From Our SEL Field Notebook: Learning Centered Around Relationships

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An Interview With Dr. Vanessa Anthony-Stevens

We recently spoke with Dr. Vanessa Anthony-Stevens over Zoom to discuss her teaching background, how she developed a program that prepares and certifies culturally responsive Indige- nous teachers, and her scholarship in conceptions of diversity and equity in rural teacher education. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What brought you to the University of Idaho?

I’m an associate professor, and I joined the University of Idaho in 2015. My background is in social and cultural studies in education, and my current department was looking for a faculty member who specialized in social studies education. The position felt like a stretch for me, but the dean who hired me said, “You can make this position your own.”

I also was really interested in Idaho because of many of the things that pique our interest today: the complexities of identity and place, where we think Idaho fits in the nation, who Idahoans think they are, and discussions of racialization, rurality, and who an American is.

How has your experience as a classroom teacher impacted the work you do now?

I think I can clearly say my classroom teaching experience is intimately connected to the work I do as a researcher, teacher educator, and educational leader. I came to be a classroom teacher due to my fascination with human behavior, particularly the ways young people discover the world and their place within it. My interest in teaching was underscored by my concerns for social inequalities. I understood that schools held great potential for social change and were motors of social reproduction. If I wanted to impact anything about schools, I always felt I needed to be within them, to understand what went on behind the scenes of classroom planning, to be held accountable to educational policies, and to be in close contact with youth and families daily. That work is frontline in our society, but it is also only part of the story of how young people grow up in America. I have also spent many years working in community education, in what can be called wraparound or out-of-school programs. I think the coupling of seeing youth inside and outside of schools informs so much of what I do today. I believe my ability to connect with and challenge classroom teachers is predicated on my experience having been “one of them,” especially in schools/districts that are labeled as “high need.” Insider status matters. It   gives me credibility, and it helps to ground me with compassion for what teachers are tasked to do. My current work frequently asks novice and experienced teachers to consider possibilities beyond what they have experienced in schools. Challenging people to see their shortcomings or feel hope and take risks to do something new is not an easy thing. Change is hard to trust, even when it stands to benefit those we care about.

If we center learning around relationships—relationships with humans, with place, with knowledge—we inherently have to develop a flexibility and understanding of what we know.

How was teaching in Idaho different from where you were before?

I had never taught a majority white audience until I came here. A lot of my work was spent in Indigenous education, frequently being the only white person in the room. I was interested to think about what scholarship could look like here, and also very interested in understanding what Indigenous education meant in Idaho. I’d come from Arizona, where I was living in or working with really large communities of Native people. Idaho has a much lower population density, fewer Tribal lands, and smaller Tribal communities. And I didn’t know a lot about this part of the country. Idaho is part of salmon country. Its people are river people. I’d always heard about this idea of Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery—largely as American heroism— well, Idaho is where all of that happened. So it was an interesting intersection of taking the work that I knew from Indigenous, community-based, culture-based, community-led education, and then coming to an audience that really sort of treated Indigenous self-determination as very foreign. My role coming into teacher education quickly became to figure out how we talk about diversity in our rural context.

Describe your role at University of Idaho, especially in the Indigenous Knowledge for Effective Education Program, or IKEEP.

My department is primarily responsible for teacher education, undergraduate and graduate programs. I typically teach one to two classes a semester for the teacher education program. In 2016, I was asked to lead a grant to initiate a Native-focused teacher education program. I was brand new at U of I at that time and felt quite uncertain about our institution’s ability to support a Native-centered teacher education program. When the grant landed, it was amazing, but it meant many long years of building a program from the ground up. As principal investigator and director, my role was to ensure our program included space for Indigenous thought and culturally responsive pedagogy. We have been able to design a master-novice Indigenous teacher mentor network, offer Indigenous-centered professional development for our preservice and in-service graduates and their colleagues, and provide induction support through annual mentoring retreats. Looking back, in those early years we were so fortunate to work with inspiring students, now educators, who were willing to be “the first” in a program. Since 2016, IKEEP has supported two cohorts of Native teachers, graduating 10 educators with teacher education degrees, with four more on the cusp of graduation. Today, many IKEEP educators teach in rural schools where they are one of few Native teachers serving a predominantly Native student population.

One of our primary goals in IKEEP is to support tribes and Tribal citizens to build strong nations. What goes on in schools needs to change to do that. In October 2021, we marked a huge milestone for the program. We have been fortunate to hire my first doctoral graduate, who is a Coeur d’Alene Tribal member, into the role of IKEEP director. I am looking forward to stepping back and supporting a new team of leaders.

Handing off the directorship is a big change!

It’s a welcome change. The idea has always been that we would build capacity for Indigenous leadership across the program. Six years of a lot of hard work has shown that IKEEP has a place in our community. We’ve learned a lot and helped our faculty and our local community to understand who Indigenous people are and what they desire for education.

We need to learn to spend time listening to kids, and not just in our schools. We need to observe what they do, how they learn, how they spend time learning in family and community settings.

Your current research focuses on, among other topics, conceptions of diversity and equity in rural teacher education, and Tribal sovereignty and self-determination in education. What drew you to these topics?

These are the issues relevant to the world around me. I live and work on Indigenous lands with Tribal citizens. I live and work in rural communities with rural teachers. As a researcher trained in critical ethnography, I see research as a tool to address problems that emerge from a local context. I also see research as a process of liberation. We can’t know the world from the outside. I grew up in an urban/suburban area on the northern edge of Chicago. At that time, issues of urban segregation, disparities in school funding, and multicultural education were of importance to me. When I lived in rural communities, issues like the impacts of resource extraction, distance from and access to public resources, and emphasis on the rural brain drain presented themselves as urgent issues. In the context of tribes, and of Tribal education, public education must be designed in a way that is responsive to and furthers the desires of tribes. This means that the type of learning, from the content to the methods of information delivery, must honor a tribe’s cultural values. As a teacher and observer in schools serving Native youth, I have seen culture too frequently performed as window dressing, whereas school content focused on standardized reading, writing and arithmetic, frequently in skill-and-drill forms of delivery, is devoid of connection to local context.

What do you hope to achieve with your research?

I always think about this question. For me, there is no such thing as knowledge for knowledge’s sake. The questions I ask as a researcher are generated from communities and problems experienced in the field. When I gather data or begin to think about how to analyze information gathered, I always think, “Who is this for? Who needs to hear about this, and why?” My work centers around social change to address conditions and processes that deprive youth and adults of what they need to thrive. I think foundationally I desire for my research to spread hope itself; to encourage educators and citizens to imagine equitable pathways for ourselves and to work together to bring those visions to fruition.

You mentioned that you have experience as a classroom teacher in fifth grade and middle school. How did that early experience impact the work that you do now?

It was the reason I ended up in graduate school, and it’s the reason behind why I do what I do now. I taught in Native-serving schools; my whole teaching career was serving Indigenous students. And yet I rarely got to work with Indigenous teachers and colleagues. And when I did, those voices were often highly marginalized. When I worked at a charter school that was Indigenous run and had a majority Native teaching faculty, it was a profoundly different approach to teaching. What that told me was we could do this differently.

What specifically needs to be changed?

Foundationally, the issues were about teachers who did not know their students. The consistent thread was that racism, poverty, and marginalization in schools could be actively perpetuated by not having reciprocal or respectful relationships with the community. Those schools weren’t actually looking or listening to parents as legitimate partners in learning.

Because I lived in those communities, I partnered with people in those communities, I had a different experience. I had to pause and think, “What can you do to support young people if you don’t know how they spend their time or what they care about, if you don’t listen to the reasons why they do the things they do?”

You can’t support people if you don’t listen to them and respect them and treat their ideas as legitimate. When you’re in a classroom with real humans, you have the opportunity to connect knowledge and ideas and really bring learning alive in ways that are meaningful. If you don’t compliment that with relationships, how would that knowledge even be relevant? There was always this diversity in the landscape that made me think that there’s no one way that we can do schooling.

It sounds like, with programs like IKEEP, you’ve started to create pathways toward answering those questions you asked as a teacher.

I don’t in any way believe that I have the real answer, but I have a focus on process. If we center learning around relationships— relationships with humans, with place, with knowledge—we inherently have to develop a flexibility and understanding of what we know. So if I engage in that process, I will always be critical of one expert kind of system or a standard answer that’s going to address all my problems. And I will have a different kind of agility to see resources. I will not see myself as making decisions alone. If I see relationships as the center, I can’t make decisions about learning that are not informed by actual relationships between people, and that is going to change my behavior. Instead of allowing myself to be isolated, I now have to spend time in relationships and in community. That becomes a priority and a normal practice.

What does putting relationships at the center look like in practice?

It means attending events in the community, listening to parents, and seeing parents as partners. It would be normal to treat children’s experiences as legitimate, to treat them as knowledgeable people, to know that they bring something to my classroom. My job as a teacher is to figure out what that something is and how to help students build relationships to other ideas.

In my classes and projects, I focus on process and experiential learning for educators. We try to cultivate spaces where we can create professional development that, at least for a period of time, opens up possibilities for people to think differently. None of this has definitively solved any of our perennial issues, but it causes microshifts in how teachers relate to communities and experience multiple forms of knowledge. Curbing the tide of standardization takes many layers.

If you could tell teachers and school leaders to go out and do one thing in their schools right now, what would it be?

There’s two things I would think about for all educators. We need to learn to spend time listening to kids, and not just in our schools. We need to observe what they do, how they learn, how they spend time learning in family and community settings. That’s not something that’s built into our job; that’s something that’s frequently considered to be extra. When we’re around kids, we’re often trying to guide what they say; we rarely listen to children. I think we need to do as much listening as we possibly can.

For school leaders, we need to support teachers to engage in culturally responsive—and social and emotionally responsive—pedagogy. That is not something that we do just in a series of Friday workshops and then assume everyone gets it. We need to actually hold space to support people to understand culture, in ways that are varied and complex, and that allow teachers to experiment and innovate without just measuring their successes only against standardized tests.

To help young people, and all people, thrive, it’s important that our well-being, who we are and what our communities ask of us to be good neighbors and relatives, is taken into central consideration.

Why is it so important to put a cultural lens on SEL? Can SEL programs be effective without considering students’ contexts and culture?

Everything we do is cultured. There is no universal social setting, emotional reaction, or process of learning. Everything is situated and contextual. My partner and colleague, Dr. Philip Stevens, talks about this a great deal in his work. One of the fallacies of schooling in our country is that there is one knowledge set useful to all of us. Or one methodology through which we all learn. Like all other knowledge, social and emotional well-being are cultured. How we think about well-being is tailored to the context of our lives. We don’t all have the same concept of self and wellness. To help young people, and all people, thrive, it’s important that our well-being, who we are and what our communities ask of us to be good neighbors and relatives, is taken into central consideration.

You’ve mentioned so many vital social and emotional skills for educators, like that ability to cooperate, to be responsive, to be assertive for your own needs, and to genuinely listen to what someone else is putting out there.

And to tolerate change and things that push you out of your comfort zone. We learn a lot by being in that situation, and our students are asked to be in that situation all the time. So how can we empathize with them if we don’t also experience that ourselves? That’s an intercultural social process that’s foundational to learning. It’s how we learn.

You can find more information and background on this conversation and on Dr. Anthony-Stevens’ research in the following.

Anthony-Stevens, V., Johns, J., & Begay, V. (2020). Regenerating teacher education programs with Indigenous knowledge in Idaho. Northwest Journal of Teacher Education, 15(3), article 3.

Chew, K. A. B., & Anthony-Stevens, V. (2017). Teaching from a place of hope in Indigenous education. Anthropology News, 58(2), e265– e269.

Mahfouz, J., & Anthony-Stevens, V. (2020). Why trouble SEL? The need for cultural relevance in SEL. Occasional Papers Series, 2020 (43). Retrieved from

O’Connor, B., Anthony-Stevens, V., & González, N. (2014). Nurture and sustain a culture of collaboration, trust, learning, and high expectations. In R. M. Ylimaki (Ed.) The new instructional leadership and the ISLLC standards (pp. 10–26). Routledge.