Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes
ARAPAHOE, Wyo. (AP) — The word was "still."
Joan Willow circled the "s'' and the "t'' on the white board in her classroom at Arapahoe Elementary School. Her second-graders checked their answers after a paper-and-pencil spelling test.
"It's called a blend," Willow said, pointing to the two letters. "It's like a brother and a sister helping each other to say the word."
When Willow teaches, she references family. She tells stories about her friends. She uses examples from around the reservation where she grew up and where most of her students now live.
It helps the students connect to their surroundings, their culture.
Few faces like Willow's stand at the front of classrooms in and around the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, where more than two-thirds of the state's 3,000 Native American students attend school.
At Arapahoe Elementary, roughly one in three teachers is Native American.
At Fort Washakie, another school serving more than 90 percent native students, one out of every five teachers is Native American. In Wyoming Indian schools, where the student population is 97 percent native, about 19 percent of the teaching force is Native American.
But in schools in Lander and Riverton, the biggest towns bordering the reservation, Native Americans make up fewer than 3 percent of the teachers, despite about 15 percent of students there being native.
Nationwide, classroom teachers are even less diverse.
A 2011 analysis of U.S. Department of Education data showed teachers of color made up 17 percent of the teaching force nationwide, though minority students accounted for 48 percent of the classroom population.
Proponents say with society's increasing ethnic diversity, there is a growing need for more minority teachers to serve as role models in schools. Research suggests when students see teachers who share their racial or ethnic backgrounds, they often view school as a more welcoming place.
Willow said more native teachers would benefit her students. That way, they can see it is possible for them to be whatever they want to when they grow up.
"That would really help us to help ourselves," Willow said.
On this recent school day, Willow told her students about her son, who drove her to school from where she lives in nearby Ethete. She told a story about her brother finding a rooster by where their mother lives.
She used the Arapaho word for "sit down" — ceenóku — whenever possible.
She stopped behind a quiet girl in the last row whose hair was woven into braids from the crown of her head to just below her shoulders.
"Who did your hair today?" she said, her hands on the girl's shoulders. "Grandma?"
"Auntie," the girl said.
"Very nice," Willow said, moving on to the next child. "Beautiful."
Willow knows the family ties at her school, where 95 percent of students are Native American like her. She knows the aunties, the cousins, the sisters and brothers. She often knows who to call when several days go by without seeing a child in class.
Her own family ties are melded with her students' connections. Willow grew up a few miles from the school where she now teaches.
Iva Redman, another Native American teacher at Arapahoe Middle School, bases her math lessons on the Arapaho culture. She wrote in her University of Wyoming master's thesis that she doesn't teach math in isolation but instead uses native symbolism as a way to understand symmetry.
In one lesson, Redman, an enrolled Northern Arapaho, teaches her students to use graph paper and scaling tools to create a symbol to represent them. Historically, many Arapaho symbols told a story about an event, a vision or a person's Indian name, Redman said.
Along the way, her students learn and use concepts like reflection, rotation and vertical and horizontal symmetry.
"They brought their community role into the classroom," Redman said. "So it was more like it was Indian."
School became a more welcoming, comfortable place for her students because of this lesson, she said. Students shared family stories, learned about their identities and gained confidence.
With her students' trust, Redman can motivate them to not miss class. She can hold them accountable to perform their best, to not misbehave.
Besides, Redman went to school with the parents of many of her current students.
"They know I know their mamas," Redman said.
By the numbers: Native teachers in Wyoming
A look at which teaching forces on and around the Wind River Indian Reservation are made up of more Native American teachers:
Arapahoe Elementary, Fremont County School District 38: 29 percent native teachers, 95 percent native students. Average four-year high school graduation rate among native students at Arapaho Charter High School, 2010-13: 16 percent
Fort Washakie schools, Fremont County School District 21: 20 percent native teachers, 97 percent native students. Average four-year high school graduation rate among native students, 2010-13: 9 percent
Wyoming Indian schools, Fremont County School District 14: 19 percent native teachers, 99 percent native students. Average four-year high school graduation rate among native students, 2010-13: 47 percent
Riverton schools, Fremont County School District 25: 3 percent native teachers, 17 percent native students. Average four-year high school graduation rate among native students, 2010-13: 54 percent
Lander schools, Fremont County School District 1: 3 percent native teachers, 12 percent native students. Average four-year high school graduation rate among native students at Lander Valley High School, 2010-13: 73 percent
Sources: Most recent district-level staff records available and obtained under Wyoming public records law, Wyoming Department of Education enrollment data from 2013-14 school year.
Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, http://www.trib.com