Washington is home to 29 federally-recognized tribes, with approximately 64,000 Native American students represented in nearly every community in the state.
Yet most of these students have never been in a classroom with a Native American teacher. Today, Native Americans represent only one percent of the state's teacher workforce.
Closing that gap was the focus of a recent workshop co-sponsored by the University of Washington College of Education, Washington Education Association, Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, and several of the state's tribal organizations. The Future Native Teachers Initiative brought Native students together for a series of activities encouraging them to consider teaching as a career.
Wilson Arnold, who grew up on the Makah Reservation in Neah Bay, is one the state's few Native teachers.
"When I was young on the reservation, there was very little exposure to institutions of higher education and what opportunities were available after high school," Arnold said, including teaching.
Arnold returned to Neah Bay after completing his teaching certification, and as one of the workshop leaders, he hopes to inspire other Native youth to enter the profession.
"It's pretty clear that when students can relate to their teacher they'll have more buy-in to whatever they're learning," Arnold said.
Randy Paddock, UniServ director in the WEA's Olympic office, said Native students in Washington face a severe opportunity gap that needs to be addressed by diversifying the teaching workforce.
"It's been proven that if you look like your students, and you can better identify and empathize with them, their grades will be better and they will be more likely to graduate," Paddock said. "I'm inspired each year by the kids who participate in this workshop. I thought at first it would be like pulling teeth, but these kids get it. They understand the difference they can make, and it gives me hope."
During the workshop — now in its third year — youth learned about the traits of effective teachers, different pathways into teaching andconnections between communities and education, while also visiting several local school sites.
Krista Goudy-Sutterlict, a teacher and coach from Toppenish School District, has participated in the initiative all three years and watched participants grow more empowered throughout the workshops.
"It's important for Native individuals to be able to share their culture and history in classrooms," she said. "If more Indian people are in the school building serving in teaching and leadership roles, it will help build trust in our schools."
Patricia Whitefoot, a member of the Yakama Nation and former teacher, believes the impact of more Native teachers can extend far beyond the classroom.
"Our teachers help inspire students to take a look at their future and what is possible, for themselves and their community," Whitefoot said. "If we're successful, these future teachers will help turn around the economic status and health of our Native communities."
Dustin Wunderlich, Director for Marketing and Communications