As the coronavirus pandemic exposes and deepens educational inequities, the four finalists for the 2021 National Teacher of the Year were named in part for their work challenging injustices both in their school communities and on a national level.
The Council of Chief State Schools Officers announced on Wednesday the finalists for the national award, which recognizes teachers for their work inside and outside the classroom. The teacher who receives the national honor will be granted a yearlong sabbatical to represent the profession and advocate for an issue of choice.
Here are the four finalists:
- John Arthur, a 6th grade teacher in Salt Lake City, Utah;
- Alejandro Diasgranados, a 4th and 5th grade teacher in Washington, D.C.;
- Maureen Stover, a 9th and 10th grade science teacher in Fayetteville, N.C.; and
- Juliana Urtubey, an elementary special education teacher in Las Vegas.
All four finalists said that as National Teacher of the Year, they would advocate for more recruitment and retention policies that focus on teachers of color. Arthur is Asian, Diasgranados is Afro-Latino, Stover is white, and Urtubey is Latinx and was born in Colombia.
The selection committee said these four finalists “stand out as models of [the] creativity and dedication” that teachers have shown over the past year as they adapted to remote, hybrid, or socially distanced instruction and confronted social and racial injustice in light of societal unrest.
A focus on equity and inclusion
Arthur, who is a National Board-certified teacher and works in a high-poverty school, runs a class on the YouTube channel called 9thEvermore. Every year, Arthur has his students research an equity issue that affects them and collectively write a poem that’s set to music, filmed, and published on the channel. For example, in 2019, students wrote a poem criticizing the fact that migrant families were detained under a bridge in El Paso, Texas—and modeled the greeting they felt asylum seekers should have received instead.
“My 11- and 12-year-old students, the children of immigrants and refugees, understand that it is their right to defend marginalized individuals and communities, especially their own,” Arthur wrote in his application. “I believe all students can learn, and that when you embed rich, engaging content with specific and scaffolded learning strategies, students will rise beyond your expectations.”
Diasgranados, who is a Teach for America alumnus, teaches English/language arts and social studies. He teaches an activism unit each year, where students are encouraged to advocate for themselves and be “agents of change.”
“I’ve learned that students’ academic investment and resilience increase dramatically when they are invited to participate in the important decision-making processes that take place within the school,” Diasgranados wrote in his application.
When Diasgranados, as his school’s social-emotional learning lead, surveyed students, he learned that a factor driving student absences was their lack of access to reliable laundry. Students said they were bullied when attending school with unwashed clothes. Diasgranados applied for and received a $10,000 grant to construct a laundry center for his school community. Last October, he helped his school receive 265 laptops from the Drew Barrymore Show.
Stover, who teaches biology and earth and environmental science as well as Advancement Via Individual Determination, or AVID, a college and career readiness program, was an intelligence officer in the U.S. Air Force before becoming a teacher. She uses data-driven instruction to tailor lessons based on students’ unique needs. Stover said she does not give traditional tests, but instead uses performance assessment tools that let students demonstrate their understanding in their preferred learning style—including through song or poetry.
“I take a humanistic approach to teaching by delivering motivating, meaningful content,” Stover wrote in her application. “I firmly believe that every child has the ability to learn, and it is my responsibility to find the best way to help each of my students maximize their academic potential.”
Each year, she said, less than half of her students are projected to score a proficient score on the biology end-of-course exam—but for the past three years, more than 90 percent have demonstrated proficiency.
Urtubey, a National Board-certified teacher who co-teaches in prekindergarten through 5th grade special education settings, is known as “Ms. Earth-tubey” in her school community because of her work with her school’s garden. She leads a year-long unit called “Growth Mindset in the Garden,” in which she teaches students how their brains help them learn and manage their emotions and behaviors. She also teaches students outside in the gardens so they can make hands-on connections to the content.
“I empower my students by helping them understand how they can harness the power of learning by embracing mistakes and challenges,” Urtubey wrote in her application. “My instruction includes sensitive data collection that is responsive to their specific learning needs so they see what I see—that their learning emerges piece by piece.”
Urtubey raised $80,000 in grants to design and build a community garden for her previous school. Students—who call themselves “Garden Gnomies,” since they took care of the garden gnomes and were “homies” of nature—maintain the garden, compost food scraps, and harvest produce that is shared with the community on a sliding price scale.
A national winner will be picked in the spring
The finalists were selected from a pool of 49 state teachers of the year who hail from 44 states, the District of Columbia, the Department of Defense Education Activity, and U.S. territories. Six states—Alaska, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, and Pennsylvania—and Guam didn’t name a 2021 state teacher of the year due to the pandemic.
A selection committee, made up of representatives from 16 education groups, chose the finalists based on their written applications, and will pick a national winner based on virtual interviews this spring.
Typically, the national winner and the other state teachers of the year are honored in a White House ceremony, and a CCSSO spokeswoman said the organization will be working with the White House to schedule this year’s ceremony “as soon as it is safe to do so.” Last year was the first year since 1952 the honorees weren’t able to visit White House grounds due to the pandemic.
In most years, the president receives the award winners. President Donald Trump made headlines in 2019 for his initial decision not to meet with the honorees, but he ultimately invited the teachers into the Oval Office for a surprise meeting.
Tabatha Rosproy, a preschool teacher in Winfield, Kan., won the national award in 2020. She was the first early-childhood educator to receive the honor in the award’s history, which spans nearly seven decades.