APUS Alumni Stories: Educating Native American Students

Author: Melanie Conner
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Start a degree program at American Public University.

By Melanie Conner, APUS Alumni Affairs Liaison, and Kathy Dorner, APU Graduate

APU graduate Kathy Dorner completed a Master’s in Education: School Counseling in 2018. Kathy is now an elementary school counselor at McLaughlin School in McLaughlin, South Dakota, working with approximately 215 students from pre-kindergarten through the fifth grade.Kathy Dorner Native American students

South Dakota was her first choice for placement. Kathy came to the Standing Rock Reservation as a kindergarten teacher in 2013 through the Teach for America program and later switched to teaching first grade. She was selected because of her leadership skills and her Native American heritage.

In December 2013, the school’s guidance counselor left. Because of Kathy’s undergraduate background in social work, the school board asked her to step into the counselor’s role. She initially divided her time between teaching and counseling.

We connected with Kathy to learn more about how she entered the counseling field and what her biggest challenges are.

Why did you decide to pursue a degree in education, specifically counseling?

In 2014, I realized that my social work background was not enough to continue in the school counselor role. I decided to look for a program that would help me to be better for my students, which is when I found APU’s Master in Education: School Counseling program.

The program has helped me hone my time management skills. It also helped me identify and find research-based interventions for my students.

I favor solution-focused interventions with my students because they work. I also deal with children who experience a lot of grief due to high suicide rates and low life expectancy of Native Americans.

I utilize two books to help children deal with their grief. One is “When Someone Very Special Dies: Children Can Learn to Cope with Grief” written by Marge Heegaard and “It Must Hurt a Lot: A Book about Death and Learning and Growing (Hurts of Childhood Series)” by Doris Sanford.

How did you prepare to enter this field?

I initially volunteered at church as a safe sanctuary coordinator. In this role, I made things safe for children and changed the way people were thinking by identifying beneficial tips to make the church safe for children from possible predators.

I developed a passion for education and for underprivileged children, and I believe in education equity. In my hometown of Mill Hall, Pennsylvania, the high school did not have textbooks for all their students. Through advocating the school board, the school district now has textbooks for all students.

What are the biggest challenges that you face in your role?  

The biggest challenges that I face as a school counselor are having adequate resources for my children. Mental health providers are limited on the reservation, and that sets unrealistic expectations on my role as a school counselor.

Helping my students achieve balance in their lives outside of school is a challenge. Getting children to understand that if they have a rough night at home, it can affect [them] the next day. It is not easy for students to cope with the high academic expectations of school when their lives are falling apart.

What advice do you have for people seeking a career in your field?

If you’re seeking a career in school counseling, I suggest that you pay attention to multicultural teaching. It has been extremely beneficial for me, as approximately 99% of the children at McLaughlin School are Native American. I have been able to use appropriate interventions that I learned from my multicultural teaching courses and resolve student problems.

What is your greatest accomplishment to date?

So far, working with and building relationships with communities has been my greatest accomplishment. As an outsider in Standing Rock, I show that it does take a village to raise children. Parents and grandparents call me for guidance and support.

I am respectful of the Hunkpapa and Lakota Nation beliefs. I also go out to community events and speak at healing and memorial services to stay engaged with the community.

What do you like to do your free time?

In my free time, I love to bake and share my baked goods. My favorite thing to make is apple pie.

Kathy is a member of the AMU/APU School Counseling Alumni Network on Facebook. This group, mentored by Dr. Kimberly Ratliff, the School of Education Program Director, is an opportunity for AMU and APU alumni to connect and to share their counseling experiences.  Dr. Ratliff frequently shares counseling tips and interview tips, and members share open counseling positions.  

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APUS Alumni Stories: Educating Native American Students
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