Educate US travelers ‘forever changed’ during week in tiny North Dakota school

Haleigh Eller, Caleb Pursell, Andrew Finch
and Delaney Nauman

Caleb Pursell simply wanted a taste of teaching in a rural area. And that’s exactly what he got in the Mandaree School District, located within North Dakota’s Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. The senior Elementary Education major joined three other NIU College of Education students on the Educate U.S. trip in May.

But Pursell returned home to Edwardsville, Illinois, with more than just an experience.

“I was extremely surprised by Mandaree’s openness to new teachers implementing their own plans,” Pursell says, “and I think I’m really willing to go into a rural place, to a place like Mandaree. I’ve [expanded] my horizons. I’m looking forward to after graduation to maybe seeing if they have any placements open there.”

His memories also include the resolve of the students and “their willingness to learn, despite some of the hardships they face in their lives,” he says, “along with their willingness to come to school every single day of their lives to engage with anything they can get their hands on, to be part of that educational environment.”

Pursell, along with NIU Elementary Education majors Haleigh Eller and Andrew Finch, and Early Childhood Education major Delaney Nauman, truly shared in something Jennifer Johnson calls “incredibly impactful.”

Oral histories provided by tribal elders in Mandaree speak of the long-ago construction of a dam that decimated their trio of respective lands with water, leaving them essentially homeless and, consequently, committed to setting aside their differences to come together.

Stories also tell of Native American children taken by the federal government in the 1950s, placed in boarding schools where their hair was cut and their languages and cultural knowledge were lost – a selective curriculum that, while perhaps of good intentions, essentially began to erase a proud heritage.

“The teachers there are so entrenched in providing whatever they can to make the students feel hopeful – to feel they have a future. It’s so incredibly impactful to see these teachers’ passion and gift to make a difference,” says Johnson, director of teacher preparation and development for the college.

“My impression is that our students were all very humbled by their observations and experiences – and saw the need to serve the underserved,” she adds. “They came away with a desire to find students where they’re at and to do what they can to serve them.”

Ninety-eight percent of Mandaree’s fewer than 200 students come from Native American tribes. Some of the two dozen teachers grew up in the Fort Berthold reservation or nearby; others grew up in other reservations.

One building serves the entire K-12 population, which is overseen by a superintendent, an elementary school principal and a high school principal. The district itself – a three-hour drive from the closest airport in Bismarck – falls under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Indian Education of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

From front right: Finch, Jennifer Johnson, Eller,
Dianne Zalesky, Nauman and Pursell

Dianne Zalesky, an instructor in the NIU Department of Curriculum and Instruction, and Johnson supervised the four students.

From their arrival Monday, May 14, to their departure five days later, Zalesky says, the group felt nothing but welcome. They toured the school building, met with the superintendent and principals and huddled with the teachers assigned to mentor them.

“We really became part of the community. It was amazing,” she says. “We ate lunch with the students. We ate breakfast with the students. We were invited to Game Night with some of the teachers.”

Nauman treasured her chance “to live the life of a Mandaree teacher.”

“I have never experienced a school in such a rural area. What I thought of as a ‘small town’ was completely changed,” says Nauman, who is from Sycamore, Illinois. “Their way of life is so different than what I’m accustomed to, just everyday life in general. You have to drive around two hours to get a grocery store or a Walmart.”

Yet in the kindergarten classroom where she spent much of her time, she found something quite familiar: a teacher who cared and children who were engaged in their education.

She watched students begin each morning with a discussion about the day of the week, the date and the weather. She saw them tally the number of days they had been in school. She heard them count to 100 – by 1s, 2s, 5s and 10s.

“I didn’t think that in those couple of days that I would be able to connect the way I did, but I got to experience a really positive learning environment and a great respect in the classroom for the teacher and the students,” Nauman says.

“Just the way the teacher, Mrs. Spotted Horse, talked to me about her students was amazing. She was so proud of them, and they were so proud of themselves. They were really eager to show me what they knew,” she adds. “I just hope to build those positive relationships when I teach. I want to make sure each student knows that I care about them as individuals.”

Delaney Nauman and Mrs. Spotted Horse

Finch glimpsed something wonderful a few doors away in the second-grade classroom.

“She was an incredible teacher that I really related to – laidback with a controlled-chaos view of teaching,” says Finch, from in Roscoe, Illinois. “She let the students sing or dance when they needed to get up and do something. She was very chill about that; so open.”

The moment of relief was ordered when some students were letting their attention drift during a review of spelling words, he says. “It was so cool for me to see that. I really loved that teacher. Having fun in school is so important.”

Eller, like Pursell, can picture herself in Mandaree.

“I would definitely be interested. I expressed interest to them while I was there that I would love to come back,” says Eller, who is from Mendota, Illinois.

“I just really loved the connection between staff members, and how tight they were. It felt like a family, and that’s a good environment to be in,” she adds. “I really loved that since it is so small, even the high school teachers know some of the first-graders. You don’t typically get that at bigger schools.”

Wherever she lands – Eller calls herself open and flexible, willing to teach “back home, in this area, in the suburbs, out of state” – she’s likely to adopt some of Mrs. Zink’s practices from Mandaree.

Zink’s first-graders “never stopped learning, which was very cool to see,” Eller says, adding that the children were orally quizzed on simple addition and subtraction while lining up for the water fountain or the restrooms.

“I really liked that she kept them on their toes, keeping things fresh in their minds and always practicing things they should know mentally,” she says. “I really liked how she incorporated that, even in wasted time, like taking a bathroom break.”

Preserving those 15 minutes of non-instruction time for math questions was part of the teacher’s nature, Eller adds.

Mrs. Zink and Haleigh Eller

“She kept things to a very tight schedule,” she says. “The children were very familiar with the routines in the classroom, and you could tell that was important to Mrs. Zink.”

NIU travelers spent their evenings together, of course – it’s a 40-minute drive to the closest town with shopping centers – and often in debriefing about the day.

“Even the Mandaree teachers would come to our house,” Nauman says. “One night, I think we talked for seven hours straight. The time just flew by. It was really great to have that passionate conversation.”

Zalesky, who taught for 33 years in the Algonquin-based Community Unit School District 300 before coming to NIU, found many reasons to praise the Educate U.S. quartet.

“Their professionalism. Their collaboration. They asked good questions. They didn’t hesitate at all to interact with the teachers or the students. They wanted to learn as much as they could about the culture,” she says.

“The more experiences they get in diverse settings, the better,” she adds.

“They need to see that all students are different, and that differentiation needs to take place. You need to know your students – and how that impacts what you do in the classroom.”

Johnson heard from some that they felt “forever changed” by their time in North Dakota.

Finch, Eller, Pursell and Nauman

The College of Education pays all travel expenses for Educate U.S. participants. Housing accommodations are provided by the partner districts, allowing Educate U.S. participants the opportunity to experience community, culture and authentic home-school connections.

Those in the North Dakota group who traveled previously with Educate U.S. to Texas now have glimpsed two distinct districts.

“In Houston, we see a diverse population of students, and varied socio-economic status, but all are achieving. In Mandaree, we saw extreme poverty and test scores well below the North Dakota state average. Our candidates wanted to know what could be done to make a difference,” Johnson says.

“And they saw that it’s the teachers,” she adds. “The teachers there talk as if they’ve been called. This is a calling for them. They’re doing what they’re doing because they all care about these children and this place.”

That includes the non-teaching staff, she adds.

“One woman – the librarian – she said to our students, ‘The best thing you could do for these students is love them.’ She actually got tears in her eyes when she talked to us,” Johnson says. “She also said, ‘These kids start out school full of hope, and full of excitement. We have to find a way to keep that hope in the students.’ ”

Mandaree’s caring educators deeply impacted Pursell, the student who’s now contemplating a teaching career on the reservation.

“What I liked the most was seeing a school that has such a low graduation rate and a rate of students who go on to college and actual careers also having such a high, positive attitude,” he says. “At the elementary level, the students are very happy to be at the school, and they’re very engaged in their lessons.”

Ms. Coyoc and Caleb Pursell

It also mirrors his reasons for wanting to teach.

“I’m asked this quite often, and my answer changes every time,” Pursell says.

“But really the drawing factor is the ability to engage with, and educate, children while educating myself on just all this world has to offer and all that we can learn,” he adds, “and being able to educate young minds, and work with young minds to really make a better tomorrow and open them up to the opportunities that lie ahead.”

While not all of NIU’s four educator-licensure candidates can see a place for themselves in a school district so small, so remote and so far from home, they hope that the College of Education can organize more trips to Mandaree for their peers.

And they’re not the only ones.

“The superintendent emphasized what a wonderful experience it was and how happy she was that we were able to come. She would like to see the visits continue in the future,” Zalesky says.

So would the teachers.

“On our last day there, one of the elder teachers invited us to her classroom. She had been the one who had the most history to share with us,” Zalesky says. “Her students presented us with blankets and thanked us for coming. As we walked out of the school, another teacher saw the blankets and said, ‘Oh, you’ve been honored.’ It was an honor that we had gone there to take care of their children.”

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