Being a teacher in and of itself, isn’t unique. There are incredible teaching opportunities all over the world, and any position can offer life-changing experiences.
This opportunity is unique though.
Living and teaching on a reservation is somewhere between teaching stateside, and teaching abroad.
You may work in a sovereign nation - and yet, you’re still in the United States. You may even work for the state the reservation is in, but you’ll still experience the ins and outs of #rezlife. It’s like you’re constantly standing between two worlds. I imagine this sensation is even stronger for those from the reservation who work, live or go to school outside of it - but alas, I can only truly speak from an outsider’s perspective.
If this sounds interesting to you, keep reading to see what it’s really like to live and teach on a reservation in the U.S.
Why I teach on a reservation
When I first decided to become a teacher a few years ago, I was interested in pursuing a teaching job abroad - but when I reassessed my life priorities, I realized I didn’t want to be too far from my family. I wanted to humble myself and learn more by being a guest in another’s culture, but I also wanted access to the comforts I’ve always known.
While the job I have now fits that bill perfectly, I didn’t know that from the beginning, and I definitely didn’t consider it right away.
I’ve always been interested in indigenous rights and Native American cultures. My grandmother, who raised me, was Shawnee. She was proud of her heritage and culture - and I always felt somewhat of a disconnect with it, as I ended up looking white. I often heard her talk about the discrimination her parents faced as a multi-racial household. She told me all about the challenges of being not only a woman in the 50’s and 60’s, but of the additional challenges she faced as a woman of mixed race.
In hindsight, it’s almost funny that teaching on tribal lands didn’t come to me sooner. It wasn’t until I was talking with my mother over a holiday that she asked me, “What about working on the reservation?”
It was like a lightbulb went on. I instantly knew what I had to do, and where I needed to be.
It took a lot to break into the culture as an outsider. I’ve cried a lot, I’ve felt lonely often and to be honest, sometimes I still do. But I have learned and grown so much, and the relationships I’ve formed are just incredible.
Now, it will be a struggle to move and teach anywhere else. I love my students, the families, the culture, and the surrounding natural beauty.
The Application Process, Requirements and Qualifications
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.
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.
Requirements to apply:
- 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
I love where I work. The atmosphere is so warm and loving.
Since we are in a rural area, it’s hard to attract and retain young teachers - and there isn’t much done for recruiting. The upside to that is, if you want to work here, it will not be difficult to snag a position should you meet the basic requirements.
As I mentioned, I wasn’t a certified teacher yet. I had a Bachelor’s degree, and had enrolled for the Teacher in Residence program at Rio Salado, which is an online, Arizona-based community college. For less than $5,000 total, I earned my teaching certificate over two years, while still being gainfully employed as a “highly qualified” teacher in Arizona.
I should mention that those wanting to get certified now are even better off than I was. Due to the Arizona Teachers Academy initiative put into motion by our governor, you can get a teaching certificate tuition-free if you have a Bachelor’s degree, and if you agree to teach kids in Arizona for a certain number of years.
So in short, you’ll need at least:
- A Bachelor’s degree from an accredited university
- To be considered a “highly qualified” teacher in the state of Arizona
- Either a Teacher in Residence, or already finished with certification
- Some experience working with children (teaching or tutoring preferred)
- Or, an Emergency Substitute Certificate
Benefits to working on an Indian Reservation
For those willing to brave it, 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.
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 townhomes below. There are other floor plans, but I love what we have. The view from our back porch is incredible and I treasure it.
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. 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, so that’s a great draw to working here.
A great way to make some side cash, if necessary, is to teach English (or other subjects) online.
This is a great district (and Whiteriver Elementary is especially helpful) for new teachers. Every Friday is a minimum day, which means we either get some kind of training, or time to plan with our grade-level teams.
There’s no shortage of things to do here if you like to be outside. This area is an outdoor enthusiast’s dream. I’m an hour from Sunrise (one of the best ski resorts in the southern United States), 30 minutes from pristine lakes and rivers, and an hour in the opposite direction from canyon and river adventures. My husband and I love kayaking and hiking, so we really enjoy where we live. Skiers, snowboarders, anglers and hunters will love it here.
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 just hard in itself- 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 that.
I also had a lot of personal things to work through, too. Was I being a white savior? Have 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 - so it’s something to ready yourself for.
You have to be ready to love these kids, and to not take things personally. Easier said than done of course. And, maybe be ready to cry a lot, too.
All of that said, no two people are going to have the exact same experiences here - and who you are, which school you work at, and your prior experience will affect that. 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. It is so worth it though, for the right person.
And in the end, though the location and culture are different than many are used to, a classroom is a classroom.
As I previously mentioned, every school offers unique experiences as a teacher.
You could live on-site as a teacher and mentor at a boarding school.
You could teach at a public, state-funded school.
If you’re a person of faith, you could teach at a religious school.
Or, you could teach in a more remote area at a BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) school.
Each setup offers unique challenges and benefits, so I definitely recommend doing all of your research before putting in an application.
I cannot stress enough how different they are. This area is so interesting because of how diverse it is. You can either have high desert views, or you can be in the middle of a ponderosa pine forest, depending on specifically where you live and/or work.
You may be 15 minutes away from stores and restaurants, or you might be 1-2 hours away.
Where you land is all going to depend on your needs, wants, boundaries, and of course, the positions available.
If you can, talk to teachers working there now, or go on forums to find teachers who have been there in the past.
And of course, you’re welcome to e-mail me about my experience.
Here is the list of schools in our district to start you in your research:
- Whiteriver Elementary (public, state-run)
- Cradleboard Elementary (public, state-run)
- Seven Mile Elementary (public, state-run)
- McNary Elementary (public, state-run)
- Canyon Day Junior High School (public, state-run)
- Alchesay High School (public, state-run)
- East Fork Lutheran School (private)
- Dishchii'bikoh Community School (public, BIA-run)
- John F. Kennedy Day School (public, BIA-run)
- Theodore Roosevelt School (boarding and day school)
Teaching on a reservation is a unique, challenging, and extremely rewarding experience.
It’s different for each person, and experiences will vary depending upon the school and reservation - but there are commonalities with rez life that you’ll see at each one.
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.