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A New Culture of Education

Jon Reyhner wants to produce a generation of teachers who don't necessarily believe their religion is the only true one, that the English dialect they speak is the one that should be spoken to them, that the correct way to shake a hand is firmly, or that eye contact is the lone way to show honesty.

"I hope that what I'm doing is helping new teachers to be less ethnocentric," he says. "I don't think anybody should put themselves or their background down, but should understand and appreciate other groups."

Reyhner, a professor of bilingual multicultural education, has devoted his career to American Indian education and indigenous language revitalization. After he earned his graduate degrees in secondary education and school administration from Northern Arizona University in 1977, he headed to the Navajo Nation, where he taught junior high school and served as a school administrator for ten years at Native American schools in Arizona, Montana, and New Mexico. His experience also included a year-long stint living at the bottom of the Grand Canyon with his wife and two children as a principal in the Havasupai schools. He landed back in higher education as a professor at Northern Arizona University in 1995.

"When I graduated, that's where I found a job—out on the Reservation," he says. "It was culture shock for me, and I would argue that I committed a certain amount of educational malpractice at that time."

The importance of understanding culture

Reyhner hopes his research and extensive writing on bilingual education and indigenous language will make a positive difference in education across the country, and prepare new teachers to be more sensitive to cultural distinctions that may influence how minority students learn.

Reyhner says that teachers coming out of college now are more white and middle class than ever before, while the country's student body is increasingly ethnically diverse. This creates a cultural gap that can impact the quality of education. In addition, it may contribute to a high turnover rate among teachers in urban and Native American schools, where there is limited financial support and greater cultural disparities between students and teachers.

Teachers entering the workforce now can learn how to draw out the strongest values and beliefs in a given culture and use them to support education, as well as embrace children's ethnic identity rather than deny it. Children with a strong sense of who they are, Reyhner says, are more likely to persist in education.

For example, if a student speaks a different dialect of English—whether it's Black English or "Rez" English—educators should understand that different dialects are not inferior brands of the language; rather, each has its own complex structure and grammar.

"Right now a lot of students see education as being something 'white'—that if they're doing well in school, they're acting white," Reyhner says. "They see that school is a place for becoming white, and think, 'we're not white, so school isn't a place for us."

Committed to Native American student success

To be sure, Reyhner's appreciation and comprehension of Native American culture didn't all come from his time in academe or in the classroom. He married a Navajo teacher—becoming part of her family opened his eyes to the nuances of Native American life, especially the central role that extended family plays, which is quite different from the nuclear family in which he grew up.

"These kids have a lot of obligations, so if they miss school it may not be because they don't like school—it may be because they are babysitting for an aunt or uncle who has to go to work because the family has to eat and pay rent," he says. "You want to encourage them to attend school, but be understanding of the cultural background of the student."

At Northern Arizona University, Reyhner works with other experts in the field to increase the quality of teaching in Native American schools. Reyhner recently co-chaired the American Indian Teacher Education Conference at the Flagstaff campus, which attracted attendees from across the western United States and Canada. He is currently collaborating with Dr. Louise Lockard to prepare Navajo bilingual education teachers under a U.S. Department of Education American Indian and Alaska Native Education Research Grant.

Success to this professor means seeing a day when Native American students receive an education that propels them to increase the quality of life in their own communities, which means doing his part to instill in new teachers the importance of knowing how to place lessons in a meaningful context for their students.

"It doesn't work to say that education is important because we're going to flunk you if you don't pass this test," he says. "It works to show that it can be fascinating to say, 'You can help your people overcome major problems like diabetes if you know more about body chemistry.'"

Making that leap may well begin in Reyhner's classroom at Northern Arizona University, where the next generation of teachers will emerge with an understanding that the children in their classroom may believe that  a softer handshake is the appropriate greeting and looking down is a sign of respect.