Dear Governor Ducey,

I’m back from my too-long-away book-hawking-conference-going-research-digging road trip. Well, I’m not actually quite back. I’m in Torrey, Utah, writing a letter to you before I drive the last six hours back to Flagstaff. It’s cool here in the mornings. The sun is coming up, turning the night-gray rocks back to orange and red ribbons. Normally, I hate to leave this place. It’s my writing place. But this time, it’s really time to get home to see my cats and argue with the clouds to try to get them to gather monsoonily.

I thought I’d write you a letter really quick to tell you about one part of my trip, which, unlike the other parts, will be the part you will most assiduously ignore because it’s about something you can help with. After I drove from UC Davis to Salt Lake City, I flew to Connecticut to participate in the Yale National Initiative. This was another example, I have to admit, of agreeing to do something before I really know what I’m getting into. My policy of saying "yes" sometimes bites me in the butt and I end up on a committee for finding ways to salvage old computers to turn them into art. But this was not that. This was actually a "yes" that was truly one of the coolest "yeses" I have ever said.

I found the three other faculty members from NAU and we read over the schedule at the dorm built two years ago but made to look like dorms of yesteryear. Breakfast in the cafeteria at 8 a.m. And then we went to sleep because every hour from that breakfast on was scheduled to immerse us in the Theory of Change and Institute philosophy.

At the Institute, K-12 teachers are called fellows and they come to Yale to take seminars with Yale professors—energy science, democracy, mass incarceration and essay writing. As NAU faculty, we are here to observe to see how to do this at our institute. Yale pairs, mainly, with teachers from the New Haven school district. NAU will partner with the Navajo Nation, creating a Diné Institute in Flagstaff. Six Navajo teachers were part of our team. Professors hold seminar sessions with fellows to deep-teach subject matter. The teachers take the seminar, but, instead of writing seminar papers, they develop the material into curriculum for their students. A kindergarten teacher develops it one way. A 12th grade teacher develops it another. As faculty, we aren’t responsible for that development. The teachers are the experts of their pedagogy. There is no hierarchy. University teachers know their subject. K-12 teachers know how to teach. The hope is that by taking a seminar in a particular subject, the K-12 teachers will have new enthusiasm for the seminar-subject. The other hope is the university professors learn new pedagogical skills for the classroom.

Teacher retention at the K-12 level is low. Morale is low. The amount of respect given to teachers is low. Pay is low. There is some sort of disconnect between the work teachers do and how the public (or, in this case, you) perceive them. This institute is one way to help change that perception and to infuse a little morale into the system. Perhaps, the thinking goes, if teachers are seen as experts with exclusive skills, then the public (and, in this case, you, dear Governor), will understand how valuable teachers are.

The Theory of Change argues the initiative can’t affect change across the board, but that it can change individual teachers, professors and students. And, as these institutes grow across the country, more teachers, professors and students, will benefit from the change.

It’s amazing the amount of work people put into the institute. Angelina Castagno, our director at the Diné Institute, writes grants to help fund it. Faculty develop new seminars for the fellows. The fellows spend graduate level hours learning their subject and then developing it into curriculum. The work, the amount of brainwork, people put into this project seems almost impossible. Yet, here these fellows are, working in the summer to infuse some state-of-the-art material into their classes, transforming the material so it makes sense to 8-year-olds and 18-year-olds. You’d think this would translate to respect. You think the fellows would be perceived as the intellectual powerhouses they are. But then, it’s summer. Perhaps you’re on a break. Maybe in the fall, you’ll think in a new way.

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Nicole Walker is a professor at Northern Arizona University, and is the author of Quench Your Thirst with Salt and a collection of poems, This Noisy Egg. She edited, with Margot Singer, Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction, and is the recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment from the Arts. The thoughts expressed here are hers alone and not necessarily those of her employer. For more letters, visit www.nikwalk.blogspot.com.


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