Meet the 2020 Arizona Teacher of the Year, Lynette Stant — the first Native American woman to hold this position. Stant, who is Navajo, is a 16-year veteran elementary school teacher at Salt River Elementary. Team TpT sat down with her to learn more about her experience navigating teaching during a pandemic and about her work to ensure that students’ cultures are represented in their education.
Check out the full recording and transcript of our conversation below.
Editor’s Note: This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and conciseness.
Michelle Cummings, Vice President of Content at Teachers Pay Teachers: Hi, I’m Michelle Cummings. I’m the VP of Content at Teachers Pay Teachers. I have 30 years of experience in education as a teacher, as a principal, and as a district administrator. I bring that educational expertise to day-to-day operations and product development here at TpT.
It is my tremendous honor to be interviewing Lynette Stant, who is Arizona’s Teacher of the Year. Lynette, thanks so much for taking time to be with us today. Would you just start off by sharing some of your background with us?
Lynette Stant, Arizona’s 2020 Teacher of the Year: Absolutely. Just really quick — it is Native American Heritage Month, so I’m going to introduce myself in my own language and then the language of the students that I teach.
[Translated from the Navajo language] Hello, my name is Lynette Stant. I am Cliff Dwellers people clan (Tsenjikini), born for Within His Cover clan (Bit’ahnii). My Maternal grandfather was Black Streak Wood people clan (Tsi’naajini), and my Paternal grandfather was Bitter Water clan (Todich’ii’nii). In this way I am a Navajo Woman.
[Translated from the O’odham language] Good Morning, my name is Lynette Stant!
I am from the Diné Nation. I’ve been teaching in the classroom for 16 years, and I’ve been teaching on the Salt River Indian Reservation for all of those years. I’m really proud to say that I’ve been there that long. Salt River Indian Reservation is just east of Scottsdale. We kind of sit in the middle of Scottsdale, Mesa, Tempe, and Fountain Hills. The reservation is right in the middle of that.
MC: Tell me a little bit about why you decided to become a teacher.
LS: Oh, so many reasons! I think from a very young age, I had that natural tendency to be a teacher. I would play school with the neighborhood kids. But I think [the desire] really hit me when I was about in 2nd or 3rd grade.
My paternal grandmother didn’t speak any English — she only spoke Navajo — and she’d never gone to school. Each month, she’d get a Social Security check and she’d take it to the trading posts. At the trading posts, the trader would take out a stamp ink pad, she would put her thumb on it, and she would stamp her check with her thumbprint in order to cash her check. Growing up, I didn’t understand why my grandmother couldn’t write her name to sign her check. It wasn’t until my dad explained to me that she never had the opportunity to go to school [that I understood].
So I made little worksheets for her, just like the worksheets I got at school, with little dots that spelled out her name: Mary. I’d hold her hand and we’d trace the letters together, and I’d explain to her that that was how she’d write her name in English. Soon, she got pretty good at signing her name. And one day when we went to the trading posts, she walked in, asked my dad for a pen in Navajo, and she signed her check with her name. At that moment, I knew this was what I wanted to do with my life. That’s how I knew I was gonna become a teacher.
MC: What a powerful story. What an incredible moment to think about the life-changing effects of an education.
LS: Oh, absolutely.
MC: So, Lynette, you — along with all of the teachers in the world — have been teaching through a pandemic and these incredible disruptions like school closures and not being able to see your students. What has been your experience in this historic moment?
LS: It has changed the face of education. We always talk about, “Oh, let’s think outside of the box.” Well, now we have to think outside the box. It’s just not a blanket statement that we make anymore. And for Indigenous teachers, we’ve definitely faced some challenges that a lot of the city schools haven’t because we’re in rural communities. We have families that struggle with transportation issues, since they’re so remote. And the devastation that COVID-19 has had on Navajo communities has been relentless. Thank goodness we have a Navajo nation president who is really trying to ensure that the spread of COVID-19 doesn’t continue to wreak havoc in those communities.
MC: That’s tremendous loss and grief and illness, and layer upon layer of trauma for your students. How do you connect with your students? How do you reach and teach them across a pandemic when you don’t have in-person classes?
LS: We’re in a little bit of a unique situation because we don’t have an online platform. It’s due to a few reasons. In the community where I work, if we want to use an online resource, it has to go through some channels in order to get approved to ensure the safety of the students and the community. So, we have been distant teaching through learning packets and making home visits. Like, I’ve gone rogue and I’ve done a few home visits even though I’m not supposed to. But I need to connect with kids, and there are students out there for whom this online learning platform is not working. And as a teacher, the root of my work is to ensure that students are learning. So if I see a student struggling with online learning, I can’t just sit in my home and watch it happen. I have to go out and do some home visits. That is how I’ve connected with students.
But we have just adopted an online learning platform. And so right now teachers, students, and families are getting training. We’re hoping to launch on November 16th, and we will actually get to finally see our students face-to-face. I have not seen my students, other than the few home visits that I’ve made, or met them this year.
MC: What are some of the tools that you’ve found to be most helpful to you and to the teachers at Salt River Elementary during this time?
LS: I really have to give a shout out, to the teachers at Salt River because we really teach with some strict guidelines surrounding us. And they have gone above and beyond to make learning happen and make learning enjoyable each and every day. Some of the tools that have been working for us as educators at Salt River are ensuring that we have a strong bond with our families. I feel that if the bond wasn’t there, if we did not establish strong relationships with our families, we would definitely lose students, by them falling through the cracks. But we make contact with our parents every single day. We make contact with our students every single day. And what that looks like is phone calls, we use ClassDojo, we are reaching out, the students now have email, so we’re reaching out through email. So we’re really doing our best without them sitting in front of a camera to ensure that we are connecting with them. But that is really the foundation is building a strong connection and bond with our students.
TpT has been a valuable resource for me as an educator because I do not have access to the materials in my classroom, and a lot of the curriculum that we have for our programs are not online. So my 3rd grade team and I, we really look towards TpT to ensure that we are providing our students with some good, relevant material. And we do that through a process. We definitely look at the item in TpT, we see if it’s relevant, we do our little checklist to ensure that it’s gonna work for us. And there’s some things that don’t and we just move on.
MC: Congratulations on being Arizona’s Teacher of the Year! I know that there are all kinds of responsibilities that come with that honor and that you have spent a lot of this year educating others. What kinds of conversations have you had with folks given your role as Arizona Teacher of the Year?
LS: Being Arizona’s Teacher of the Year definitely has been an extreme honor. And I am so grateful to the Arizona Educational Foundation for naming me Arizona’s first Indigenous Teacher of the Year. In Arizona’s 37-year history, we’ve never had an Indigenous teacher hold this platform.
What it has done for me is it has definitely opened the doors to conversations that historically didn’t have an Indigenous voice in them. I’ve done a lot of work this past year with the Arizona Department of Education and Superintendent Kathy Hoffman. I’m so blessed to be able to work with her because she really has done an excellent job at elevating Indigenous voices and voices of more of those in marginalized communities. I’ve served on several of her task forces for reopening schools and it has definitely been a lot of work.
Typically, the Teacher of the Year does a lot of traveling during their year. I traveled from the time I was named — I was named at the end of October — up until the end of February. I probably was in my classroom maybe two times a week. So the travel was a lot. It was doing podcasts, it was doing keynote speeches, and it was being on task force. The duties were far and wide, but since the pandemic, all of my advocacy has gone online. Zoom has become the platform of choice. And so that’s where a lot of work has been happening.
A lot of the work has really been centered on things like: How do we ensure the equitable education of Indigenous students? And how do we elevate the voices of educators in those communities? Also, a lot of what I’ve been doing has been educating people about Indigenous students and who we are as a Diné nation. Believe it or not, even though it’s 2020, people don’t know a lot about Indigenous people. I always tell educators to start with your state, start by learning the Indigenous people of your state — their history, their language, their culture — and then branch out. But it’s really important as an educator to know about those Indigenous communities in your state.
I grew up on the Navajo reservation. I was born in Tuba City, which is just north of Flagstaff in Northern Arizona. As a baby, we moved to New Mexico, where my father is from, and I went to school in a small town called Crown Point from Kindergarten through 3rd grade. When I was in Crown Point, I was fortunate enough to really have a diverse population of teachers. And then when we moved back to Tuba City, I had a large number of Indigenous teachers. So I grew up in a very sheltered environment, and it wasn’t until I went to college that I really experienced my first taste of racism.
I went to a university in Arizona and my freshman year was so eye-opening. I learned that students don’t typically learn about Indigenous people and the plight of our history. I remember this one incident when I went with my college roommate to a fraternity party. My roommate, who was White was allowed to go in, and I was stopped at the door by two young men. They kept asking me things like, “Can we see your number?” And I had no idea what that meant, but they kept bullying me. When I finally figured out what they meant, I realized that they thought we were tattooed with a number so that we could leave the reservation, and they wanted to see my tattoo with my number. It was a lot of that kind of racism that I experienced.
As far as the university setting, it wasn’t supportive of Indigenous students. I really felt that I was just floating in this university world with no direction and no connection to people who looked like me. I didn’t see educators who look like me. The students that did look like me were far and few, and so, it was hard to connect. I ended up leaving at the end of my sophomore year, because at the time, I didn’t feel that the university setting was for me. I kick myself to this day for thinking that, because I perpetuated an idea that one of my college professors had said to me. It was an English class and freshmen English classes are pretty large. And as the semester went on, I noticed that her class kept getting smaller and smaller and smaller, and I needed to conference with her about an assignment. And when I went in to conference with her, she told me point blank, “I don’t know why you Native Americans decide to come to college. You’re not fit for college, you’re fit for your reservation.” And that really hurt. It hurt my desire to finish college. And at the time, I would’ve been the first one in my family to graduate from college. Those words hurt. And once I left the university setting and gained some inner strength, I realized that it was those words that really empowered me to do my best, to want to become a teacher. I didn’t want another Indigenous student to have that experience. I wanted them to see people like them and to be able to teach through a cultural lens and my cultural lens. To be able to do that every single day makes me happy.
MC: Lynette, thank you for sharing that horrible experience and that trauma with us. And it’s incredible your resilience to be able to take that injury and that offense and say, “You know what, I do belong here and I want Indigenous students to feel empowered and to have that sense of belonging.” And so let’s talk about that. You have a real passion for making sure that students’ cultures are represented in their education. And I want to start off with thinking about the issues you see with the way that Native American culture and history and current events are taught in schools.
LS: As a country, we definitely have to teach our histories — whether it’s that of Indigenous people, or Black or Jewish peoples — and we have to do better. When I look at the political climate right now, it’s definitely a reflection of us needing to do better. We just have to.
As an educator, there’s a difference between teaching culture versus teaching through a cultural lens. What I mean by that is that I can share content, historical content all day long, but if I’m doing that without using a cultural lens, it’s not going to resonate with my students. We have to be willing to address the elephants in the room, which can be sometimes scary. What are the curriculums that we are using? Are they truthful? Do they really portray America in a true light?
I think about this experience that happened to me just last summer. I was at a conference in St. Louis, and I was standing in line and talking with another educator. She was a teacher from New Mexico and she taught 3rd grade, just like me, so we had a good connection. One of the questions she asked me was, “Oh, do you get to vote for the President?” At the time, I thought she was joking, but as we conversed, I realized she wasn’t joking. She really didn’t understand that Indigenous people actually cast a vote for our President. If those are the type of educators that we have in classrooms, imagine the ramifications of that mentality or that type of teaching. It’s almost as if we don’t exist. And we do exist. Our voices are powerful. And when I look at the state of Arizona, we have a large Indigenous population and our vote has really mattered and made a difference in our state.
MC: And so when you think about helping teachers to do better, what are specific strategies that you recommend for educators to build these more inclusive schools and classrooms?
LS: As an educator, I want to ensure that what I present to my students is a mirror of them. And that requires me to often maybe change a question a little bit, to reflect them as Indigenous students. Say, I have a math question, I may make it more relevant to the community. Salt River grows a lot of cotton. They have corn and there’s fields all over the place and we’re in the midst of all these fields. And so I try to make it relevant to what’s happening in the community.
I love project-based learning. Unfortunately, I don’t get to use it too much in my classroom, but project-based learning is one thing that we can do as educators that allows us to use what the students have. I think back to a project that we did in 3rd grade, where the students were studying the riparian basin of Salt River. We had people come in from the tribal environmental department, who taught them how to build crayfish traps. We went out to the river and we set them and we talked about the natural resources within the Salt River community. The conversations that came out of that were absolutely wonderful. And these conversations, which were student-led, were about how to protect the resource in Salt River. And that’s important because they have ties to that community. They’re gonna be the future Salt River tribal president. They’re gonna be the future director of the environmental department. They’re gonna be the future doctors and nurses. And they’re gonna be the caretakers of their community. And so, as a teacher, trying to make that relevant to them so that they see value as caretakers, is truly important to me.
I once had a conference with a student about a writing assignment. She wasn’t doing well on this particular assignment, and we were conferencing, and I told her about how, as a tribal leader, you do a lot of writing. And I said, “You’re our future tribal leader. So your words matter. What you put on paper matters, and it could change the direction or the trajectory of your tribe.” She was really inspired by that. Students have to see value in what we’re teaching. They have to see it and connect it to themselves. They have to see it connect to their community. And so like I said earlier, it’s easy to teach about history. I can do that all day long and ensure that I am meeting all the Common Core Standards, but teaching through a cultural lens allows the teacher to connect the student with their community.
MC: You bring up so many incredible points so the promise of project-based learning and having resources that can be place-based, resources that are relevant to students, resources that have diverse representation of students, and teachers being able to have some choice and some agency in selecting them. When you think about literature and books for your third grade students in your classroom library or Zoom read-aloud that you’re doing. What do you look for in the books that you read or recommend to students?
LS: So I’ve really gone through a big literacy shift this past year. One, because I had time to finally sit down and do it, but also because of my commitment to ensure that what I present to my students is a representation of the diversity of America. I started by going through books and looking at the publishing dates. When was this book published? And does it represent who we are as a nation? And sadly, I got rid of a lot of books, but I also replaced them with other books that are more representative of my students.
MC: Who are some of your favorite Native American or Indigenous heroes to teach — both from history and today — in order to provide those role models for students?
LS: I’m so glad you asked that question because the University of Arizona Native Nations Institute just put out a list on their website of some of the most recent Indigenous leaders. I’m excited to share this with my colleagues. I haven’t been able to look at the whole list, but it’s a great resource to use.
MC: And when you think about people from history that may have been erased from some textbooks, that you want to make sure that your students are introduced to, who is one of your heroes from history?
LS: When I think about heroines and heroes, I think of some of the names that come up in 3rd grade, and one of those is Pocahontas. They want to emulate her, whether it’s through costume or whether it’s reading about her, and sadly, a lot of children’s literature doesn’t truly emulate the truth about her history. Pocahontas is a representation of the first missing and murdered Indigenous women in America’s history. It is that kind of truth that we need to hear. We need to tell our students, because when we don’t speak truth, we create these misconceptions that lead to erasure, that lead to us not being recognized and to being that “something else.”
MC: When you’re working with small children, trying to speak truth and make it developmentally appropriate. It’s complicated, and yet, so important. Otherwise, you end up with inaccurate understandings of history, romanticized understandings of history that don’t serve us.
LS: Right, growing up, I think about Native American history and how it was taught to me as a high school student. I remember a tiny little blurb in our world history book about the Mayan Civilization. It was just a few paragraphs but I connected with it so much as a high school student, because that was it. That was all that I could connect to. And when I got into college, I had the luxury of taking different world history classes. One of the classes I took was taught by Dr. Villareal, and it was the history of Mexico and Mexican history. Believe it or not, it was through that class that I learned the most about Arizona Native American history, because it talked about the relationships between Indigenous people from what is now Mexico and the state of Arizona. It truly was eye-opening for me. I think we have to present that kind of truth. I had lived in this state of, “Oh, this is where the border has always been.” And it wasn’t until college that I realized like, “Oh honey, that is so wrong. You were fed misinformation.” And so to see the beauty of how connected we are as Indigenous people, and how before there was a line drawn on a map, how fluid Indigenous communities were and so on.
When we’re talking about pedagogical practices, definitely understanding and knowing the history of Indigenous people in your state is a great place to start. I mean, I think about this teacher in New Mexico that I met last spring and how I realized that she didn’t even know the history of the students that she taught. All these Indigenous tribes across the United States have unique oral histories and they have unique stories. How are we presenting those stories to our students? How are we able to bring those oral histories into the classroom and use them in context to what we are doing within our classroom walls? Helping students understand what their personal sovereignty is, how they fit in the realm of education, helping them see themselves in that space and using real-world situations. I talk about how I always try to bring the community into my classroom when I’m teaching. And so how are we doing that? Whether you’re a teacher in Central Phoenix, or whether you’re a teacher on the Navajo Reservation, in a rural area, how are you bringing the community into the classroom? Are students seeing themselves in the context of your classroom walls? And for some teachers that’s scary because they could get backlash from administrators or even parents who might not be ready to have that conversation. But if we’re going to talk about equity, and if we’re gonna talk about ensuring that we are giving students equitable opportunities, then we need to have those tough conversations.
MC: Speaking of tough conversations, it’s November. It’s the time when our nation celebrates Thanksgiving. When you teach about Thanksgiving, which can have a very complicated history or be romanticized, as we talked about other issues in history, what are your recommendations to teachers about celebrating Thanksgiving and teaching about it?
LS: So let me begin this by saying that I, as an Indigenous woman, do not celebrate Thanksgiving. I don’t cook a big meal. I do use the time to spend with my family, but we don’t have a Thanksgiving dinner on that Thursday and call it Thanksgiving. I’ve always been the one to say, “We’ll gather on Saturday and have a meal.” And so that’s where I’m coming from, and I want that to be very clear.
But when I teach about Thanksgiving in my classroom, I don’t necessarily teach about the holiday. November is also Native American Heritage Month. So that’s where my focus is, teaching students about different Native Americans across our country and their contributions to communities and to our country. That’s where my focus lies when it comes time to that.
All I ask is that teachers really look at what they present to their students. I mean, I still see to this very day, the construction paper headdresses with feathers. Don’t do that. Just don’t do that. I also see the romanticizing of the relationship between Pilgrims and Indians. Let’s speak the truth there.
MC: Tell me a little bit more about the headdress and why it’s important not to use that in a classroom.
LS: When we see it in a classroom, we kind of make a general statement that all Indigenous people wear headdresses, and that is not true. We are all unique and we all have our own unique clothing. And so when we present the character of Indigenous person — what you see drawn or in books — with the moccasins and the fringed leather outfits and the little feather on the back of the head, that is not an accurate representation of who we are as Indigenous people. We are all unique. We all have unique languages. We all have unique clothes and foods that we eat. We all make connections to our histories differently. And so when we present that blanket headdress, it’s erasure. It allows people to not take us seriously. It allows people to see us as not real.
I think about universities, colleges, even national sports teams that have used those types of images, that have the tomahawk chops, and calls — all of that is degrading. And when we start that at a very young age, by giving everyone these little paper headdresses, it perpetuates that image.
MC: We are coming towards the end of our time together. Lynette, I so appreciate your voice and your passion and your wisdom. Is there something that you wanna communicate to teachers out there that you haven’t had an opportunity to speak to yet?
LS: Absolutely, and this is a statement for teachers: Times are tough right now. Some of us are still teaching behind a laptop or a computer, and some of us are in the classroom. We are extending our teacher day longer than we ever have before. We are being asked to wear many hats and carry out the weight of the world on our shoulders. And so, as an educator, it’s really important that we take a moment. and reflect on what is meaningful for us. What can I do for myself right now? Sometimes that might mean shutting your laptop off at three o’clock, because it’s been a tough day.
But also remember to always focus on what is positive. I had that great reminder this morning from one of my colleagues. Believe it or not, I had a parent block me when I sent them an attendance message this morning. And it made me really sad. And my colleague, when I shared it with her, messaged me back and said, “Focus on those parents who are there. Don’t give all of your time to this one message.” We definitely have to focus on the positive of our days or else it’s gonna be tough. I have a great support system, not only with my own personal family, but also with the Arizona Teacher of the Year cohort, and the national Teacher of the Year cohort. If I need something, they’re only a text message away. I am so fortunate enough to work in a school that has a supportive administration. My principal, Dr. Guerrero, and my assistant principal, Mrs. Wilkinson, they are such supportive people and they’re willing to listen and to be able to work in a tribe within the Salt River Indian community and being allowed to do what I do is really great.
MC: You also are a leader in the Indigenous Educators United Group. Can you tell us about that group?
LS: Oh, absolutely! So once the pandemic hit and my advocacy moved to an online platform, I really asked myself, “What are other educators doing? What are other indigenous educators doing and how are they supporting their families, their students, and themselves? What does that look like in this virtual world?” So I reached out to some of the Indigenous educators who followed me and two wonderful and amazing people reached out, Amanda Cheromiah and Felisia Tagaban. Both of them are doctoral students at the University of Arizona, and they said, “Well, let’s talk.” While we were chatting, we said, “Wait a minute, I think other teachers and other educators need to be part of this group.” And so we founded Indigenous Educators Unite in March, and we put it out on social media that we were hosting a Zoom meeting, a gathering place. And our first Zoom meeting, we had almost 200 people join us from across, not only Arizona, but across the nation. It was through that meeting that we realized that Indigenous educators really needed a place of support. They needed a place to come and gather and share not only about what is happening in their school and their state, but also what is happening with them personally. And what makes us different from other Indigenous organizations, like the National Indian Education Association, is that we don’t necessarily focus on changing policies. We really focus on the individual educator and ensuring that they have the support that they need locally to do what they do.
MC: That’s fantastic. That kind of mentorship, that kind of affinity group, that type of professional support system can make a difference in retaining a teacher and helping people to do this really hard work. If people wanted to follow you on social media, where would they find you?
LS: My Instagram handle is @teachinbeauty on Instagram. And I just wanna explain a little bit about that title, “Teach in Beauty. So in Navajo prayer, at the end of our prayer, we say, “May there be beauty around us.” And we follow it up with, “Above us, below us, behind us, and in front of us.” Growing up, my parents always talked about, being in balance with the universe. What you put into the universe is exactly what you get back. And so just being in balance and being in beauty. “Teaching in beauty” for me really means finding balance. What I put out into my teaching world is what I’m going to get back. And so that’s how my Instagram name became. I also have a Facebook page. I’m at Lyn Stant on Facebook, which is a little bit of a different vibe. It’s kind of I go between professional and personal, but my Instagram page is mostly professional.
MC: Wonderful. Well, Lynette, thank you so much for generously spending your time and sharing your expertise with us and with the teachers in the world. You don’t just educate your students as you know, you educate all of us and educate the educators. Thank you for sharing your voice. Thank you for sharing these recommendations on how to improve the way that we teach Indigenous students. And also the way that we teach Indigenous history and Indigenous present.
LS: I am so honored to have been invited to share this today. And especially during Native American Heritage Month. What a valuable conversation to have.
Lynette Stant, from the Diné Nation is the 2020 Arizona Teacher of the Year. She is a 16-year veteran elementary teacher who teaches 3rd grade on the Salt River Indian Reservation in Scottsdale, Arizona. She holds a Master’s degree in Education from Grand Canyon University, and graduated Summa Cum Laude with a bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education from Arizona State University. She is a Gates Millennium Scholar Alumni. Her mission is to ensure her students have an equitable opportunity to become leaders and uses her cultural experiences to be a reflective educator.