she said.

Carjuzza, a Montana State University education professor, runs a group for American Indian students pursuing teaching degrees in addition to teaching duties.

She backed up what Thompson had tried to convey during the legislative hearing; that academic research shows that black students who had at least one black teacher during their schooling had better academic outcomes — and that the research can likely apply to American Indian students.

“There’s no question we have a real mismatch here,” she said.

Montana’s teaching force is 2.3 percent American Indian. About 14 percent of students identify as American Indian.

There are cultural connections that American Indian teachers will likely find easier to make on a personal level, and what they’re teaching will already be filtered through that cultural lens before it reaches the student.

Carjuzza said that many people have a skewed perception of “neutral” in a classroom; in Montana, they were most likely white students with mostly white peers and a white teacher.

White students, she said, see themselves reflected in the classroom and what they’re learning “every day, all the time.”

That doesn’t mean that white teachers can’t be great teachers for American Indian students. Both Henderson and Carjuzza said that high-quality training is important, regardless of race. But it’s complicated.

Henderson cited a trio of studies emphasizing the importance of teachers understanding a “culturally responsive pedagogy” — teaching within a student’s cultural framework.

“Can a middle class, white person be a great teacher in a school on the reservation? Yes. Is it harder? Yes," Henderson said. "Can they ever really understand an AI kid's story? No. So can they build the trust necessary for great learning to happen? Yes. Does the fact that an American Indian person is a teacher automatically make them a great teacher on the Rez? No.”


This is hardly the first time the topic has come up in Montana; a 2016 Slate article posed the very question while highlighting efforts at one school to recruit more American Indian teachers. 

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Thompson distributed a handout after the hearing to committee members that included information about a study with African-American students and another study showing that African-American teachers had higher expectations of African-American students than white teachers did.

Another study in Tennessee found that black and white students had better test scores when paired with a teacher of their own race.

“When you look at the research, it’s there, right? I don’t know why there was kind of this backlash of comments on it,” Thompson said.

Fuller called the handout an “alleged resource” when voting on the bill.

“Students learn from good teachers,” he said. “Good teachers come in all sizes, shapes, and colors.”

Tschida again spoke on the issue, citing a Frederick Douglass imitator he’d seen recently.

“We have to understand that if we eliminate as much of the things that divide us and focus on the things that unite us we’ll be better off," he said.

Rep. Jacob Bachmeier, a Havre Democrat studying to be a teacher at the University of Montana, pushed back.

“I think we can be united in our differences as well,” he said. “I also can’t help but think that all my teachers looked like me. … Education can uniquely be socio-cultural.”

Thompson said he spoke with Tschida after the first hearing, emphasizing that he didn’t think the research precluded white teachers from effectively teaching American Indian students.

“I don’t think that would be the end-all to the education gap,” Thompson said. “I think one of the causes (of the gap) might be that we just need more Native representation in our schools.”

When the committee voted on the teacher shortage bill, it passed, 10-7. Tschida voted no. Bachmeier voted yes. Fuller, in a vote critical to the bill's passage out of committee, broke with most Republicans on the committee to vote yes. 

The bill has been referred to the House Appropriations Committee. 

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.