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Teacher of the Year Seeks Joy and Justice in the Classroom


    Juliana Urtubey, 2021 National Teacher of the Year, told conferees at the Council of the Great City Schools’ virtual 65th Annual Fall Conference that she is spending her year in the spotlight advocating for a “joyful and just education” for all students, especially children of color and students with learning differences. 

    Urtubey teaches at Kermit R. Booker Sr. Innovative Elementary School in Las Vegas. She is a first-generation, bilingual immigrant who is in her 11th year in the classroom, serving as a co-teacher in pre-kindergarten through fifth-grade special-education settings. 

    In May, she was announced as Teacher of the Year by the Council of Chief State School Officers and was surprised with a visit from First Lady Jill Biden. Urtubey was chosen for the honor from among 57 state teachers of the year and is the first Nevada teacher to win the award and the first Latinx recipient since 2005.

    In an interview with Clark County Schools Superintendent Jesus Jara,  Urtubey recalled how, as a student, she went through her K-12 education “without seeing a whole lot of teachers that had similar journeys or similar stories” to her own. 

    “My immigration story isn’t quite like my students,” Urtubey said, acknowledging the privilege of legal immigration. She arrived from Colombia as a 5-year-old, as her family fled civil war. Their journey was made easier because her father had been born in New York, so his children held dual citizenship. Urtubey and her sisters learned English by reading books aloud with their mother. But, as she grew up, “holding onto my language and culture and roots was like swimming upstream.” She spent her college years “regaining and rescuing my Spanish.” 

    Urtubey became an educator, she said, “to build bridges with those who face barriers instead of warm welcomes when they are navigating our education system. I wanted to be that familiar face on campus for students who have just arrived in this country.”  

    Joy and justice--a phrase that came to mind in a workshop, she said--“became the framework that I needed to communicate the day-to-day efforts and the hopes and dreams for a better future for all children through education.”

    The phrase, she said, “captured my love for special education and the possibilities of our students with learning and thinking differences. It captured my hopes for more bilingual education accessibility.”