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Indy Q&A: National Teacher of the Year Juliana Urtubey on uplifting students’ diversity

Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez
Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez

Juliana Urtubey, a bilingual special education teacher in Las Vegas, received widespread attention last month after she was named the National Teacher of the Year — becoming the first teacher from Nevada and the first Latina in at least the last 16 years to receive the award.

Having immigrated to the U.S. from Colombia at age five and being an English and Spanish speaker, Urtubey says her personal background helps her connect with her Kermit Booker Elementary School students, many of whom are learning English as a second language and come from immigrant households, as well. 

“Like a lot of my students, my family left for a safer environment, more opportunities,” she said during an interview this week with The Nevada Independent. 

Juliana Urtubey, the National Teacher of the Year, is a special education educator at Kermit Booker Elementary School in the Clark County School District. (Jeff Scheid / The Nevada Independent)

Urtubey’s family had access to a safe immigration process, she said, a privilege she acknowledges as distinct from some of her students’ experiences. She said she doesn’t carry it lightly and uses it to speak out about how to make schools a more inclusive and welcoming environment. 

“It could be as tiny as having a welcome sign in the languages that the families speak right in the front office, as soon as they walk in. It could be painting murals that were culturally responsive, like I did at my school, so that no matter where you were at the school, the school non-verbally communicated to you, ‘We love you. We're so excited you're here,’” she said. 

Latino students make up the majority of children enrolled in the Clark County School District. Kermit Booker Elementary, a Title I school, is in the Historic Westside of Las Vegas, where 40 percent of residents identify as Latino and 38 percent identify as Black. 

Chosen by a national selection committee from the annual cohort of the State Teachers of the Year, Urtubey is released from teaching for the year in order to travel the country meeting other educators and speaking at more than 100 events, according to the Council of State School Officers. 

She has chosen to promote a “joyous and just education” as part of her platform. 

Urtubey spoke with The Nevada Independent on Tuesday regarding her national recognition, what a just and joyous education looks like, the role teachers have in the pursuit and more. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Your award is notable as Nevada's first recipient, the first Latina and the third special education teacher to receive it. How do you feel to be recognized as National Teacher of the Year? 

Being recognized as National Teacher of the Year gives me a huge sense of pride. Because not only are we in some of the toughest times for teachers, and we get to shine light on the wonderful work teachers do, but this time around, we get to bring so many communities with us. Like you said, I'm the first teacher from Nevada to be recognized as National Teacher of the Year, the third in special education and we believe the first Latinx teacher. And so we realize that this opens the path for communication and collaboration with so many communities that are yearning to be seen and recognized, as well.

Do you think your achievement will inspire your students who identify as Latino or come from immigrant backgrounds?

I do think that it'll help inspire not just my students and their communities, but other teachers across the country. And the beautiful thing is that we're a community of people of color. 

When we see ourselves represented in positions like this, it's really exciting. And I know this is true, because I have teacher friends from across the country who tell me that their students are so excited. I have friends and even people that I don't know writing me messages about how they watched the announcement on CBS with their daughters and how exciting it was for their daughters to be given a mirror on such a national stage. 

It just goes to show that we are more powerful when we are representative, and inclusive of all people. And when we look at people for their assets, right — a lot of my students are traditionally known as English language learners, but I like to call them linguistically gifted. I like to call our community, who are first generation, also linguistically gifted. I believe if you speak another language, whether you speak English or not, you are linguistically gifted, because you have so much to offer our communities here.

How has that shift affected your students? Have you noticed a change?

When we see children for who they are, and we uplift each part of their identity — their language, their culture, their ethnicity, their race — they don't have to negotiate who they're going to be at school, they get to be themselves. 

And then when we invite families and create welcoming spaces for families in schools, the families get to be just who they are, as well. And we learn to see the gifts that everybody has to offer. And so what it does is it provides the key ingredients in what we need to build community in schools, to build relationships and trust with families as educators.

You've said [in other interviews] that you want to promote a “joyous and just” education, where teachers work with families and communities to address injustice, racism and gaps in access to resources. How have you seen these issues affect your students?

A lot of the time, we need to embrace the community in order to teach the child. And so when I say a joyous and just education, I don't just mean it for the child. I mean that we are providing a joyous and just education for children and their families and their communities. 

By ‘joyous,’ I mean that everybody has a sense of belonging within the school, teachers included. This is a really important time for us to acknowledge how much we need to embrace teachers, acknowledge their hard work and treat them as professionals. 

And ‘just’ because we understand that there are inequities that lie within our school systems and that we need to work collectively, with our student’s voices guiding the way, in order to address those inequities, in order to redesign things that are not working in education and in order to bring as many people forward as possible.

How do you see the role of teachers in that pursuit?

We know that the number one determinant of a child's academic success is their teacher. So if we uplift teachers… giving them the tools that they need, then we're also uplifting students. And so the teacher's role in this is to continue to teach our heart out. 

We have done so much more than teaching in this last year — we have made sure our students are safe, that they’re well, that they have tools that they need, not only for learning, but for their well being. Teachers are centering social and emotional learning, meaning that we're focusing on it, not just as an extra add in, but as a part of something that we teach in everything. Who am I as a person? How do my emotions play into my learning? How can I manage my emotions? How can I manage conflict with others so that I can collaborate with others? How can I also see others and make space for everybody? 

These are really important lessons and skills that our students need to have. Teachers modeling these skills create critical spaces in our schools for everybody to have a vital role. So in addition to teacher leadership and centering student’s social emotional learning, the teacher’s job is to keep pushing for what we know our students need, keep raising our voices when we know that certain policies or certain laws might negatively impact our communities. It's that collective voice that really is going to transform education.

What do you think the state or local communities could do to further support teachers in this role?

I think part of it is the relationships that we have with our children's teacher, our neighborhood teachers. I'll give you an example. My school, Kermit Booker Elementary School, our namesake, the family, the Booker family, still comes to the school once a month and they treat the teachers to lunch. Every time they stick around, and they hang out, and they talk to the teachers, and they say, ‘Thank you. Thank you for teaching our students.’  

That demonstration of gratitude with respect is really, really important. It's not an empty ‘Thank you.’ It's quite meaningful because it's tied to a relationship. So I think the first thing we need to do is have relationships with the teachers that not only serve our very own children, but the children in our community. 

The second is to ask teachers, ‘What do you need? What's working, What's not working?’ As a country, we're shifting from an era where teachers were held accountable in a way that didn't include their voice to shifting to this way of teachers' voices leading policy work. So when we develop relationships with policymakers, lawmakers and administration, not just at our school, but at a district or state level, then we're making sure that teachers' voices are included. 

And teachers always carry their students' voices with them. We're the ones having the conversation on the ground with the families, with the students, what's working, what's not working, what do you need, right? And then we can get to this point where we ask families, ‘what do you want?’ 

Right now, the equity issue is, ‘What do you need?’ The joyous and just is, ‘What do you want?’ That’s what a joyous and just education is, including the needs and wants of the family. 

As a teacher, what are your wants and needs?

First, teachers want their students' needs met. Because that means that we can spend more time on the academic and the creative part of learning. I believe every school should have a counselor and all of our high-needs schools should have social workers in addition to a counselor.

And I believe teachers deserve the space for reflection.

I'm a national board certified teacher. And what that is, is a voluntary certification process where I get to reflect on my practice, my students and what they need right now. It's a very long process, but it's a very worthwhile process. For me, it was transformational, because it carved out that space for reflection and analytical thought, for improving my students' learning. 

Sometimes teachers have so much on their plate that we can't invest in ourselves, to really give that high-level thinking to our practice. And so I wish that we would do that more, that we would provide more financial support so teachers could do programs like that, that really feed them as educators. 

I also wish that in Nevada, in particular, I wish we had smaller class sizes, but nothing in education is simple, because we can't have smaller class sizes until we increase teacher retention. 

There are plenty of people out there who would love to be a teacher. We have to do the hard work of improving our profession, where people see it as a viable lifelong career because they're treated as professionals, they're paid as professionals and the work-life balance is manageable and it's fair. 

I know that during this last year, my colleagues and I worked double, triple time. So I hope that we find a way to support teachers. We don't need necessarily more learning, we just need more teacher-guided learning. And we need more time to be able to take those deep dives.

How do your students inspire and motivate you as a teacher?

As a special education teacher, I get to work with students who have all sorts of different needs. And one of the beautiful things is that in special education, I get to take a deep dive into who each child is, right? I get to look at each child and who they are individually. 

A lot of our students within special education, they don't feel successful, they don't feel like they're learners. The gap between them and their peers is sometimes two, three, even more years. They inspire me because once we're able to connect their self esteem to their learning, and take it at the pace that they need to take it, they are so resilient, they are so connected and committed to their learning that I've seen students in my class go from a pre primer level, which is like early kindergarten, to a second or third grade reading level in a school year. So that's three plus years of learning that they've done in a year. 

It's about giving them the tools. So it's never the child, it's always the environment and the tools that are accessible to that child. And so what they teach me is to have this strong-willed advocacy for us being able to provide the learning environment every single student needs. And also, they teach me that everybody has strength.

Your recognition is a significant accomplishment, but what challenges have you faced along the way? And how did you overcome them?

One challenge that I continue to face is maintaining a level of Spanish that is on par with my English. I think the more I speak English, the more I have to work to make sure I maintain my level of Spanish. And so the way I tried to do that the best that I can is by reading literature in Spanish. It's an intentional choice that I make each day to maintain my language and my identity.

I think professionally, the challenges that I faced have really propelled me into leadership. I found ways to connect with teachers, not just in my state, but across the country who are having similar issues. For example … I cofounded this organization called NAME, which is the Network of Accomplished Minority Educators. We work to make sure that teachers of color have access to their national board certification, because … we want to increase that number (of certified teachers), increase visibility and increase support.

I think that challenges are part of life. And I try to teach my students that life isn't about not having challenges. Life is about having the community to support you through those challenges. 

I think that there's also this intersection between social justice and civil rights and how it intersects with schools. Because, if in Black and brown communities, there's a disparity between incarcerated people and people who lose their lives at the hands of police brutality, then that's going to impact my students, that's going to impact their mental health, their wellness, their ability to access different parts of their community. 

Seeing it as holistic for me is really important as a teacher. It's my responsibility to make sure that I'm informed on people's struggles who are outside of my community. How am I building bridges to those communities? 

And I think that those are always challenges because sometimes in education, there's a push for teachers to be apolitical, but there's no such thing as being apolitical. We are who we are, we bring ourselves to our classroom. What we need to teach is critical thought and critical interdependence, knowing that the wellness and the well-being of people outside of my community is just as important as the wellness and the health of the people within my community. 

What's next for you? What other goals do you have in your career?

This next year I get to spend as an advocate for education. I get to travel across the country and connect with teachers and students, policymakers, and talk about what really matters and encourage this idea of a just and joyous education. I get to be a teacher on a much bigger scale this next year. and I'm really excited.

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