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
"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
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
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 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."
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
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
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.