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Sowing culturally responsive educators to cultivate success for Indigenous students

Southwest | September 01, 2023

A group of people walking on a school campus

Photo @2005 Michael Barley.

Set against a backdrop of mountains, the Pueblo-style buildings of the Santa Fe Indian School (SFIS) reflect the rich cultural heritage of its students. The residential school, which serves grades 7–12, draws Indigenous students from New Mexico's 23 tribes, pueblos, and nations, each of which has its own customs, lifeways, and values.

Research has demonstrated that students thrive when schools center their lived experiences through the use of culturally responsive curriculum and instruction.1 At SFIS, leaders sought to strengthen support for culturally responsive teaching and learning by centering their curriculum, professional development, and performance evaluation on Indigenous values and traditions. With this aim in mind, SFIS partnered with Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Southwest to develop a culturally responsive educator growth and evaluation system that aligns with the tribes, pueblos, and nations the school serves.

In May, REL Southwest hosted a webinar with SFIS staff to share the SFIS Educator Growth System. The webinar included an overview of the system, after which an expert panel of education leaders and researchers discussed leadership practices and components of teacher preparation programs that support and sustain culturally responsive teaching. The open dialogue resonated with the more than 200 participants, and leaders at the Bureau of Indian Education invited REL Southwest and SFIS to host a follow-up seminar at the Tribal & School Leadership Summit in New Mexico in July. This seminar engaged an audience of tribal school leaders from across the nation in a discussion about culturally responsive education for Indigenous youth and how education leaders can work with tribal communities to support and sustain culturally responsive teaching in their schools.

Corn cobs tied together

A braided framework for success: The SFIS Educator Growth System

Developed over three years, the SFIS Educator Growth System consists of a guidebook and performance evaluation rubrics for teachers and principals, with more rubrics planned. The system weaves together three essential strands: (a) culturally responsive curriculum, (b) professional learning and development, and (c) alignment to Indigenous pedagogy. These strands define educator best practices and ensure they are grounded in the SFIS vision and mission as well as the values and cultures of the tribes, pueblos, and nations that the school serves. 

Strand 1: Culturally responsive curriculum

The culturally responsive curriculum at SFIS incorporates three components that reflect the school's mission, vision, and values, as highlighted in the illustration and described below. In addition, all SFIS courses align to the New Mexico state content standards, which serve as a fourth component.

Santa Fe Indian School graphic

Ideal Graduate Skills (sun): The SFIS Ideal Graduate serves as the school's mission statement and measure of success. The ideal graduate has the skills to think critically, pursue career goals, and contribute to society while honoring and sustaining Indigenous knowledge, cultural values, and communities.

Core Values (soil): Eleven Indigenous core values guide the growth and development of SFIS students and staff.

Foundational Topics (arrowheads): Ten foundational topics focus on social, political, and cultural issues of importance to the Indigenous communities that SFIS serves.

During the webinar, panelist Dr. Glenabah Martinez (Taos Pueblo/Diné), an associate professor at the University of New Mexico and director of the Institute for American Indian Education, shared the Institute's Guiding Principles, which include centering Indigenous knowledge and skills in curriculum. "This is exactly what we see Santa Fe Indian School doing," Dr. Martinez said. "They are centering Indigenous experiences, our lived experiences, our epistemology, our Indigenous knowledge and skills."

Strand 2: Professional learning and development

The vision and purpose of the Educator Growth System is to positively impact student learning and well-being by supporting educators' reflective practice through a process of collaboration, observation, and feedback. In addition, the system is designed to cultivate a learning culture that reflects the SFIS commitment to continuous improvement

Webinar panelist Dr. Timothy Begaye, an education program specialist at the Bureau of Indian Education, noted that as well as providing professional development and space to collaborate, principals need to "give teachers support, whether that means through funds or moral support. . . . When a teacher says an elder in the community wants to come to class and share his or her knowledge, that kind of support system needs to be in place."

Strand 3: Alignment to Indigenous pedagogies

SFIS pedagogy incorporates a variety of Indigenous approaches to teaching using both student-centered and community-centered models. For example, in line with the tradition of communal learning in many Indigenous communities, all SFIS teachers include community-based units in their curriculum.

"When we first began this community-based model," said panelist Dr. Mark Ericson, a non-Native SFIS community-based education teacher, "we realized very quickly it could not be that we would go to a community and ask if we could bring students to do something. What really became apparent was that we needed to be equal partners with our communities. And it was through bringing the [Indigenous] leadership in and explaining what the idea was, that we were given the green light."

Developing the SFIS Educator Growth System

To develop the Educator Growth System, SFIS leaders brought together a diverse group of educators to serve as the design team. This group included teachers, administrators, the special education coordinator, and the school librarian, as well as two SFIS student living supervisors, who oversee the school's residential dormitory program and support students' wellness.

In February 2020, REL Southwest staff facilitated an in-person, two-day work session with the SFIS design team. Among other activities, the group developed effective teacher and principal statements, which formed the basis of the SFIS teacher and principal performance evaluation rubrics. With guidance from REL Southwest, the team then identified evaluation frameworks to use as starting points.2 Building on these frameworks, the SFIS teacher and principal performance evaluation rubrics reflect the school's approach to culturally responsive education while aligning with nationally recognized teacher and principal standards.   

Continued growth and development

SFIS piloted the teacher evaluation system with high school educators during the 2021/22 school year. Currently, in the 2022/23 school year, SFIS is piloting the principal evaluation system. The team continues to refine the rubrics and evaluation processes based on lessons learned, and a rubric for SFIS student living staff is planned next.

Dr. Anya Dozier Enos (Santa Clara Pueblo), SFIS education development director, reflected on the fruits of the three-year effort. "As culturally responsive educators with a commitment to continued growth, the development of the Educator Growth System Guidebook has helped us at SFIS to be clear about our unique curriculum, professional learning and development, and pedagogy. It's been a great project!"

Additional resources

Browse these REL Southwest resources to learn more about our work to support Indigenous students and culturally responsive educators.


1 Krasnoff, 2016.

2 The SFIS Performance Evaluation Rubric for Teachers builds on Charlotte Danielson's Framework for Teaching (Danielson, 2013); to align better with the SFIS vision for teacher growth, the team changed the rubric's performance levels to Emerging, Developing, Accomplished, and Exceeding. The SFIS Performance Evaluation Rubric for Principals is modeled after the Professional Standards for Educational Leaders (PSEL) standards (National Policy Board for Educational Administration, 2015) and the New Mexico Administrator Competencies.


Danielson, C. (2013). The Framework for Teaching Evaluation Instrument, 2013 instructionally focused edition. The Danielson Group.

Krasnoff, B. (2016). Culturally responsive teaching: A guide to evidence-based practices for teaching all students equitably. Region X Equity Assistance Center, Education Northwest.

National Policy Board for Educational Administration. (2015). Professional standards for educational leaders 2015. Reston, VA: Author.


Joni Wackwitz

Joni Wackwitz

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