Main | Birth of the Art Club (or, my real dream of an environmental club) »

Keep cool


It’s not in the state standards, but it’s one of those life skills all teachers must teach. And so, in the first week of school this year, my students and I found ourselves abandoning reading class for 15 minutes to walk around the classroom with our shoulders thrown back and heads proud in the air to practice looking “cool.”

“Cool” is to be proud and comfortable with who you are, I explained after two girls snuck into the resource room 15 minutes late because they were too embarrassed to be seen entering the special education classroom. “Cool” is to not pretend to be like someone else. Otherwise you’re just a poser. (And no one, not even the most desperate of 13-year-olds, wants to be labeled a poser.) If you stay unaffected by the taunts, you’re really just proving to folks that you’re too cool to care. You’ll know you’ve really reached the height of cool when folks like you for being you.

Now, I’m not entirely certain, but I think over the past year, I have sort of, kind of become cool at school.

And it’s not just because those eighth grade girls say good-morning to me now and kids tell me my gold sequined shoes are “neat.” It’s because last year’s parents are still coming around, but now to give me a hug. It’s because I know what I’ll be teaching in math tomorrow and the next day and the day after. It’s because I finally figured out how to best run those Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meetings and it’s because my 60-year-old Navajo colleagues are still asking me when I’m going to finally get married.

As I start my second-year at a K-8 school on the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, I think I’m finally finding my own niche. As a 23-year-old Asian-American teacher from the East Coast, I’ll never quite blend in with the staff that is about 90 percent Native American and past 40-years-old. Even the click-clack of my high-heeled sandals seems out of place on this mesa. Yet, this profession and land are feeling more familiar. Teaching is still the hardest thing I’ve ever tried, but at least I’m more confident with myself as an educator and as an outsider in this rural community.

When I first joined the school last August, I was new to the region, new to the job and new to the field of education. I studied journalism and worked in the media throughout college. Then, just months before my graduation, I decided to apply to Teach For America, a service program that trains and supports college grads to become teachers in underresourced communities around the country. That autumn, I found myself on a mesa on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico, teaching 7th and 8th grade Special Ed. There were two gas stations in town. I drove an hour to buy groceries. It was a far-cry from the urban-suburban confines of the Washington, D.C.-region where I had grown up.

Then again, teaching wasn’t what I had planned for either. Who would have guessed that I would spend my evenings writing lesson plans, cutting out manipulatives and making phone calls to parents? But the more I do it, the more it all makes sense.

It’s the second month of school, and I’m brimming with hope and confidence. I haven’t even shed a tear yet. Now, all I have to worry about is keeping this cool until May.


Sounds like a wonderful year ahead...I have a couple of pre-service special ed teachers in a university-level comp class I'm currently teaching (Chicago suburban area). I'm going to give them the URL for your blogs. I taught in rural Poland for a month in 1999 for Global Volunteers, and am going to be avidly reading your experiences. Enjoy. Anything that your "audience" can do to help or send? I have a few recent news magazines that might be fun or enrichment in a classroom...
posted 9/14/06

I enjoyed reading about your experience and appreciate the "practice being cool walk" that you took the time to lead. I, too, unexpectedly, taught a special education class last year. My students were teenagers in a residential facility in the Philadelphia area. I also found it to be a tough job, yet, rewarding. Your students are lucky to have you. Good luck!

It's a totally new environment when you're a city person placed in a reservation setting to teach. It's a microcosm of the world wrapped into one concentrated area. Each precious student has his/her own issues to tackle, far different from his parents', and more so from his/her grandparents' world. Many are fortunate to carry on the traditional & cultural teachings of many generations, even the language. All of these factor into the larger picture when NCLB comes into play. The writers of the Bill may not have fully considered the complex environment of the Native American child.

I admire Ms. Shyu's dedication and attitude. Learn Well Graphics produces unique reading programs for middle school age students (they're really great for Special Ed and struggling readers) - and we would be very happy to donate products to her school if she feels they are appropriate. Where can we send materials?

HANG IN THERE Ms. Shyu. You will be greatly rewarded. Reading your letter made me homesick for the west. I taught for five years on the Papago (has new name now)Reservation in Arizona and those experiences have remained with me throughout my teaching career. I have taught 40 years-still teaching and loving it. Tell us more about your experiences.

I also teach at middle school at a Native American school! I am beginning my 3rd year, and I can totally identify with you. I love my job! It's nice to know that other people look at their teaching experience with such a positive attitude when there are so many things in teaching that are viewed in a negative light. Good luck! I will look forward to reading your next blog!

TouchMath likes to support students and teachers from all areas of the country.
Have you used TouchMath? Let us know if you need materials and if they would be appropriate for your students' abilities. Ask for Lyn. 1-800-888-9191.

I am a journalism / secondary education major at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. As a part of my Education 008 course, I am volunteering at an alternative Native American High School in the city. While it is a far cry from a reservation, I am interested in how the Native American environment here will compare with that of a reservation. I look forward to avidly reading your blog. Good luck!

Ms. Shyu: Working with and teaching Native kids is a gift from the Creator. Keep your focus and find a true mentor who will provide you with the support you will need. You will never be sorry you both gave and cared.

Good job! I was wondering though, how the older Native Americans treated you and thought of you.

I am so glad that you are understanding the problems that "special education" students have and are helping them so much.
Special Education teachers are faced with the problems that NCLB has created. There is no cookie cutter mold that will fit all. Good luck. Self-esteem is the hardest thing to elevate in any student that is in that category. All students are "special" in their own way of learning. By the time they reach us their self-esteem has been distroyed by peers and teachers alike because of the frustrations they have to endure until they are staffed. Unfortunately, we now have to send them back to their regular classrooms, because the goverment mandates all schools to have inclusion where students are not seperated for the help that they need so desperately. They now have differential help to compete with the other students and be frustated once again. I too work with getting the self-esteem in my students to go higher. It is too bad that the regular teachers, as professionals, don't have as much background dealing with special education students; unless they have been taught or have graduated within the last 5-10 years. Schools now a days are teaching the newer graduates to have that kind of sensitivity. Teachers before were mostly taught that special education students were always pulled out to get special help; were not embarassed to learn at a lower level; and were happy to have special treatment. When these students returned to the classroom their self-esteem still intact. The other students concentrated on what they were doing not watching as the other students were somewhere else at that time. Many kids went to many kinds of resource programs so it was more common.

My school is quite large having K-6 and between 900 to 1200 students per year. We are somewhat "international" with 33 nationalities represented. Many have their self esteem broken even before they get to us. My school is in Chicago and I think that I make a difference with my students too. There is a program that you might want to contact called "Changing Worlds" in Chicago, Illinois that helps our students, promotes their nationalities, and helps them with many diverse needs. This organization may be able to give you advice or assistance. They could give you some ideas that may help too.

Jessica---your blogs are so inspiring. Even for non-teachers out there, your entries speak to all of us about caring for our community. So keep on!

Hi Miss Jessica,
Welcome to a special world within worlds. My youngest daughter Miranda is applying to the program "Teach for America" this month. Last February, we visted two schools that participate in the program in the Gallup area. She also wants to teach on a reservation in New Mexico.

The beauty of your article is two fold. First, letting people know about the "Teach for America" program and secondly, that the Native population still thrives. I work at a community college in Southern California, and it shocks me when I discover that many student believe that the Indians are no more. Jessica, thank you for becoming part of the Navajo people lives. Gail

I taught on the Navajo Reservation for 14 years. I understand completely the things you have discussed. I went there when the parents still brought their children to school by horse and wagon. We lived 150 miles from the nearest Arizona town, 130 from the nearest New Mexico town, and 110 from the nearest Colorado town. We went to town once a month to buy groceries. I experienced culture shock and found it to be a very difficult experience my first year; however, over the years, it became one of the most rewarding experiences I had in my career. (I was a secondary English major and was assigned to teach the low achievers in third grade). One of the other areas you are dealing with besides the culture is that many of them need help with the English language. There is a professional organization, Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), that has resources, experts, etc. in the field to help as you learn how to meet these children's needs. Arizona has an affiliate of this group. The Arizona TESOL (AZ-TESOL)organization is hosting the Rocky Mountain Regional Convention at Thunderbird International School of Management in Phoenix October 14-15. The AZ-TESOL website is and the convention link is
The convention will have participants from AZ, NM, UT, CO, and maybe a few from ID and WY. It will give you an oppportunity to network, attend presentations, and see the materials that are available for working with English Language Learners (ELLs). The international TESOL Convention will be in Seattle, Washington in late March 2007. If at all possible, it would be great if you could attend.
TESOL gave me the tools to be an excellent teacher. I have maintained my membership for over 30 years and look forward to going there each year to network and learn from colleagues in the field. I've also lived on the East Coast and understand the vast difference between the two areas. I would be happy to talk with you further if you are interested.

I admire your courage and dedication. You are a true model of what teachers should be...tackling the unknown and making it become the familiar, helping students to become successful adults, one step at a time. No matter where you teach, or the students you teach, there will be difficulties, but with courage and dedication, they can be overcome. And what joy there is in learning about another culture. I am a 15 year veteran and I still love teaching. Thanks for sharing your experiences. My prayers and good wishes are with you, and I am looking forward to hearing more about your teaching experience.


I thought I was living in rural experience until I read your blog. In high school, I lived in Albuquerque and I was on the football team. I saw a few different reservations playing football against rival teams. It was quite the experience.

I am new to teaching this year and I feel somewhat odd in my position. I am an (the only) African-American male teaching at a school in a predominately white rural area. It's not as far out as your situation but it is different.

I must say that I am a city person. I have lived in the Bay Area, Atlanta, and I was also raised in Boston. I have been spoiled by the little cafes, places to go, and all the eclectic trappings of a metro region.

But on the other side, I realize that many of these kids are needy. I am older and I am seeing the ramifications of divorce and broken families from the last twenty years ( generation after generation) affecting these group of tweens. There is so much pain and they're just looking for that fresh breath, new air to make them feel safe, make them feel accepted, make them feel "cool."

hello and keep up the good work.
Many years ago, I started teaching on a 'reserve', as reservations have been called in Canada, at 'Port Simpson Indian Day School'as it was know then (see below),in British Columbia,Canada. I participated in a very interesting part of a takeover, related to "Indian Control of Indian Schools". After much controversy, it ended up with our school and, later, many others, becoming controled by the local Band Education committee.
Although I only taught there one year (Grade 2), I really learned a lot about the community and myself, and was sad to leave for another position.
I later went on to teach in Inner City Toronto, Ontario, teaching English as a Second Language to elementary students, and also to teachers in training at York University and University of Toronto.
Before I took early retirement, I was Principal-on-call, as well as team member for successful teaching an Integrated Homeroom/Special Ed.(Behavioral) Innercity Intermediate students. I also helped write the curriculum and taught/supervised the early years of the Toronto Public Schools' African Cultural Heritage Program,in up to 23 schools. After early retirement, I went back to University, as a member of the governing council, and completed a Criminology degree, and am now working on pursuing a law degree...
who knows what lies ahead!!!


see also:

Thanks Jessica for sharing your experiences of how to do "quick-change" and to remember "that it's always about the students."
Education and certification are important, but nothing can replace OJT.
Keep "walking a mile in their shoes" and you'll have a great year.
an educational consultant

Hey Jessica,
I am currently a student teacher at Many Farms High School on the Navajo Reservation. I found you article very interesting and I too have struggled from time to time to be culturally accepted as "cool". Perhaps this is because I am from Ohio or maybe it is because I am one of the few "white" people here at Many Farms. Yet, as you have found out, becoming "cool" is a battle that helps you establish friendships here on the reservation that will last for ever. I was curious as to what town you are teaching in and how things are currently going? Please feel free to email me anytime.
Best of luck,

I would love to connect with people who have taught, like Jessica, with indigenous populations. If you have done so, I'd appraciate it if you could email me. [email protected]


Comments are now closed for this post.


Recent Comments

  • Samantha Sims: I would love to connect with people who have taught, read more
  • Justin Hillier: Hey Jessica, I am currently a student teacher at Many read more
  • Lila Griffin: Thanks Jessica for sharing your experiences of how to do read more
  • david: hello and keep up the good work. Many years ago, read more
  • Michael: Jessica, I thought I was living in rural experience until read more




Technorati search

» Blogs that link here