Thinking about teaching on a reservation?

Teaching on a reservation has definitely been romanticized over the last few decades. While there are many unique and beautiful aspects, it’s not for the faint of heart. It’s also really important to manage your expectations before going into it.

What makes teaching on a reservation unique is that it’s somewhere between teaching in a small town, and teaching abroad. You experience the excitement and challenges one might face in a foreign country, but you might be literally down the street from where the tribal boundaries meet the rest of the U.S.

And when I stop to soak in where I am, it’s easy to see why it’s been so romanticized.

As I’m writing this, I’m staring out upon what seems like the wild western beyond. This landscape boasts vast golden plains dotted with juniper trees. I can hear chirping songbirds in the background, and I see a majestic sunset over towering mountains. It’s quite peaceful and lovely.

Beautiful mountainous view from my back porch

With all of the natural beauty abounding here during this beautiful golden hour, you’d never know that I’m actually out here because my husband accidentally took my house key; I’m locked out!

Anyone else having a day like that today?

It’s OK, though. I’m making the best of it by taking the time to really reflect on what living and teaching on a reservation is like for someone who isn’t a tribal member.

Spoiler alert – it’s wild, weird and wonderful.

Why blog about this?

When meeting people for the first time (whether on the internet or in real life), they ask me “So, what do you do?”

And it makes sense. When we’re getting to know other people, we want to know what they do for work, since work takes up so much of our lives.

To be honest, my response varies depending on my mood, why they’re asking, and how much time I have. I might say, “I teach,” or I might tell them, “I teach 4th grade.” If I’m really feeling a connection with them, and if I have the time to share further, I might say “I’m a 4th grade ELA educator, living and teaching on a reservation.”

That’s almost always an icebreaker, because it’s just an answer that deviates from the norm (outside of the Southwest, anyway). I live and work on a sovereign nation serving indigenous peoples, yet so much of what I do (and how people here live) is regulated or outright dictated by the U.S. government.

The next question is naturally, “So, what is it like to teach on a reservation?”

And that answer can vary, too. It really does look different from day to day, and yet, teaching is teaching – whether it’s on tribal lands, in the inner city, or in the suburbs.

We still have to deal with ignorant country leaders’ demands, high-stakes testing, micro-management and expectations that seem to increase daily.

I’m sure this doesn’t sound all too different from the challenges that teachers elsewhere face. In fact, our classrooms may even look a bit similar!

Classroom library, word wall and reading area
Don’t mind the creepy face – that’s just Lord Voldemort!
Teaching on a reservation
Everyone else has a million anchor charts, right?

Unlike my colleagues living and teaching abroad, I have the distinct privilege of driving 40 minutes to a place and demographic where I fit in more, if I want to.

Yet, it has it’s challenges, as any adventure does.

This is something I’ve wanted to blog about for a long time, but I always hesitated. I’ve frequently pondered the possible repercussions of posting about this on social media.

But this is different. This is my blog, my website, my space.

While I think it’s always wise and prudent to be careful about what I share and post, I’ve made a commitment to myself and to you to have this be where I express my whole and true authentic self.

And if you’re thinking you might like to teach on a reservation someday soon, I think it’s important that you are fully armed with knowledge before you make that decision.

Draws to Teaching on a Reservation

Natural Beauty for Miles

The surrounding scenic landscapes are definitely a draw to living and teaching on a reservation. If you like snow-capped mountains, unspoiled wilderness, clear rivers and pine forests, you will love this place.

Teaching on a reservation
Snap of snow-capped mountains on our way to church.

It’s not uncommon to see wild horses galloping from your backyard, and I frequently see deer and elk when driving at night. They can also be a hazard, but since I grew up in the desert, I’m just fascinated by all of the mammals I see here.

Teachers who enjoy winter activities like skiing, snowboarding and tubing love our location too, as we’re only an hour away from Sunrise Ski Resort. I’m not a big snow-sports fan myself, but the area around Greer is absolutely gorgeous – and worth visiting each season. My husband and I always take a drive down there at least once during Fall to see the foliage, and it’s just stunning during the winter.

Hyperlapse of a leaf-peeping drive this past Fall.
Teaching on a reservation
These photos don’t do this place justice. There’s beauty here year-round.
Teaching on a reservation
Seeing the aspens at golden hour is truly magical.

Working Conditions

I’ve been incredibly blessed to be hired at a school that values professional progress and community. I have learned so much in my three short years here, and I look forward to what the next three will bring.

My school has sent me to professional development conferences, paid trainings, and they worked ever-so patiently with me when I was doing my Alternative Pathway to Certification Program.

When I told them that I was leading a group of teachers to Finland for Spring Break to observe Finnish classrooms, I was nervous about asking for additional days off. My principal was not only supportive of me going, but she approved the days off as professional development, so they don’t count against my paid leave bank. I could have cried!

I will say that it’s taken me a while to make friends as someone who isn’t a tribal member. This could be because of my personality (I’m happy and chipper, and that freaks some people out!), or it could just be because the culture here encouraged skepticism of outsiders (understandably).

The community here is also very close-knit, so it was a bit hard to “break in” socially. It was definitely harder than when I held jobs in Phoenix, Santa Cruz and Palm Springs. In all of those places, I made friends instantly, and I immediately integrated into the work-friend culture at those places. As an outsider working and living here, you really have to be OK with (or ideally, enjoy!) your own company. Once I became more secure with being alone, I started connecting with others more.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that people want to know you’re committed to this place and to the students here, before they take the time and effort to get to know you. And that makes sense. Why would they take the time to befriend or mentor you, if you’re just going to leave a year or two later? That’s something you’ll want to consider as well, if you’re just hoping to live here for a short while, “for the experience.”

Day-to-Day Operations

This varies between schools, but I LOVE the contract hours! We don’t have to be at school until 8am, school doesn’t start until 9am, and we get off at 4pm. Our students get 50 minutes of ancillary time, which means we get that 50 minutes to plan and prep.

Recess is always after lunch – so if you aren’t on recess duty, you can effectively get a 35 minute lunch break. That’s definitely more than most get in the teaching world!

Every Friday is a minimum day, so the kids leave between 1:30pm and 1:45pm. Since we’re in a rural area, our school shares buses with others – which can be frustrating for teachers who want to expect the exact same schedule every week.

My colleagues and I just go outside toward the end of the day. If the buses come later, we just have a longer recess. Win-win!

Being Here

Sadly, there’s a stark contrast between the abundance of natural beauty, and the lack that many people here face.

When I pass the multiple burned down homes, as well as the trailers and houses with busted windows and crumbling roofs, I feel a pang of guilt. I’m driving my relatively new car to my subsidized teacher home, that’s fully heated and air conditioned – knowing the students I serve may or may not have heat in their homes during our cold winters.

I’ve found myself lamenting when I think of just how much housing space is reserved for those who choose to teach on a reservation, when I know families who are struggling to survive with several people in a small, one-bedroom home. I’m incredibly grateful for the solid, quality housing. Yet, I also feel saddened knowing I have more material wealth and benefits from just working here, than people who’ve had roots here for thousands of years.

While I feel very supported overall, I sometimes feel like I’m being micromanaged – but I don’t think that’s unique. I’m sure that’s what hundreds of thousands of teachers across the U.S. are feeling right now!

Applying Here is Different

Thankfully, I knew a bit about the area due to visiting my mom annually as a kid, and I applied to every elementary school here.

Most of them have websites with very limited functionality, so I actually ended up sending all of my application documents to the Whiteriver Unified School District’s HR director at the time.

As of today, the application process is very similar.

Process, Requirements and Qualifications

You’ll start by looking at WUSD’s Current Openings. If you see a position that looks like a good fit, you’ll download the matching PDF application on the lower left-hand side of the page. For teachers, you’ll click on “Certified Application.”

You’ll print it out and fill in the application.

Once you’re done, you’ll want to collect all of your documents.

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • A fully completed teaching application
  • A copy of your valid Arizona Teaching License (or copy of current teaching license within another state)
  • A copy of your valid AZ Fingerprint Clearance
  • Either a placement file or three letters of recommendation
  • Resume documenting years of service
  • Native American Preference – If you are seeking employment under the “Indian Preference” provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, then also include a copy of your Certificate of Indian Blood and your Tribal Census Number. Only members of Federally recognized Tribes may request this preference.

Our district hires teachers from all over the world, which is one of the things I love most about this teacher community! I have neighbors who are Apache, Hopi, Navajo, Jamaican, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Dutch, Indian… and the list goes on.

So even if you’re not a citizen of the United States, you can still work here!

Foreigners can apply for the Provisional Foreign Teacher Teaching Certificate through the Arizona Department of Education. You can find the requirements for that here, and more information on that process here.

Once you have all of your paperwork together, you’ll submit your paperwork via fax, snail mail or e-mail. If you encounter any problems or have more questions about the application process, contact Julianne Endfield at 928-358-5800, or via e-mail at jendfield2@wusd.us.

I should note that when I applied, I didn’t even have my teaching certificate yet, as I was starting a program offering an Alternative Pathway to Certification. And yet, I immediately heard back from three schools after applying to them.

I had interviews scheduled within a couple of weeks. Some were done over the phone, but I chose to do a couple of them in-person, so I could visit the schools and talk with teachers there. I was living in Phoenix at the time, so I made it an extended weekend trip – but you could definitely apply and interview for positions here remotely if you needed to.

I ended up interviewing at Whiteriver Elementary in-person, and was hired on the spot. I’m so glad, too – because it was a great fit for me! Our staff is diverse in every way, including personality. Considering this, the only interview advice I have is to be yourself, and to come ready with questions. You don’t want to act like the perfect candidate; be authentic. Show your true self, and that’ll help both of you to see if it’s a good fit.

Benefits to Teaching on a Reservation

For those who choose to teach on a reservation, there are a ton of benefits.

Foreign teachers looking to move to the United States love living and working here. Our district helps them get their green cards, while providing quality, affordable housing.

Housing

And the housing itself is a major draw. My husband and I pay $360 a month for a three-bedroom, two-story townhome that’s maybe,1,200-1,400 sq. ft? That is not a typo! $360, not $3,600. You just can’t beat that price anywhere! This makes it a great opportunity for young couples, individuals, or families who want to pay off debt and/or just save money.

Here’s a photo of the town-homes below. There are other floor plans, but I love what we have

Townhomes used for staff teaching on a reservation

The view from our back porch really is just beautiful throughout the year. It’s one of my favorite things about being here – because I know that I will likely never be able to afford a view like this.

Perks to teaching on a reservation

My husband and I had a tiny, one-bedroom apartment in Phoenix before moving here. So thankfully, we didn’t have a ton of stuff to move.

Employee Perks

For someone who’s more established before coming here, they might find it a bit more difficult, as the district doesn’t offer any financial assistance with travel expenses. However, they do offer a sizable hiring and retention bonus ($5,000 when I started!), a basic life insurance policy, and they pay for your basic health care, dental and vision premiums.

That last one is huge for teachers. I know teachers in the greater Phoenix and Tucson areas who have so much of their paychecks go to health care, and it’s just sad. I’ve found the deductibles to be very reasonable.

Salary and Bonuses

And of course, there’s the pay and bonuses.

The state of Arizona is not known for treating teachers well. Over the past few years, there’s been a revolution of sorts by teachers, demanding that we are paid more fairly for our time, expertise and contribution to society. Basically, the movement is to treat teachers as the professionals they are.

I feel very grateful to have started here, specifically – because between the well-priced housing, my base pay and my bonuses, I make great money. Last year, I made about $60,000.

I should note that I did pursue a couple of addenda positions (i.e. tutoring before school), but for $50 an hour? It’s hard to say no.

Bonuses are another hotly contested issue in the teacher world, and I definitely have mixed feelings about them myself. But I worked hard with my students last year. So when I received a $7,000 bonus for their performance, I was elated. That paid for my travel and bills throughout the summer, on top of saving for the future.

Considerations Before Applying

This is controversial to some teachers, but anyone can make it here if they’re willing to commit to it, and if they care enough. I’m not going to sugar-coat it. Teaching is already hard – but here, things are more intense and compounded.

I’ve had (elementary!) students cuss me out, throw desks, start fights, call me racist, and a myriad of other things. And it sucked. I cried nearly every day for the first year. I had all of the struggles a first-year teacher would be expected to go through, with these unique challenges added on top of them.

I also had a lot of personal things to work through, too:

  • Was I being a white savior?
  • Had I internalized some racist biases that I needed to work through?
  • Should I even be taking all of this personally?
  • What can I learn to better serve them?
  • How can I think less of myself and my own feelings, and just help the students in those hard moments?

Many students here have a high ACE trauma score. They have life coaches on-site (which is a great support for them), but this trauma does translate to some behavior challenges in the classroom. It shouldn’t scare you away from working here if you want to teach on a reservation, but it’s something to be ready for.

You have to be ready to love these kids, and to not take things personally. And if you’re anything like me, you might need to be ready to cry a lot, too.

All of that said, no two people are going to have the exact same experiences here. Who you are, which school you work at, and your prior experience will affect your experience here. But I know there are other white girls out there with bleeding hearts like me – and I want you to know, you’re gonna have to do some work, on top of your actual job.

I’ve had to do a lot of introspection and reflection. It is so worth it though for the right person.

Still Interested?

If you’re still up for living and teaching on a reservation, there are some things you can do now to prepare yourself

  1. Read. A LOT.

    Read about the tribe you’ll be serving.
    Read biographies, poems and stories by indigenous authors.
    Allow yourself to celebrate with the authors, and to feel a bit of their pain.

    Here are some great books to start with:
    The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian – this novel in narrative form outlines life and struggles on the reservation.
    Perma Red – a story outlining the personal struggles of looking and being “Indian enough”
    Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir – this narrative lets readers peek inside the mind, home and family of the author, while exploring what Native Americans in California faced during Spanish Catholic colonization.
    Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World – Linda Hogan discusses the spirituality of the different objects and elements of earth.
    There There – This book explores the challenges and complexities faced by Native Americans living in bigger cities, or more urban environments. This would be great for teachers looking to work at a school off a reservation that serves indigenous students.
    Heart Berries: A Memoir – This memoir is by a Canadian First Nations tribal member. This story follows her life, struggles and journey to find mental health and identity.
    Reservation Blues – This story follows a group of Native Americans who decide to form a blues band. While it might seem inconsequential, that’s a path not often followed on the reservation.
    If I Ever Get Out of Here – Lewis Blake is a Native American who is academically gifted. He struggles between trying to connect to the white kids in his advanced classes, and trying to stay in touch with his Indian friends in regular classes. The conflicts that arise fro, standing between two worlds are shared with the readers.
  2. Look for people who have done it, or who are doing it.

    You’re already making a smart choice by reading my post, since you’re taking the time to consider what it’ll be like. Many say they want to teach on a reservation. But once they get here, they often find their expectations don’t meet reality.

    Talking with those who have done it (or those who are here) will give you a better picture of what it’s really like.
  3. Research the culture, customs and history of the specific tribe you’ll be serving.

    I wish I would have done this more before coming here. I could have saved myself some social misunderstandings had I learned more about how certain words, phrases, actions and behaviors would be interpreted.
  4. Watch, listen and learn.

    While this can seem like advice for once you’re there (which it is), you can get yourself ready for this mindset in advance. Think of this as an extension of the research portion.

    Must-watch movies:
    Wind River – This movie highlights the epidemic of missing Native American women, focusing on one in particular. The main character is a white man with Native American relatives, so the relationships between white allies and indigenous peoples on reservations are shown here.
    Smoke Signals – a funny, yet sobering look at live on the reservation. Issues like absentee fathers, poverty, alcoholism and racism are covered in a humorous way.

    ^ This also happens to be most of my students’ favorite movie, so I’m going to say if you’re only going to read or watch one thing, choose this movie!

My take

Living and teaching on a reservation is a rewarding and trying experience.

If you want to teach on a reservation, do your research – and go into a contract armed with knowledge.

It’s afforded me the opportunity to know the most amazing students, while being able to pay down my student loans and take trips during school breaks.

It’s different for each person, and experiences will vary depending upon the school and reservation.

It’s not for everyone. But if you’re up for it, it will change your life.

You can make decent money, pay down debt, and live well – if you’re willing to trade a quiet, star-filled sky for being close to a Target.

I’ve been able to witness a Sunrise ceremony, hear the Pledge of Allegiance in Apache, encourage Apache girls to start their own businesses, and have just had the pleasure of knowing some amazing people.

If this is something you’d like to hear more about, be sure to follow our podcast – Teachers Talk Travel.

I’m happy to be here for as long as I can be.


If this article was helpful to you, consider sharing it on Pinterest!

Anyone planning to teach on a reservation should have as much information as possible.


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About Author

I'm just another teacher who loves to travel! I currently live and teach on the White Mountain Apache Reservation. I enjoy teaching and learning about history, culture and language. I also love creating and sharing opportunities! I look forward to growing this community with you.

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