Juliana Urtubey, the 2021 National Teacher of the Year, sees herself in her students. Like her, many of her students are first-generation immigrants. Urtubey’s parents left their native country of Colombia, where she was born, and settled in Chicago to give her and her sisters a safer upbringing.
However, her mother didn’t feel welcome or comfortable at their neighborhood school because of the culture and language differences. So Urtubey’s mother found a bilingual magnet school for her girls, which was a better fit for them.
A Different Path
This experience influenced Urtubey’s career path—she knew from an early age that she wanted to work with bilingual children and those with special needs. She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in bilingual elementary education and a master’s degree in special bilingual education from the University of Arizona.
“I kept coming across children who had so many strengths but were struggling to learn to read and write. I knew I could really support students who were bilingual like me,” said Urtubey, who is the first National Teacher of the Year from Nevada, the first Latinx since at least 2005 to receive the award and only the third special education teacher to be honored in the award’s 70-year history.
Now an 11-year teaching veteran, Urtubey teaches pre-kindergarten through fifth grade at Kermit R. Booker Sr. Innovative Elementary School in Las Vegas, where she is also an instructional strategist developing supports to meet students’ academic, social, emotional and behavioral needs.
“Juliana is an outstanding educator because her passion and care for her students is the driving force to ensure that they get a high-quality education,” said Jose Silva, principal at Booker. “Juliana always approaches teaching with a student-first mindset. She supports all students and does not let any student go unnoticed. By valuing and uplifting them, she has made a big difference in their lives.”
Seeds of Change
Urtubey also goes by another name in the classroom: “Ms. Earth.” Her students nicknamed her this because gardening has proved to be an unexpectedly effective teaching tool and an innovative way to connect with her students and their families.
The idea first took root in 2014, when Urtubey and the principal at her previous school, Crestwood Elementary in Las Vegas, took a walk and came to a nearby vacant area. The principal mentioned that a grant was available to build a garden and asked Urtubey if she would be interested in the project. She said yes.
I knew nothing about gardening, but I thought, how powerful [would it be] to learn alongside my students. So, we’ll learn together.Juliana Urtubey, 2021 National Teacher of the Year
Intuition told her it would be great to have a space where people could gather to grow fruits and vegetables and children could learn about science and math. With the collective elbow grease of the children, teachers and the students’ families, the desolate space became a thriving garden, sprawling over 20,000 square feet, with colorful murals and outdoor classrooms perfect for learning.
Urtubey could always be found in the garden. There was always something to do, from planting seedlings and weeding to composting and raising monarch butterflies. Working with the students and their families on the project also helped her nurture valuable relationships and build trust. And it brought the community together through the school’s “Garden Gnomies Club,” which involved over 50 students and their families, who also helped run a small farmer’s market.
The teamwork paid off. The garden “encouraged students to be brave about their learning challenges and find their strengths,” Urtubey explained. “The goal was always to learn from nature.” She hopes to have the same success in expanding the small garden at Booker Elementary, where she just completed her first year on staff.
Cheerleader for Joy and Justice
Urtubey truly believes that every child has strengths and something to offer— and that includes those with special needs. Teaching, for her, is about meeting students where they are and seeing their brilliance. This approach is part of providing each child with what she calls a “joyous and just” education.
“Working with my community has shown me just how important it is to have both of these elements in education,” Urtubey said. “Every child needs to have a sense of belonging and pride, which promotes joy in learning. Happiness can be fleeting. Joy comes from having a place, a role.”
A just education hinges on recognizing the systemic inequities that negatively impact students. Urtubey believes those inequities in education need to be confronted, and that it takes a village— parents, educators and the community at large—to help heal the wounds. “We know children of color have disproportionate outcomes in public education,” she explained.
We have to be courageous about the solutions we put forth to make sure every child has an education that is just.Juliana Urtubey, 2021 National Teacher of the Year
Urtubey especially loves teaching younger children, because they have such a strong foundation of inclusivity and equity. “They understand that while everybody needs something different to succeed, everybody also needs the same amount of love and inclusivity,” she explained.
Younger children are also more willing to share with each other. She adds that it is important to help students develop empathy and the ability to do what children do best—hang on to things that are fair.
Champion for All
As the National Teacher of the Year, Urtubey wants to uplift and applaud the hard work of her fellow teachers, particularly during this season of pandemic.
“Juliana Urtubey exemplifies the dedication, creativity and heart teachers bring to their students and communities,” said Carissa Moffat Miller, Chief Executive Officer of the Council of Chief State School Officers, which has run the National Teacher of the Year program for 70 years. The selection committee included former National PTA president Leslie Boggs.
Urtubey also plans to advocate for special needs children as well as what she calls the “linguistically gifted,” otherwise known as English-language learners, and those marginalized in their experience, which includes children of color, first-generation immigrants and LGBTQ students.
We need to reflect the brilliance of these communities and do it with the help of students and their families.Juliana Urtubey, 2021 National Teacher of the Year
“I hope to advocate that we all look deeper at systemic inequities and use teacher power and community power to continue creating a space so that all children have an education that honors who they are.”
In the meantime, she’ll keep planting knowledge, joy, justice, diversity and inclusion wherever she goes.
“I tell my students that we are seeds,” said Urtubey. “We have everything we need within us to be able to do the things that are important to us. So, let’s build an environment where everybody can thrive.”
Barbranda Lumpkins Walls is a freelance writer and editor in Alexandria, Va.