Editor’s note: This story is part of our series profiling teachers in a local Courage to Teach program called the WoLakota Project — a partnership with the South Dakota Department of Education, Technology & Innovation in Education (TIE), and South Dakota Elders. The WoLakota Project’s goal is to improve new teacher retention and help teachers integrate Native American wisdom into all schools in South Dakota. LeeVi Story was in the second cohort of WoLakota teachers during the 2014-2015 school year. Her passion for teaching her cheer team how to lead with kindness rippled into a story of young people seeing the power of love and understanding.
Missed DAY ONE’s blog? Click here to get the background of the WoLakota Project.
Missed DAY TWO’S blog? Click to read the inspiring story of one teacher’s renewal.
Two teams of cheerleaders are breaking down barriers by leading with kindness and authenticity.
Be the Change You Want to See
“I want my girls to believe in themselves and see that they are part of change,” said LeeVi Story, a middle school teacher and cheer team coach in a remote South Dakota farming town called Newell.
Now, many students now believe in themselves and each other! It all started when LeeVi attended a Courage to Teach retreat as part of the WoLakota Project, which helped her envision the change that was possible.
“In the Courage to Teach circle, I did enough reflection to come up with these goals and know that’s exactly what I want for this program and my kids,” said LeeVi.
Her goal? To have cheerleaders be the catalyst for a new sense of spirit and pride amongst the Newell community.
Like in many small towns in South Dakota, people in Newell are wrestling with alcoholism, drug abuse, poverty and unemployment. It’s hard to be positive in those conditions – and it shows. But unlike the reservation where LeeVi grew up, people in Newell didn’t have the same kind of supportive community.
LeeVi grew up in another South Dakota town near the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations. Her mother and grandmothers were dedicated teachers in those communities. She saw firsthand how a school could be the heart of the community, even in the midst of despair and discouragement.
“Where I’m from, everybody goes to games whether you have a kid out there or not, and you have pride, even at the grocery store talking about the game or wearing school colors. But at Newell, hardly anybody showed up, there was no student section. Games were too quiet.”
LeeVi said to herself, “This has got to change!” So the day she was hired to teach at Newell School, she asked if she could start a cheer team. She’d been a cheerleader. “It’s part of who I am,” she said. The athletic director laughed in her face. He didn’t think she could do it.
Over the next 18 months, LeeVi recruited three then 12 then 20 students to join the cheer team. They withstood mockery and harassment from the athletes and other students, but eventually the tide turned. More fans started coming to games, getting louder, even when the team wasn’t winning.
“Be the change you want to see. My girls refer to that quote a lot,” said LeeVi. “If we want to make the school a positive place, we have to be positive. It starts with us. ‘Being the nicest girls in school’ sums it up, and being there for every person. My girls know that. And they’re coaching each other.”
Be the change you want to see. But how, when the odds are stacked so high against you? How do you create change in a big way? You start with small ways, like practicing how to be kind.
LeeVi learned “how” at the Courage to Teach retreats as part of the WoLakota Project. (The word “WoLakota” implies balance and coming together.) Kindness starts with understanding each other as human beings.
“From getting to know the experienced teacher-mentors at Courage to Teach, I learned I wasn’t alone. I could ask for help and I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel,” said LeeVi.
“Teaching is hard. All we have is each other. If we don’t help each other out, who will? From the Courage to Teach circle, that’s what I came away with. We have to be there for each other.”
LeeVi wanted her cheer team to have that experience of supportive community, too.
The Newell cheerleaders pose for a photo with LeeVi (in blue).
LeeVi introduced weekly “circle time” to create the safe space where her students could listen to each other’s stories. The girls are invited to share what’s going on, whether that’s about family, or math, or anything, good or bad. The Courage touchstone of “no fixing, saving or advising,” is a tough but helpful concept for adolescent girls. It helped LeeVi’s cheerleaders focus on their goal to be there for everyone, to be the kindest girls in school.
“It helps to remember we’re all human beings with things going on,” said LeeVi.
“When you’re sharing and people are listening, it takes you to a whole new level. The girls who are returning to the cheer team have expressed to the younger girls that this team is family,” said LeeVi. “And that’s what I think of my Courage to Teach circle; they’re family. There are hugs and tears after not seeing each other after a few months.”
Reaching Out to Share Support
At the first Courage to Teach retreat, LeeVi met Ira Taken Alive. Ira was starting a cheer team at McLaughlin School on the Standing Rock reservation where he volunteers and is on the school board. The two stayed up into the wee hours, sharing their struggles and hopes, talking about how LeeVi’s team might help.
When LeeVi got home and told her cheerleaders about the girls at McLaughlin forming a cheer team too, the Newell girls decided not to be rivals, but to offer support and friendship.
“I wanted my girls to know that others are in the same boat, as frustrated and upset but motivated by the same dream,” said LeeVi.
In solidarity, the girls sent the McLaughlin team a school spirit care package along with a five-page letter full of ideas, suggestions and encouragement. They shared all that they’d been doing as a team to grow school spirit and to grow as a team, including the Courage Circle practices.
“Students showing thoughtfulness, kindness and empathy to another group is exactly what we should see youth doing in a world of competition,” said LeeVI. “It was the ultimate awesome!”
One thing led to another. The young women communicated through the coaches, relaying messages through Ira and LeeVi. The schools are a district apart and three hours away. Eventually their teams won the right games, giving the cheerleaders a chance to meet at a game.
“There are no words for that! It was so cool to see the hugs and love,” said LeeVi. “They instantly knew each other. The McLaughlin girls sat in our front row and cheered for our school.
“So we reciprocated, watching the brackets so we could go to a McLaughlin game. I told my superintendent, ‘This sounds really weird, but we need a school vehicle to go to this game.’ He said yes. I was excited the whole time!”
“Remember, McLaughlin is a reservation community. Basketball is life and death,” said LeeVi. “Everyone in the town would be there. My girls were speechless to see how many people were there cheering, a deafening sound. We sat in McLaughlin’s student section.”
“Is it like this every time?” asked the girls. “We have to do this at Newell. This is our new goal!”
“It came full circle,” said LeeVi. “We were mentoring them, but then saw that what they had is what we wanted. It was such an incredible experience!”
“Just a little bit of kindness, empathy, thinking, reaching out. It only took an hour of our time at first. That’s what helped push them forward, Ira told me.”
By the end of the season, the McLaughlin cheerleaders and basketball team made it to the state tournament, where the cheer team won the Spirit of Six award. “It’s the ultimate thing!” said LeeVi excitedly. “We felt like we won it, too. We were all celebrating.”
When the Newell students connected heart to heart with the cheer team from McLaughlin, it opened their eyes to the incredible community, resiliency and courage of people from the Standing Rock reservation.
Takeaways from Courage to Teach
The heartwarming friendship between Newell and McLaughlin cheerleaders is one visible outcome, but LeeVi had many takeaways. One benefit includes the “crazy bond” between the six teachers and principal who attended her Courage to Teach series. Even though they work in different areas, there is a feeling of being able to ask for help on anything.
The other big benefit was learning to practice self-care.
“I want to be there for every single person. That’s the caring, heart and compassionate part of being a teacher,” said LeeVi. “But I had 90 students in my classes plus teachers and administrators, and my husband. You want to do all you can, and there’s just not enough time in the day.
“I’m reminding myself to take time for myself. I’ve really made it a point to do that. I totally credit that 100% to Courage to Teach. A year ago I would not have given time for myself. If I’m not ready mentally or physically, it’s pretty hard. I can’t teach the best parts of me if the best parts of me are not the best.
“Teaching here is tough but rewarding. You’re here for them. You’re in it for the long haul, knowing that not leaving is your own pat on the back. I’m in this. I’m such a young leader, but I love it. I love a challenge. We all love what we do. The work we did through WoLakota and the Courage to Teach retreats… I don’t know if I would have the same outlook if I had not done that.
“Going through CTT is a gift that you get to use forever. Once you come away from the circle, you know how to help yourself. You have it as a resource forever. It would be so cool to give this gift to more teachers.”
Visit the WoLakota Project’s website to learn more about this incredible project and its impacts.
P.S. When you support the Center for Courage & Renewal you support programs like the WoLakota Project that are making a long-lasting positive change.