A 'Wisdom Keeper' Draws From A Deep Well Of Navajo Culture : NPR Ed In the Navajo culture, teachers are revered and trusted. Tia Tsosie Begay is no exception, making sure her fourth-graders know that "someone believes in them."
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A 'Wisdom Keeper' Draws From A Deep Well Of Navajo Culture

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A 'Wisdom Keeper' Draws From A Deep Well Of Navajo Culture

A 'Wisdom Keeper' Draws From A Deep Well Of Navajo Culture

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In Navajo culture, teachers are called wisdom keepers - like that. They are revered and entrusted with the young. So when you give your child to this wisdom keeper, it is a magical thing. For our 50 Great Teachers series, NPR's Claudio Sanchez has a profile of a Navajo teacher on the outskirts of Tucson, Ariz.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Tia Tsosie Begay likes to introduce herself in her traditional language.

TIA TSOSIE BEGAY: (Speaking Navajo).

SANCHEZ: In Navajo, she says, your name is your identity.

BEGAY: Our healing power is through humor and laughter. And so I try to bring that across into my classroom.

SANCHEZ: When we first met Tia, it was Queen and King Day at her school.

BEGAY: I always wear a crown to school, just to let you know (laughter).

SANCHEZ: Los Ninos Elementary serves mostly Mexican-American and Native American families, Yaqui and Tohono O'odham, along with a few Somali kids. This morning, though, Tia is worried. It's 7:30, and the parent she's been trying to meet with is a no-show again. Tia desperately needs to talk to her about her little boy.

BEGAY: Right now, he is about a year behind. When I first met him, he was about two years behind.

SANCHEZ: But is he intelligent?

BEGAY: Yes, absolutely.

SANCHEZ: But he's always late and has already missed way too much school, says Tia. She suspects there are problems at home. We're not using the little boy's name to protect his privacy.

BEGAY: Get your laptops out. Log on to Ms. Begay's...

SANCHEZ: Tia's classroom is a beehive of activity. It's cluttered in a good way. Bookcases overflow with fiction and nonfiction books. One shelf is set aside for books about Komodo dragons, slugs, stink bugs and a class favorite, titled "Why Do Animals Do That?" It's 8:45, and the little boy Tia's so worried about finally walks in, his head bowed.

BEGAY: Hey, just made it.

SANCHEZ: Tia greets him warmly.

BEGAY: He already feels this down-ness (ph). And I see that he transitions quicker if I just say, glad you're here.

SANCHEZ: Of the 25 children in her class, this particular boy is the one who's testing Tia's long-held conviction that no child, no matter how troubled, is a lost cause. She says it's the unspoken pledge teachers start out with.

BEGAY: (Laughter). When you go into teaching, you go in very starry-eyed. Oh, I'm going to make a difference in the world. I'm going to do all these amazing things. I'm going to light the fire.

SANCHEZ: And then what happens?

BEGAY: Then you realize - (laughter) - that - what kind of class you have, that it's really very varied and that you have, you know, students who are one to two years below grade level. And you realize how quickly time is passing you by. And you're not where you thought you'd be.

SANCHEZ: Teaching was actually not Tia's first calling. When she left the Navajo reservation in northeastern Arizona where she grew up, Tia says she thought about law school, linguistics and politics. But then she started mentoring kids.

BEGAY: And I thought, let me try teaching.

SANCHEZ: After earning her master's in education from the University of Arizona, Tia married, had two children, taught for six years and then spent another five training other teachers.

BEGAY: I want you to find the page that we read yesterday...

SANCHEZ: Now, at age 35, she's back doing what she loves most, watching the proverbial light bulb go on in a child's head - like this morning, when one of her students who's struggling with English blurted out...

BEGAY: We need to use textual evidence. I was very excited about that.

SANCHEZ: Yeah, you got goose-bumps.

BEGAY: Yeah, I did (laughter).

SANCHEZ: The morning has been a blur. It's noon, time for lunch and the pizza chant.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: I'm going to be the pizza man.

BEGAY: Pizza man?

STUDENTS: Pizza man.

SANCHEZ: During lunch, I asked Tia's students what they like about her. She never gets angry, says one girl. She's funny and likes telling jokes, says a boy, like the one she told the other day.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: What do ghosts eat for dinner? S-boo-ghetti.

SANCHEZ: I wince. One little girl's comment, though, stays with me. She teaches me when I don't want to learn, she says under her breath.

To me, it's very profound for a child to say, this person is drawing me out to do something that I don't even expect myself to do, don't you think?

BEGAY: Yeah. They don't verbalize that to me. But I think that's what I strive for. You know, I want them to enjoy school. I want them to feel like someone believes in them.

SANCHEZ: It's a half-day at Los Ninos Elementary. Tia dismisses her students, but as they scatter, she realizes she forgot to hold on to that troubled boy in her class.

BEGAY: I hope he didn't take off.

SANCHEZ: Tia had planned to walk with him to meet his mom on the pedestrian bridge that he crosses to get to school.

BEGAY: I think that's them on that side.

SANCHEZ: In the distance, she spots the boy in his little blue vest and a paper crown walking with his mother. Tia is really upset with herself.

BEGAY: Within two or three years, he's going to drop out of school.

SANCHEZ: Why would anybody allow that to happen, to have a child fail?

BEGAY: I hope nobody would.

SANCHEZ: But that's the thing, says Tia, holding back tears. Some children have no one able or willing to fight for them. So who else if not their teacher?

BEGAY: I want them to be able to say, one person at least, Ms. Begay - Ms. Begay is there every day for me. Ms. Begay's going to wonder where I'm at. If I go missing, there'll be one person who's looking out for me, and it's Mrs. Begay.

SANCHEZ: Tomorrow, I will be on that bridge, says Tia. And if necessary, I'll be there the next day, and the next and the next. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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