Jon Reyhner is trying to produce a generation of teachers who don't necessarily believe their religion is the only true one, that the English language they speak is the one that should be spoken to them, that the correct way to shake a hand is firmly, or that the sole way to show honesty is to look somebody straight in the eye.
"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. When he earned his graduate degrees in secondary education and school administration at 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, eventually landing back in higher education as a professor at NAU 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."
Through his oft-cited research and first-hand experience, which 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, Reyhner hopes to guide those entering the teaching force toward a better understanding of American Indian culture than he once had, as well as an understanding of other ethnic groups.
Reyhner says that the number of teachers coming out of college now are more white and middle class than ever before, while the country's student body is becoming increasingly ethnically diverse. The gap in understanding each other's cultures and traditions can impact the quality of education the nation's children receive. In addition, it may contribute to a high teacher turnover rate in urban and Native American schools where there is limited financial support and greater cultural disparities between students and teachers.
It behooves teachers entering the workforce now to 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. People who have a strong sense of who they are, he says, are more likely to persist.
For example, if a student is speaking 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 they have their own complex structures and grammars.
"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."
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 than the traditional life of a nuclear family.
"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 NAU, Reyhner continues to work with other experts in the field to help increase the quality of teaching in American Indian schools. He is currently collaborating with Noreen Sakiestewa, director of the Hopi Office of Education, on a project to develop more local American Indian teachers, to help reduce turnover in the schools. Through his extensive writing on bilingual education and indigenous language, Reyhner hopes his research can make a positive difference in education across the country by preparing the next generation of teachers to be more sensitive to the cultural distinctions that influence how minority students learn.
Success to this professor means seeing a day when American Indian 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 that they need to know how to place their lessons in a meaningful context for the children in front of them.
"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 NAU classroom, where the next generation of teachers will emerge understanding and respecting the basics: that the children in their classroom may come from a place where they believe that a softer handshake is the appropriate greeting and looking down is a sign of respect.