This study used focus groups called Thinking Circles to gather valuable experiential data on perceived protective and risk factors for STEM non-Native teachers that potentially impact American Indian student and non-American Indian educator persistence in American Indian reservation schools. Participants in this study were teachers (N=29) in a National Science Foundation funded Research Experience for Teachers (RET) program from 17 different tribes across the United States. All participants taught science or math on American Indian reservations. Some participants were citizens of the reservations they taught on (n=9), while other teachers were non-American Indians contracted by the reservations to teach (n=20) on native lands. Three separate Thinking Circles were conducted over three summers and participants were prompted to brainstorm protective and risk factors for: 1) STEM non-American Indian teachers’ relatability to American Indian students; 2) American Indian student persistence; and 3) retention of STEM non-American Indian educators on the reservation. Once data were transcribed and reviewed, several patterns of insights emerged across prompts. Common protective factors for all three prompts emphasized the need for STEM non-American Indian teachers to: 1) gain the trust of students; 2) build relationships with students’ families, 3) learn about and participate in the local culture and language; and 4) engage with community members to build rapport. Identified risk factors across prompts included: 1) student absences; 2) STEM non-American Indian teachers’ lack of understanding of tribal community hierarchy and culture; 3) STEM non-American Indian teachers not feeling welcome or comfortable to participate in community ceremonies, and 4) STEM non-American Indian teachers not understanding how to apply STEM concepts within their students’ cultural context and existing STEM knowledge. That these patterns of identified protective factors and risk factors appeared across prompts and across different tribal regions and grade levels suggests the potential benefit of a future study to further investigate the correlation between non-American Indian teacher training and improved American Indian student persistence in STEM. These results have the potential to transform precollege STEM classrooms in reservation schools, university recruitment programs, and university teacher preparation curriculum.
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