Career Prep teacher receives national award

Noel Lyn Smith
Farmington Daily Times
Joseph Chee, a bilingual teacher at Career Prep High School in Shiprock, was named Teacher of the Year for Region 2 by the National Johnson-O'Malley Association.

SHIPROCK — Shortly after students settled in their Navajo culture and language class on Thursday, teacher Joseph Chee told them about the early morning birth of twin lambs at his home.

Chee, a bilingual teacher at Career Prep High School, talked about fixing a place for the lambs to stay and what their arrival means to him as a Navajo man.

"It was such a sight. …I sang. I got their bedding ready in a little cubicle then I talked to them," he said before speaking in the Navajo language about telling the ewe to take care of her lambs.

Chee's practice of fusing the Navajo way of life into lessons about the culture and language has defined his teaching style for decades.

Joseph Chee teaches his Navajo culture and language class at Career Prep High School in Shiprock on Thursday.

Because of his approach, as well as devotion to sustaining Navajo traditions and values, he was named Teacher of the Year for Region 2 by the National Johnson-O'Malley Association in March.

The association is a nonprofit educational organization based in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Among its purpose is to advocate for the Johnson-O'Malley Program, a federal program that provides supplemental funding and services for eligible Native American students enrolled in public schools.

"I always try to make an impact, not only with students, but with the community as well," Chee said in an interview at the school on Tuesday.

Over the years, he's developed a teaching style that incorporates the two worlds where his students live, a method that furthers their understanding of the Navajo language.

Rhiannon Wagner listens to a lesson by her teacher, Joseph Chee, at Career Prep High School in Shiprock on Thursday.

That connection is influenced by his graduate and doctoral studies. He examined language acquisition.

In class, he encourages students to engage in lessons, whether it's singing traditional songs or painting their interpretations of Navajo philosophy.

"You try to take a natural setting from the home and bring it into the classroom," he said.

Roland Shorty, a junior, has been taking Navajo cultural and language classes since elementary school.

Shorty said he likes how Chee sings traditional songs then deconstructs their meanings by relating a song to situations students face, whether it is thinking about the next steps in education or holistic well-being.

These explanations helped Shorty when he attended a ceremony recently.

Joseph Chee, center, talks about Navajo philosophy during his Navajo culture and language class on Thursday at Career Prep High School in Shiprock.

"It made me feel more uplifted. It gave me more knowledge," he said.

Chee has been an educator for more than 30 years and has been with the Central Consolidated School District since 2001.

"We celebrate with Dr. Joseph Chee in being recognized by the National Johnson-O'Malley Association. He is an excellent educator and deserving of the accolades he receives for his dedication to students," interim Superintendent Terri Benn said.

Chee said he enjoys collaborating with fellow Navajo language and immersion program teachers.

Joseph Chee writes a list of words in the Navajo language on Thursday.

"I'm part of a group across the Navajo Nation who want to continue to keep the culture and the language alive," he said.

Chee is Kinłichíí'nii (Red House Clan), born for Tótsohníí (Big Water Clan). His maternal grandfather clan is 'Áshiihíí (Salt People), and his paternal grandfather clan is Tł'ááshchí'i (Red Cheek People).

He was raised by his maternal grandparents, who provided his cultural foundation, in an area between Many Farms and Round Rock in Arizona.

The award last month is the latest accolade Chee has received. In 2017, he was named Indian Educator of the Year by the New Mexico Public Education Department.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at