Community-Centered Education: How I Uplift My Culture as an Educator

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2023 Changemaker: Teacher Andrea Thomas graphic

Andrea Thomas is a 3rd and 4th grade teacher at Dream Diné Charter School in Shiprock, New Mexico. She is also an inspiring educator and a recipient of the 2023 Changemaker Award for National Charter Schools Week 2023. 

Andrea is an educator who believe that students of all cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds deserve access to excellent teachers and high-quality instruction within their own communities. Coming from a family of educators and school administrators, Andrea has a true passion for teaching and preparing the next generation of learners. In addition to teaching, Andrea is also the Vice President of the Navajo Nation Board of Education and empowers her local teachers and parents to advocate for improved public education. She was recently recognized by the New Mexico House of Representatives for “Significant Achievements to the Community.” 

The National Alliance connected with Andrea for a Q&A about her experience as a teacher and in a charter school: 

How has working at a charter shaped your career as an educator? 

I have worked at charter schools both as a student and as a licensed teacher. And I have also worked in traditional public school settings. Teaching at charter schools has allowed me to develop teaching practices in a way that is more immediately responsive to the needs of my students and their particular learning environment. The flexibility and adaptive ability of charter schools have shaped my career as an educator by giving me the creative breadth to draw my practices not only from my formal professional training but also from my connection to my Navajo community, language, and tradition.  

Tell us one of your favorite anecdotes from being a teacher that showcases why you do this work. 

This year, my first class of elementary school students will be graduating from high school. I am very proud to see students who, like me, grew up and were educated in a rural reservation town in New Mexico take this momentous step towards bright and exciting futures. My commitment as a teacher has always been to provide a ladder for the children of my community and culture to grow, thrive, and never forget their roots. 

What do you love about being a teacher- at a charter school, or in general?  

I love teaching because I love my culture and I want to see our Dinè youth carry themselves proudly and successfully into this generation and the next. Our Navajo leader, Chief Manuelito, despite a career of fighting desperately with a colonizing power, believed that education was our ladder in the world. Education is revival, empowerment, and hope for a people and place where these things can be hard to find. 

What made you decide to be a teacher? 

I come from a family of educators. My grandfather, or Cheii, was removed from his home and family in order to attend boarding schools in California and Oklahoma. He used these experiences as stepping stones for a brighter future and one of success and reconciliation. He received bachelors and advanced degrees in education and returned to the reservation to serve his community for years as a school principal and superintendent. He raised his family to share his value for education. His daughter, my mother, and now me, have carried this legacy as a dedication to both our past and future. 

What makes you most excited about the future of public education or what opportunities do you see? 

If we commit to and invest in public education I believe that it will be the foundation upon which we as communities, cultures, states, and an entire country build our aspirations and success. I am excited to be part of the public charter movement because I believe that this model gives us the ability to honor and adapt to the rich diversity of local and regional American experiences while also enabling us all to rise and succeed together. 

Meet more teacher 2023 Changemakers and join the National Charter Schools Week celebration!