Las Vegas Sun

May 27, 2022

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Q+A: JULIANA URTUBEY:

Acclaimed Las Vegas teacher cultivates quality education by tending to its roots

Green Our Planet

Steve Marcus

Camp director Juliana Urtubey listens to a poetry jam during a summer garden camp at Crestwood Elementary School Tuesday, June 16, 2015. Green Our Planet, a Las Vegas nonprofit organization established in 2013, has helped establish 70 school gardens in the Las Vegas Valley, a representative said.

Juliana Urtubey made history last month when she became the first Nevada educator to be named National Teacher of the Year.

Through her work as a special education teacher at Booker Elementary School and previously at Crestwood Elementary, Urtubey drew attention for her innovative efforts to enhance education for students with special needs and to establish relationships between the school, its students’ families and the surrounding community.

One of her focal efforts was to establish a school garden program that served a variety of functions, including providing students with hands-on opportunities to learn about science and mathematics, providing fresh vegetables to area families and promoting healthy eating habits.

The National Teacher of the Year program, operated by the Counsel of Chief State School Officers, provides a year off of classroom teaching for honorees, during which they make appearances nationwide to advocate for education. In Urtubey’s absence, the state of Nevada and the Clark County School District will provide educational services to her students.

Urtubey, the first Hispanic National Teacher of the Year since 2005, recently took part in a Zoom interview with the Sun to discuss her ideas to improve schools, what drives her passion for education, and her reaction to the award, which included a classroom visit from first lady Jill Biden and the experience of seeing her name posted on Strip resort marquees to honor her achievement.

This is something new for Nevada, so I’m wondering if you could explain a bit about what it means to be the National Teacher of the Year. What are the duties, the responsibilities, the privileges?

I’ll spend the next year advocating for the profession, listening to different teachers, students, families, stories, amplifying those stories.

I’ll get to go on a speaking tour and travel across the country. The goal is to connect to as many educational organizations as possible and uplift this idea of a joyous and just education for all — how can all educational stakeholders come together to ensure that the spaces our children are learning in are joyous and just?

What sort of strategies will you be recommending?

Since I’m a special education teacher, one of the things I like to speak a lot about is inclusion of special education populations within all parts of the school.

Another critical part of a joyous and just education, I believe, is a holistic integration of families and communities into children’s education.

So how do we as teachers really get to know our students, their backgrounds, their languages, cultures, interests and their families, and see all of the wonderful things their families bring forward, and create space at the school for that family knowledge to be uplifted?

Those are some of the things I’ve found to be incredibly transformational in the population that I teach, but could be really transformational in all schools.

You were an early adopter of the school gardens movement, which has taken root in Nevada — pardon the pun — and other states. What prompted your interest in starting the garden?

Puns are intended and welcomed! I love puns.

Starting the garden at Crestwood was an amazing process because it really showed me how to trust in collective teacher efficacy. That garden was started by my colleagues and I, because we had a vision for creating a space where our children could learn with hands on, our children could have access to fresh fruits and vegetables. But more importantly it was a space that was the community’s. It blurred the division between the school and the community. It opened up our arms and welcomed the community into the school.

To me, those symbolic gestures go really far.

We were lucky to be one of the first schools to work close with the organization Green Our Planet, and we designed the garden based on what our students would need. We asked the families, “What do you want in this garden?” We really built it layer by layer, making sure that as we built it and as expanded it — because now it’s huge, even though it started with just five little garden beds — we made sure we had the people power to make sure the garden thrived.

So what the garden meant to us was a place where all of us could learn on the same plane. Talk about inclusion: Our students with special needs thrived in the garden, because garden learning is all about observation and intuition. The mothers at the schools shone at the garden because they knew all about medicinal plants, and once a week they’d do cooking classes with our students.

That meant they were teaching the students fractions and safe food handling and all these wonderful things that enlist a holistic education. The garden was all that.

What kind of progress did you see, on a one-on-one level, with your students?

With my personal students who have special needs, I saw transformation.

When we couldn’t be in the garden, we brought the garden to my classroom. So in my classroom, we raised monarch butterflies, we had worm composting, there’s always some kind of insights that we were learning in the classroom.

And when we design our instruction around this idea of caretaking and intuition and observation, our students were able to personify what we call a growth mindset. That’s an understanding that, one, your brain is malleable. You’re not just born smart, and the people who aren’t born smart can’t get smart. It teaches children that you can train your brain. You can become somebody who learns in your style but learns a little bit better. And part of that learning is making mistakes, and understanding that mistakes are chances to learn. So we celebrated our mistakes. In fact, we had a poster in our classroom that said, “Compost your failures, celebrate your successes.” Mistakes were always a chance for us to come together and support each other and really help each other.

When we would go in the garden, the students would get to learn through their own intuition. A good example is multiplication. We’d send the kids out and say, “Find patterns in the garden.” And students would find patterns — like in strawberry plants, there are three leaves per plant. That’s where you’d learn to multiply by three: The students would draw the strawberry plant and then skip-count and then write a multiplication sentence. So I had students who hadn’t been successful in multiplying in the classroom, but in the garden it made sense to them.

They became stewards and leaders. So they’d go out with me and my small group of students with special education needs, and then they’d go back to the classroom, and the classroom would go back out and do another lesson. And that student would be able to share what they knew about the garden, or they would be a person who knew where all the trowels were, or all the clippers were. That person had more leadership. It was beautiful to see, because it gives a space where students can be autonomous.

If you could snap your fingers and enact laws or public policy, what are some things you’d do to improve schools or provide better support for teachers?

The first thing I would do is to make sure all decisions that get made from a school or in a school or for schools have an incredible amount of teacher voice and teacher approval.

Teachers are experts — we are professionals, we know what our students and communities need. This is a transformation we’re starting to see in education now.

I would make sure everything is teacher stamped and teacher approved. Because sometimes policies and laws have unintended consequences that most teachers can see from a mile away. We’d save our children a lot of heartache.

The second would obviously be funding. I know that’s something the state of Nevada is working hard to provide.

We need to have equitable funding for all of our students.

Another thing that will support education is teacher recruitment and retention policies. How do we get more teachers of color to come into the profession? We know there are specific things that impact future teachers. Unpaid internships in teaching are really difficult in a lot of communities, for instance, (as is) the student debt that you would end up with after your college degree and the salary teachers make.

The other one, which is kind of in the midst of happening right now, is fully funding IDA (Individuals with Disabilities Act). The federal government is supposed to fund 40% of it for each state, but they’re not able to. So that means states have to use their budgets to fund that remaining 40%. If the federal government could fund that, we’d have less funding spilling out.

What could be done at the local level to improve teacher retention and recruitment?

It’s not that there aren’t people who want to be teachers. People want to be teachers and they want to stay in the classroom. We need to listen carefully to what teachers need.

What are some of the reasons they leave? The workload could be arranged in a way where teachers spend more of their time working directly with children and more time working on systems and improving schools. For example, I loved the garden, but 100% of the design of the garden and the time to build it was our own time — it was after contract hours. And while that was beautiful and it shows how much teachers love schools, it’s not a sustainable model. Teachers need to be able to do those kinds of projects.

Something we’re seeing right now is that because all of the county schools are offering summer school, teachers are teaching all sorts of fun things right now. I know a middle school teacher who is a dear friend, and she’s doing a hip hop/rock music class where students get to cover their favorite music, come up with their own beats. She told me last night this is the happiest she’s ever been as a teacher.

So we let teachers use their strengths, we give them the space to teach, and then teachers wouldn’t burn out so much, especially if that other part about teacher voice in policy decisions was connected.

We also need to look at teacher salaries and really make sure that along with increasing them, we’re also increasing the benefits. We need to make sure teachers have dignified, easy-to-work-with health care. You have no idea how many teachers struggle with that.

This past year has been difficult for everyone in education. Do you think we’ll see permanent changes come from it in terms of how we teach our kids?

I appreciate what Gov. (Steve) Sisolak keeps saying, that we have to come out of the pandemic stronger than we were before.

There’s a sense of community within that idea. In terms of education, one of the things I like to brag a lot about is Connecting Kids Nevada, a public/private organization that came together to make sure kids had Chromebooks and Wi-Fi hot spots.

And in addition to having the tools, there was a system that was easy for families and schools to use, that made the process of getting the laptops and hot spots seamless. That built trust between communities and schools. It’s a beautiful way of saying, “What do you need? Here it is.”

Through the pandemic, we listened to teachers about what tools students needed, we gave them to them and we continued to partner with families. This distance/virtual learning would not have been possible without the support of families. I love how a lot of teachers look at it as being invited into students’ homes.

Teachers really learned to rely on families and vice versa. So I hope we keep that symbiotic relationship going.

What sparked your passion for teaching, and why is it an important part of your mission to teach in Title I schools? (Note: Title I is a designation for schools where a large percentage of students come from low-income families.)

Those questions go hand in hand for me. I was born in Colombia, and when we came to the United States my mother had access to a school that would really nurture my identity in terms of our language and culture.

When we moved again, that wasn’t possible anymore. So I’m really grateful for (visiting educators) who came into our schools to play music and teach Spanish classes. I realized that the ability to leverage those skills is a privilege, and a child should have a holistic, nurturing identity in their school. We should be providing that at every single school, particularly our Title I schools.

So I became a teacher because I knew I could provide that for our students. I had similar experiences — I loved their languages like they do, and I could build bridges between families and schools.

I became a special education teacher because I knew that was where the most connection with families would be. The reason I teach at Title I schools is that’s where I’m called to serve.

A lot of times, we see communities for what they’re lacking, or the hardships. And while those things are very important to be working toward solving, I get to see the assets. I get to invite the families to share the assets of the school. That brings you back to that joyous and just classroom. It’s joyous because students get to be themselves at schools — there’s this deep sense of belonging. And it’s just because we understand all of these inequities and these barriers, and collectively we’re working to fix it. We’re working to make sure all of our kids have a wonderful place to learn.

What was it like to win the award — for instance, seeing your name on the resort marquees?

It was stunning, and it was really beautiful. Superintendent (Jesus) Jara said it was going to be like a parade, and it really was. We started driving on the Las Vegas Strip, and all of the marquees started turning. I got to share that moment with my family, and it was really beautiful.

And in the recognition of me, I keep thinking of the we. It’s not just about me. It’s about all the Latinas out there — I keep getting messages from all the Latinas out there about how excited they are to have this kind of representation. It’s about the communities that I’ve served, the schools where I’ve taught, my colleagues. It’s about all the people in my educational family. It’s really the we, it’s not the me. I’m just the vessel.

So I have to make sure I keep really humble and connected to all those voices that inform who I am. And that’s the idea. It’s beautiful and I’m so proud of this recognition, but I can admit it being a we.

Editor’s note: This interview was conducted by Ric Anderson, editorial page editor for the Sun, whose spouse is employed by Green Our Planet.