LAS VEGAS — The coronavirus pandemic forced students out of the classroom and starkly revealed how learning difficulties, distractions and challenging home dynamics can make it tough to adhere to a rigid curriculum.
In a year with so much loss, a silver lining is that educators are embracing a flexible approach that meets students where they are, said Juliana Urtubey, the newly named 2021 National Teacher of the Year.
“We, as teachers, are much more open to this self-paced learning, this flipped classroom, which has been an invitation for students who think and learn differently,” Urtubey said.
The Council of Chief State School Officers recognized the Las Vegas special education teacher with the award Thursday.
“Juliana Urtubey exemplifies the dedication, creativity and heart teachers bring to their students and communities,” council CEO Carissa Moffat Miller said.
The council said she is the first Latino recipient since 2005 and the first Nevada teacher to win the award.
First lady Jill Biden, who was in Las Vegas as part of a three-state swing through the U.S. West, congratulated Urtubey during a surprise visit to her classroom Thursday. “CBS This Morning” aired video of Urtubey appearing shocked when Biden, also an educator, walked into the classroom and handed her flowers.
“She is just the epitome of a great teacher, a great educator,” Biden said as she sat for an interview with Urtubey.
Urtubey, who has been an educator for 11 years, works with elementary school students, individualizing lessons to match their academic, emotional and behavioral needs. That can put her everywhere in a school, from spending hours with struggling pre-K students to helping a fifth-grader with science class and strategizing with teachers on how to work with their special-needs students.
She said her approach is to think about a child holistically — taking into account their interests, hobbies, family structure and community — and using that to understand what they will need and how to find their strengths.
“There’s always strengths to find, and so once you find those strengths, you start there,” Urtubey said.
She said she learned early in life the value of an education that takes a child’s background into consideration. She moved to the U.S. from Colombia as a young child and spent part of her early education in a bilingual magnet school before her family moved and couldn’t find a similar school nearby.
Urtubey said it hammered home the importance of a school “that really knows how to nurture and uplift” a student in a way that takes their identity into account.
She said she decided to enter special education after seeing how capable some students can be after receiving information a different way.
“I knew that I could be the kind of teacher that would just take it step by step, have a whole lot of celebration for kids, particularly kids with thinking and learning differences and really just make learning fun,” she said.
She has reached and nurtured students by starting a community garden at Crestwood Elementary School, where she taught before joining a new school this academic year. She launched the project seven years ago, sprucing up a bare patch of grass and a section of the aging school building. It’s now a flourishing outdoor classroom with flowers, fruit trees, vegetables and more than a dozen murals.
Her students formed a garden club called “Gnomies” to care for the space, along with a mini farmer’s market that runs on donations and sends students home with fresh produce.
“You can imagine what it means to be a child who doesn’t experience a whole lot of success in the classroom but then to go and learn outside all the time in the garden,” she said. “It’s fun for them, and it’s fun for teachers.”
Thanks to her students, Urtubey picked up a new nickname: “Ms. Earth-to-bey,” as a play on her last name. Nowadays, they just call her Ms. Earth.
“It’s by far the most prestigious award that I’ve ever been awarded,” she said of the nickname.
Urtubey’s garden and the way it connected with the community and helped her students grow was among the factors the selection committee cited in naming her Teacher of the Year.
Urtubey is in her first year at new school: Kermit R. Booker, Sr. Innovative Elementary School in Las Vegas, where she’s planning to launch another garden. As Teacher of the Year, a yearlong advocacy role, she said she plans to promote for “a joyous and just education,” where students feel they’re understood and teachers work with families and communities to address injustices, bias, racism and a lack of access to resources.
The winner of the award is usually recognized by the president at a White House ceremony each spring, but that’s been postponed for the second year because of the pandemic. The Council of Chief State School Officers says it will work with the White House to schedule a ceremony for Urtubey and the 2020 winner, Tabatha Rosproy of Kansas, when it’s safe to do so.