KESHENA, Wis. — In her 17 years of teaching teachers at the College of Menominee Nation, Kelli Chelberg observed how difficult it is to retain aspiring educators of American Indian descent.
"Really, we need our Native teachers to teach our Native children," she said.
Educators, nationally, are recognizing the importance of culturally responsive teaching, which includes the students' cultural preferences in all aspects of learning and their cultural knowledge and experiences to help make learning for them more relevant.
"That certainly empowers the student … and really allows them to grow and learn," Chelberg, who works as the college's field experience coordinator, said.
Culturally responsive teaching strategies are being implemented in teacher training through institutions, such as at Brown University, the Green Bay Press-Gazette reported.
"As a tribal college, it is even more essential for our preservice teachers, who are predominantly Native Americans, to decolonize their thinking and embrace the components of culturally responsive teaching as they will teach in schools with Native American children," Chelberg said.
American Indian students make up 1.2% of the student population in Wisconsin, according to the Wisconsin Center for Education Research out of University of Wisconsin-Madison, but American Indian teachers account for only 0.3% of the teachers in Wisconsin.
In other areas of the country, the ratios are more stark. In Alaska, for example, 23% of students are Alaska Native, but only 5% of teachers are, according to the National Indian Education Association.
While many American Indians would start the bachelor of science degree in education and Wisconsin teacher licensure program at the College of Menominee Nation, many would drop out before finishing, Chelberg said.
Much of the problem, she discovered, was financial.
A program requirement includes working for 18 weeks as a student teacher, which is a long time for someone to not be earning much financially and likely be without health care.
Chelberg found some students had to drop out of the program who were very close to earning their degree, but couldn't because of financial restraints.
As a response, Chelberg took up something she was not accustomed to — writing a grant proposal.
In 2018, she was successful in receiving a $1.4 million, five-year award for the college through U.S. Department of Education for a project to retain aspiring American Indian educators.
The project, which Chelberg serves as director of, is translated to English as "They rise up, those Indian teachers."
Its Menominee name is Espa͞ehkawak akekoh Mamāceqtawak Ka͞ehkenohamowekowak.
The program's goal is to provide professional development opportunities and financial support for students, especially during their 18 weeks as a student teacher, which would allow them to complete their bachelor degree in early childhood/middle childhood education.
After only two years of the project, seven participants have already graduated because they had been close to earning their degree previously, but had to drop out for financial considerations.
"We were able to bring people who, maybe, thought their dream had died," Chelberg said.
Those graduates are now teaching at Stockbridge-Munsee Head Start, Menominee Tribal Schools, Menominee Language Immersion Program, Keshena Primary School and Shawano School District.
Two more participants are teaching this semester and another eight are on track to complete their bachelor's degree next year.
For Chelberg's success with this project and her other work, including in school readiness, school success and family engagement she was honored with the Faculty Member of the Year Award this year by the college.
She said she was humbled and honored by the award.
"I'm grateful for the work I do," Chelberg said. "It's a passion of mine to empower others to go out and teach."
Chelberg is not tribal herself, but is married to an Ojibwe (Red Cliff) man who works for Indian Health Services on the Menominee reservation.