Podcast: 2021 National Teacher of the Year Juliana Urtubey

27 Min Read
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Photo: Juliana at her new school in Clark County. Previously she worked at Crestwood Elementary.

Today on Teachers in America, we welcome the 2021 National Teacher of the Year and 2021 Nevada Teacher of the Year, Juliana Urtubey. An elementary teacher at Kermit R. Booker Elementary in Clark County School District, Nevada, you can follow her on Twitter.

A full transcript of the episode appears below; it has been edited for clarity.

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The views expressed in this podcast are those of the guest and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.

Lish Mitchell: Welcome to Teachers in America, a production of HMH, hosted by our Senior Director of Community Engagement, Noelle Morris. I'm Lish Mitchell. To celebrate Earth Day this year, we have one of the four finalists for the 2021 National Teacher of the Year, Juliana Urtubey. At her former school, Crestwood Elementary, she was nicknamed Ms. Earth thanks to her work with students in beautifying the school with a garden and mural. Juliana recently took a new position at Kermit R. Booker Elementary in Clark County School District, Nevada. She serves in the Pre-K and Special Education departments as a co-teacher and instructional strategist, and is passionate about language and culture. Through her work with three different fellowships, Juliana and her colleagues strive to give voice to state policies that impact education. Now, here are Noelle and Juliana.

Noelle Morris: Today on Teachers in America we're talking with Juliana Urtubey. Welcome, Juliana. I always want to ask [teachers] how you got into teaching. I know that you work with students with special needs. What brought you to that focus area?

Juliana Urtubey: I originally studied bilingual general education. I was a fifth-grade bilingual teacher, and I had a student who was so intelligent. But he would find himself often in the principal's office. I would always quietly remark on his signs of intelligence and the things that he was doing. For example, he was running a convenience store out of his backpack. He had candies and toys and all sorts of goodies. He also had in a notebook, an itemized list of what he sold, his profits, all this. That same student had really limited English and writing skills. He could write his name, yes, no, and a little bit here and there. So I asked myself, how is this possible? How could such an intelligent student have made it to fifth grade but still have such struggles in reading and writing?

This was early in my career, when I realized students can be exceptional. A lot of people don’t fit into a box of learning and thinking differences. And they shouldn't be limited by those learning and thinking differences. We just have to change how we teach certain kids so they can build those bridges in their learning.

This all took place in Arizona where English-only laws make it illegal for schools to teach bilingual classes unless parents have all these waivers. And there were a lot of hoops to jump through to keep that bilingual education happening.

But where we were unequivocally allowed to use Spanish was in the special education area, because we knew that we had a bridge, our students' language abilities. That’s what propelled me to study bilingual special education in a master’s program.

I see myself both as a general and as a special education practitioner. I try to embody inclusion so that my students don't feel like they're in the quote-unquote special education class. We're here to support and help all students. This is an idea that's coming to fruition in education more so nowadays where all teachers see all students as their own.

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Noelle: Did I hear you say that there are English-only rules or English-only policies? Being from Florida, I thought some of that had been changed since the nineties.

Juliana: There's a wonderful thought leader from Texas, Dr. Angela Valenzuela. She wrote a book a while back called Subtractive Schooling, about how schools can either erase kids' identities or supplement their identities. There's no such thing as having too many identities. We can be our truest self and always add on.

So we can be Tagalog speakers and add on English. But if Tagalog is important for a family to maintain, then let's as a school help them maintain it. I think that's our responsibility as educators to know our students' identities and push past what we see assimilation doing to people of color. We should embrace all identities and help them in whatever ways we can. I think sometimes we underestimate how symbolic gestures really go a long way.

As for English-only laws, they started in California. Then they moved into Arizona. This was in early 2000. There were a series of laws, which a lot of the folks in the human rights immigrant movement looked at as laws of attrition.

Basically, these were laws that made the lives of immigrants more and more difficult. You have laws that prevent undocumented people from getting a driver's license, which makes it difficult to get to and from work. Undocumented folks can’t get emergency services or access to Medicaid, even if they pay taxes. All of these different things slowly started making lives for immigrant communities more and more difficult.

One of the first laws, the English-only law, meant schools were only allowed to teach in English. The impact was that bilingual schools in lower socioeconomic neighborhoods closed because we didn't have the agency to fight these laws. The schools that had the agency to organize through waivers were in the higher economic areas where most of the students were not first-generation migrants. That’s where bilingual schools still operate today.

Now, are there bilingual schools in California and Arizona? Absolutely. But we can't forget the impact those laws had on our communities in early 2000.

Noelle: There's a question I have to ask you just to get it out there because I'm so intrigued. How did you get to be called Ms. Earth?

Juliana: That's the accomplishment that I'm the most proud of. The name Ms. Earth came out of the fact that I started a garden program at my school with other teachers and families and students. The kids always saw me with a farmer's hat on and we were always working and learning in the garden. One day, I looked down and one of my students had written his name on his paper. In the space for his teacher's name, he wrote “Ms. Earth.”

I asked him about that and he said, "That's what all the kids call you." I responded, "But you guys never told me!" After that, the kids knew that I fully embraced the nickname and it just became what kids called me. It's funny because my last name sounds like “Earthtubey.” So some kids would call me Ms. Earth and some “Ms. Earthtubey.”

Noelle: For you to embrace it, I'm sure that had them all beaming. So now let's go back to that question of how Ms. Earth came to become a teacher. Tell us a bit about that journey to getting your own classroom.

Juliana: I was born in Colombia and, like many of my students, my family made that really difficult decision to leave our country due to a civil war. That's a common Latinx narrative. When we arrived in Chicago, my mom felt unsafe and unwelcomed at the schools offered to us. So she found a bilingual magnet program that she felt would nurture our identities and our love for learning.

My mom was able to leverage her skills to get enrollment for us. She was a linguist and a human rights lawyer. She taught Spanish classes and my dad, a musician, taught music class. So I got to go to a beautiful bilingual school where my parents were celebrated and included in my education.

As I was growing up, I began to realize that wasn't the case for many people. I wanted to be the kind of teacher who nurtured languages because I know what it's like for communities to lose their native languages. That made me to want to be around students, young minds. And what better place to do all those things than in a school?

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Noelle: I appreciate what I see and hear in your thinking about your parents and their being a part of your journey. Do you remember how you felt leaving Colombia and coming here?

Juliana: Absolutely. I mentioned that a lot of folks had to leave their countries because of war and conflict. My story within the Latinx narrative is a little bit different. My dad was born in New York and so upon birth, I had dual citizenship for both Colombia and the United States. That changed how I saw the bridge between the two worlds between Colombia and the United States.

But there were definitely scary moments that I either remember directly or vicariously about things that happened in Colombia. What I remember most is my mom's bravery. My two older sisters did an amazing job of always taking care of me and shielding me from quite a bit.

All these memories of Chicago and the school I went to have come up through storytelling in my family. I think our childhood memories are embedded deep in our subconscious and storytelling brought them out. A turning point for me came when I was trying to decide, do I go into this teacher leadership academy that's available in my high school or do I explore other careers? Automatically I was like, "No, this is the right path for me. I want to be a teacher."

Noelle: You're one of the four finalists for Teacher of the Year. What's your family saying about that accolade?

Juliana: Oh my goodness. There’s an immense amount of collective joy and pride. I still can't believe it. I'm really grateful. I'm so in awe, because there's 56 teachers in the state Teacher of the Year cohort, and I'm in such awe of the tremendous power that these teachers across the country and across the world have. The finalists are exceptional and I feel humbled.

It's also given me the opportunity to reflect deeply. Teachers do amazing things day in, day out. But these things are such a daily part of our lives that we don’t always stop to think about the magnitude of our impact. I've been grateful to have organizations like the National Board, Teach Plus, and Understood surround me. My colleagues also surround me and remind me of the tremendous impact we make.

One thing that's really important for teachers across our country to do is to step into our power. We're humble and shy about that impact. It's hard to accept that impact, but we have to embrace it because the impact teachers have collectively is just...we can't quantify it. This process [of becoming a finalist for Teacher of the Year] has brought up a lot of joy and a lot of pride.

Noelle: You saw firsthand the importance of stepping into your power. I'm curious though, because I know teachers do so much additional work and put in a lot of extra hours to get that achievement. For example, you mentioned your work with Teacher Plus. Can you tell us about that?

Juliana: I've been part of three different fellowships. I was a fellow for National Board and then for Teach Plus, which is a teacher advocacy fellowship where teachers join colleagues from across the state to inform policy that impacts education. Sometimes that’s teachers writing bills, and other times it’s teachers testifying about bills. We also meet with educational organizations and folks who work in education.

Roberto Rodriguez, Teach Plus CEO, and Dr. Tanya Holmes Sutton, the Nevada state director, are exceptional role models in centering teacher voice. This connects to what I said earlier about teachers needing a nudge. We need a collective leadership experience to step into that power, to echo what happens in our classrooms. Every teacher is a leader in their classroom, and it's about echoing what's happening in our classroom and building bridges with policy.

That's what Teach Plus is all about. Our fellows write op-eds and do TV interviews when big policy comes out. The other fellowship that I mentioned is with Understood, a tremendous organization that is working to shift how we see students who have thinking and learning differences. It’s important that we think about giving these students wraparound support that includes their families, parents, and the community.

Noelle: Is there a policy that took you by surprise? Did you ever write a bill or were you ever a part of a policy-making committee? What was that experience like?

Juliana: What I've learned in terms of policy is just how much more layered it is than you initially think it is. I would say policy starts where relationships have stopped.

Policy is difficult to write. Folks have really great intentions. But there are so many perspectives to capture and that makes it difficult.

I think I've learned to look at policy as something that changes based on our input. Teachers are wonderful spokespeople. It's about making sure there's teacher voice in every step of policy. Teach Plus has done tremendous work. I'm just a tiny little grain of sand within the Teach Plus network.

In our state, one group of fellows proposed conducting exit surveys to understand why teachers leave certain schools. What can we do to encourage them to stay and help them feel supported? There's been policy change in terms of teacher accountability and teacher effectiveness.

I encourage folks to go on the teachplus.org website and check out some of the memos that are published, not just by Nevada, but across the state. They are really powerful. There was another white paper that was published and it was talking specifically about recruiting and retaining teachers of color. I thought that was so exceptional, how they broke it down into very actionable steps about what we need to do to make sure that we're recruiting and retaining teachers of color, because we know that has a really big impact on students of color and their learning.

Noelle: In thinking about student learning across Nevada, do you project that you'll be learning about how your state differs from other states?

Juliana: One of the things about doing these national fellowships is I get to collaborate with teachers from across the country. Through my National Board work, we support teachers across the country in their candidacy. What I've learned is that we are all unique. The context in which we serve is important. But we also have a lot of common concerns, interests, and ideas about how to improve education.

Nevada has some of the best teachers I've ever met. Our students are some of the most diverse linguistically and ethnically across the country. Nevada is a really rich state in terms of that diversity in terms of what we bring forward.

As a state, we are working on updating our funding formula so it's more equitable. We know that'll translate into more student learning and wraparound services.

Noelle: Hey listeners, if you need another podcast to keep you up to date on the world of education, check out Shaping the FutureTM. My friend and colleague Matthew Mugo Fields sits down with industry experts to discuss how education and innovation can change the world. Subscribe to Shaping the Future on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to your podcasts. Now, let's get back to the episode.

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Noelle: Let's come back to what you have done with the shift of what we've all been through with virtual and hybrid. What is something that you immediately knew you needed to do to meet students’ needs when you went virtual? And what is something that you’ve continued to do as you come back to teaching in person?

Juliana: I get to brag about Nevada a little bit right now, because March to May was madness. There was a March Madness. It was teachers looking for all the free resources and figuring out, "Okay, what platform do I use? What learning management system does the district want us to use? We don't know yet." This was such a big shift for everybody.

So the first thing was the collective deep breath. And then we thought, "Okay, we need to make sure our students are accounted for. Two, they need food. Three, let's do inventory to see what technology they have at home to participate virtually."

So March to May was figure-it-out time. The district did a great job of providing food for all of our students, which is wonderful. They didn't take breaks, they didn't take holidays off. They made sure that our students had food, which is really key.

And they were great about teacher feedback. I would call [school leaders] all the time and say, "Hey, I have this mom. And that one school is too far [for her to pick up food]. Is it possible to open up another?” And the district was amazing about responding to families’ needs and they're providing food over the summer as well.

So then knowing that virtual learning was going to be the case for a lot of students coming back in the fall, Nevada set up a public-private collaboration to ensure that all of our students had technology access. It's called Connecting Kids Nevada. And it was a well-run system where families or schools could call this number. They would take a couple of questions about the family and then technology would be waiting at the school for them.

So every single child had their own Chromebook. Every single family had their own WiFi hotspot. And that was a game changer because then in the fall we could plan for instruction to include all of our students. From March to May, I would have some students that were able to participate the first week every single day. And the second week, I was only able to catch them by phone and do phone tutoring.

Every child had a different scenario because if we all think back to whenever our state shut down, it was a day-by-day kind of a thing. So I was grateful to have really great relationships with all the families I worked with because I was just a message away. We were all super flexible with each other. I will say that teachers worked extraordinary hours and have continued to work extraordinary hours to make that happen.

And while I'm really proud of our teacher workforce, I do wonder about the impact of that in terms of teachers’ mental health, social-emotional wellness, all that good stuff. But we do what we need to do for our students.

We still have some students that we’re only able to reach from time to time. It's not a hundred percent, nothing is a hundred percent with these virtual systems yet. We're still working our way through them. We know some students do great virtually and some families have asked for a continuation of virtual learning post-COVID. I wonder how school districts can respond to those families. And we know some students need to be back face-to-face in order to learn effectively and close those gaps.

We're going to keep doing the best we can because it's an ever-changing situation. I will tell you, I'm so excited to welcome students back, even though we can't hug them, even though I won't be able to wipe away their tears. I'm so excited to have their energy back in the school building.

Some things that will continue are blended or flipped learning, which means that some of the learning happens virtually, allowing students to go at their own pace. And I think that's a huge equity piece.

Right now, all students are ready to have the same instruction at the same pace all the time. A lot of high school programs do flipped learning. That's something that's seeing its way into elementary school.

We're also going to continue with our online learning management systems. Some schools use Canvas, some schools use Google Classrooms management systems. I think that's a great thing to continue because it gives kids a chance to finish their work at a time that works best for them and their families. It makes it a lot more dynamic. So those are some practices I'm going to continue.

The other practice I think is super critical to continue is equipping all of our children with the technology they need regardless of their socioeconomic status. All families deserve to have access to WiFi and devices to be able to learn at home. That's going to be a huge game changer, especially when we're looking at students who historically are scoring lower on test scores.

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Noelle: Have you been able to continue with the garden? I don't want to pry, are you at your school right now, or are you in a space in your own home that you've created?

Juliana: I do have a classroom set up in my home and for a lot of the year, that's where I've been leading and teaching from. I am at a new school this year. So I did leave Crestwood last year. I'm happy to lead from this school. We are working on plans of creating a garden program here.

We still have to have the social distance, but what a beautiful way to welcome your students back to school than to welcome them into the garden. Although I'm not at Crestwood anymore, I am happy that garden will be there to serve those students.

The coolest thing is I live in the neighborhood, down the street from Crestwood. I felt so in love with that community that I moved in. I think it was like the second or third year that I was teaching there. And I bought a house with my husband down the street from the school.

On walks around my neighborhood I see the garden every day. Some of my dearest friends still teach there. I see the families all the time. In fact, yesterday, I saw two of the families just out and about, and we stopped to talk and social distanced and all that good stuff.

Social media has made it wonderful that we have access to each other through Facebook. Yesterday, I just saw one of my past students have her quinceañera, her 15th birthday. They did a drive-by thing, so I got to see her. It's really beautiful that when you're able to build those relationships, they continue on, whether the teachers left the school or whether the students have left the school. I'm really proud to be able to keep those relationships going.

Noelle: I think every teacher needs to know that's one of the things that connects us. We've all had that experience of being seen in public. What's your teacher sighting experience?

Juliana: I absolutely embrace it because it just brings me so much joy. I think that we underestimate the power of being around a lot of people and COVID-19 has taught us that. I don't know about some people, but I miss people, I miss just everyday people. I love communities. I always try to build with families. Even if their child wasn't in my caseload, I always try to build with those families. And so part of my commute was getting on a cute little bike and riding my bike to school every day.

It was a two minute bike ride, but I felt so happy when I got to school because I would say hello to the families on my way. And it also gave me a superpower. I'm not going to lie to you. The kids knew that I knew where all the kids lived. The kids knew that I would see the families at the grocery. And so they're like, "Uh-oh, you better watch out. She'll talk to your mom. She'll talk to your dad. She'll talk to your grandma." And I never abused that privilege. Don't worry.

A cute story is one time we found this little three-legged Chihuahua. I found him on the street on my way to get lunch. I'm like, "Oh my goodness, this poor dog. I can't leave him on the street." It was down the street from the school. And I said, "Somebody at the school has to recognize this dog."

And that's what I did. I grabbed the dog after I got my sandwich and I went to the cafeteria and the playground. I said, "Does anybody recognize this dog?" Sure enough, one of the kids said, "That's my neighbor's dog." "Great, after school let’s meet. We'll walk to your house and I'll deliver the dog back to the neighbor."

I think that schools have tremendous power of being unifiers in the community. A lot of the times schools are like vacuums and teachers come and they go. But when we blur those barriers and we just push past them really beautiful things happen.

Noelle: And just pure love. Right? It's a love for people at all ages of the lifecycle. I know how to problem solve. My students know how to problem solve. What advice do you have for teachers who are supporting parents who don't speak English, but you can read their face to know something needs to be shared or talked about? What advice do you have for being able to think past language barriers to know how to continue to make family connections?

Juliana: I think we underestimate the power of nonverbal communication. Like you said, you can sense when someone's not feeling heard. Every school should have a family community liaison who speaks the language of the majority of the families. I know some colleagues at schools that have over 40 languages spoken in their school, so that could be challenging.

The second is the power of learning. I think that when teachers try to learn, even if it's a few words, there's a lot of power in that. Families will feel, "Okay, we're trying to communicate." Another thing I think is really important for teachers to understand is that even if a family doesn't speak English yet, it's not because they don't want to. I think we have to think about access and how difficult it is for some folks to acquire English as an adult. I have colleagues who don't know their native language because their family was afraid that they would be discriminated against.

I think we have to look at that social context. English holds a lot of power. And so when you speak English and somebody else doesn't, there's a power dynamic that, whether we like it or not, comes to the surface.

So how can we push past that? You could have something like a garden or a family night where language isn't a requirement. Right? Anyone, despite whatever language you speak, can plant a sunflower seed. Anyone can shovel a garden bed and you can find different things that everybody can do. I'm thinking about ability with an asset mindset.

I know that I'm giving you a little bit more of a complicated answer, but I think that those are the philosophical frameworks, education and education practitioners can start developing that will ease families into not feeling like the mutual language barrier is their fault.

The other thing is that the power of technology today is amazing. There are all sorts of apps, including Google Translate, that are really great. If there's a couple of words here and there that don't translate well, it's okay. We'll understand each other. These kinds of efforts are really great.

Our relationships could be lifelong, so we have a whole life to learn each other's languages. It's not just about families learning English. It's about schools being accommodating and open and interested in their families’ languages too.

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Noelle: I am in awe. I mean, I'm just struck by this idea of a lifetime relationship. We can all strive to think beyond right now, right here, this school year, these 180 days, and begin to think about that continuation. You can tell that you still have a passion for bilingualism and leveraging that as an asset for special education students.

Okay. So now I ask every teacher, you're walking down the hallway, what's your walkup song? What song is playing to bring you to the stage in front of the class or up on your platform?

Juliana: So my husband is an amazing musician. His name is Olmeca, and he does bilingual hip-hop. He has a song called “Browning of America.” And it's about migrants embracing their power and pushing beyond the, "Oh, we don't belong here." Yes, we do. We can make our country look and feel like us. So I would walk up to that one and maybe I'll do that one on Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday.

The other days I'd walk up to Santigold. I love her energy and her music. She's just wonderful. I don't even know what genre she fits in, but she's all about lady empowerment. She's my favorite.

Noelle: How cool that your father was a musician. You're married to a musician. So without knowing anything more about your family, I know you've got to have a lot of music, a lot of talking, a lot of fun and laughing when y'all are all together. I wish you nothing but the best. I know that our listeners are just like, "Wow, she comes in with a punch. She's fascinating."

Every time I talk with teachers, I have a list of where do I need to go visit first once I'm able to travel again? And I keep reprioritizing the list because everybody I talk with is amazing. But Juliana, you are amazing. You are filled with information. You brought a curious nature into the profession. I'm amazed. So Juliana, thank you so much. We're so appreciative of your time.

Juliana: Thank you much for having me. I love talking with teachers and to teachers. It's been such a joy and I would be more than honored to come back in person virtually and continue the conversation. If folks have questions, they can reach out to me. I'm on Twitter @urtublj. And if you're doing National Board and you need help, or you just want to talk about something, feel free to reach out.

Noelle: Keep it going, pass it on. All right. Thank you so much.

Juliana: Thank you. Bye. Take care.

Noelle: Hey listeners, have you ever walked into a conversation where you're just like, wow, I have met my match.

Someone that can just fire away, come at you with information, have you thinking and jotting down notes? Juliana was all of that. Or as her students say, Ms. Earth.

What I want to encourage and reflect on is that we should never discount each other based on our age or our length in the profession. Someone can bring it from year one, and someone can still be bringing it and being awesome and learning new things and being innovative 25 years into the profession.

We're a collective profession.

Let's care for each other. Let's celebrate each other. And as Juliana has shared with us, I encourage us all to go learn about a policy in your state that you weren't aware of and just start inquiring and finding where you might become more of an advocate. Until the next time, your friend, Noelle.

Lish: If you or someone you know would like to be a guest on the Teachers in America podcast, please email us at shaped@hmhco.com. Be the first to hear new episodes of Teachers in America, by subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. If you enjoy today's show, please rate, review, and share it with your network. You can find the transcript of this episode on our Shaped blog by visiting hmhco.com/shaped. The link is in the show notes. Teachers in America is produced by HMH. Thanks again for listening.


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