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First Lady Jill Biden surprises Juliana Urtubey, National Teacher of the Year 2021, at her classroom in Las Vegas. Photo: Twitter
First Lady Jill Biden surprises Juliana Urtubey, National Teacher of the Year 2021, at her classroom in Las Vegas. Photo: Twitter

Meet the Latina Special Ed educator named National Teacher of the Year

First Lady Dr. Jill Biden honored Juliana Urtubey by surprising her with a bouquet of flowers at her Las Vegas classroom.

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Juliana Urtubey, a first-generation immigrant from Colombia, has been named 2021 National Teacher of the Year, making her the first Latina to receive the distinction since 2005, and the first teacher from Nevada to win the award.

Urtubey passionately serves her students at Booker Elementary School in Las Vegas as a bilingual special education teacher. She is a National Board-certified instructor who co-teachers pre-kindergarten through 5th grade classes.

She also works as an instructional strategist, supporting the academic, emotional and behavioral needs of her students. 

Urtubey told Telemundo that she was honored to be able to represent her community and provide a positive role model for the children at her school.

At Booker Elementary, Urtubey is known as Ms. Earth for her relentless work in fundraising money to adorn her campus with flourishing gardens and beautiful murals.

She often teaches outside to offer students hands-on experiences, using the garden to instruct them on things they won’t learn in textbooks, such as character development and a mindset centered around growth and personal evolution.

On Thursday, May 6, Urtubey told Education Week that having a thriving school garden makes students and families feel welcome and proud of their school community.

She explained that this strong sense of community and appreciation is important in the Title 1 schools where she has worked, 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,” Urtubey said. 

Several of her former students spoke to CBS This Morning to share 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. 

“She was a good leader, and she would just teach us things in a different way that other people wouldn't,” said another former student. 

Special education teachers are often excluded from receiving this award when compared to the broader teacher workforce, according to a new analysis by Christopher Redding and Ted Myers, professors from the University of Florida. 

Urtubey is only the third teacher of special education to receive the national honor. 

In their analysis of teacher of the year recipients from the past three decades, Redding and Myers wrote that the roles and responsibilities of special education teachers are usually quite different from those of general education teachers. 

Urtubey says that teaching special education has taught her about the significance 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.

Back in February, Urtubey told Education Week that she is a strong advocate for more accessible bilingual education, and hopes that the Biden administration will pull up a seat for teachers at the table when it comes to policy making. 

Urtubey sees teachers as leaders, and emphasizes that there is plenty of space for collaborative efforts for change. 

“Policy really needs to be informed by what teachers see every single day,” she said. 

Now that she has been granted the platform as National Teacher of the Year, she plans to use it in innovative ways to recruit and preserve teachers of color. 

As a trailblazer in both bilingual and special education, Urtubey was selected by a national committee from a pool of 49 teachers of the year 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 — as well as Guam, did not name a 2021 state teacher of the year due to the pandemic. 

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

Carissa Moffat Miller, CEO of the Council of Chief State School Officers, told NBC News that Urtubey embodies the “dedication, creativity and heart teachers bring to their students and communities.” 

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, and 9th and 10th grade science teacher in Fayetteville, NC. 

Because of the pandemic, last year was the first year since 1952 that the national winner and other state teachers of the year were not honored at the White House. 

2021’s ceremony has also been postponed, but in early May, First Lady Jill Biden surprised Urtubey with a bouquet of flowers at her Las Vegas classroom. 

 

 

“She is just the epitome of a great teacher, a great educator,” Biden said. 

Dr. Biden, who is a Doctor of Education and currently teaches at a community college, said that her and Urtubey are very alike. 

“[Teachers] make such a difference, and I think it’s our job to give them confidence and give the skills, and like Juliana said, to give them joy and support in their lives. That’s our job, and that’s what I love about teaching.” 

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