Teaching Profession

Juliana Urtubey, an Elementary Special Educator, Is the 2021 National Teacher of the Year

By Madeline Will — May 06, 2021 4 min read
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Juliana Urtubey, an elementary special education teacher in Las Vegas, has been named the 2021 National Teacher of the Year.

Urtubey, a National Board-certified teacher who co-teaches in prekindergarten through 5th grade special education settings at Booker Elementary School, was announced as the national awardee today on CBS This Morning. Urtubey, who was born in Colombia, is a bilingual educator and teaches many English-language learners. She also serves as an instructional strategist at her school, developing supports to meet students’ differing academic, social-emotional, and behavioral needs.

Teaching, she said through tears in her classroom, lets her “be part of a whole new world with so many students.”

Known as Ms. Earth, Urtubey has raised tens of thousands of dollars in grants to beautify her school community with gardens and murals. She leads classes outside to give students hands-on experiences, and uses the garden to teach about character and growth mindset.

Having a thriving school garden made students and families feel welcome, included, and proud of their school community, Urtubey told Education Week on Thursday. That’s especially important in the Title I schools where she has worked, she said, because they often have a negative reputation.

“Instead, we were able to flip the narrative and say this school is wonderful, this school brings joy, this school brings people together,” she said.

CBS This Morning interviewed several of Urtubey’s former students, who spoke of how much the garden—and Urtubey—meant to them.

“I would describe Ms. Urtubey as kind-hearted, all-knowing, fun, yet also sort of serious when it comes to our behavior,” said former student Joseph Moreno.

Another said: “She was a good leader, and she would just teach us things in a different way that other people wouldn’t.”

Few special education teachers have won this award

Special education teachers have been underrepresented as state teachers of the year compared to the broader teacher workforce, according to a new analysis by University of Florida professors Christopher Redding and Ted Myers, who analyzed the teachers of the year from the past three decades. Urtubey said she is just the third special educator to receive the national honor.

The roles and responsibilities of special education teachers are often distinct from their colleagues in general education, Redding and Myers wrote, adding that their voices may not be adequately included in the advocacy efforts of teachers of the year.

Urtubey told Education Week that being a special education teacher has given her greater insight into the importance of family engagement and has shaped her teaching philosophy.

“I have seen my students with thinking and learning differences accomplish amazing things in terms of managing their emotions, getting along with others, solving and managing conflict. ... I’ve seen my students be resilient and have grit and be able to make mistakes and learn from their mistakes,” she said. “It’s just such an honor to be able to amplify their brilliance.”

In an interview with Education Week in February, Urtubey said she wants more accessible bilingual education, and is hopeful the Biden administration will give teachers a seat at the table when it comes to policymaking.

“I’m really grateful to lean into this idea that teachers are leaders from their classroom,” she said. “Cohesively, at our schools we can advocate for these changes. And now there’s more of a space for us to collaborate with policy because policy really needs to be informed by what teachers see every single day.”

She also said she wants to use her platform as National Teacher of the Year to advocate for creative ways to recruit and retain teachers of color.

Urtubey was selected by a national committee 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.

The committee includes representatives from 16 education groups and is run by the Council of Chief State School Officers, which facilitates the award.

The three other finalists were: John Arthur, a 6th grade teacher in Salt Lake City, Utah; Alejandro Diasgranados, a 4th and 5th grade teacher in Washington, D.C., and Maureen Stover, a 9th and 10th grade science teacher in Fayetteville, N.C.

Because of the pandemic, last year was the first year since 1952 the national winner and other state teachers of the year weren’t honored at the White House. This year’s ceremony has also been postponed, but on CBS This Morning, Jill Biden surprised Urtubey in her classroom in Las Vegas.

In most years, the president receives the award winners at the White House. 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.

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