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National Teacher of the Year offers “pocket of possibility” for all students

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The job of a teacher goes far beyond making sure a student can read, write or figure out what X equals. It goes far beyond one student and one class. For Juliana Urtubey, the newly crowned 2021 National Teacher of the Year, a teacher is someone who helps build an interconnected community of people brimming with acceptance, curiosity and collaboration.

Urtubey, a bilingual special education and National Board-certified teacher at Booker Elementary School in Las Vegas, offers insights into how she supports all students’ academic, behavioral and social-emotional needs.

Collaborating highlights each student’s strengths

The Colombia native eschews deficit- and disability-oriented labels, recognizing that each student brings something positive to the table, even if they think and learn differently. By teaming up students whose strengths and weaknesses balance each other, everyone can shine, she says. She told Education Week that as Teacher of the Year, she’s honored to be able to “amplify their brilliance.” 

Urtubey believes crafting lessons requires a holistic approach, which is touted by nonprofit organization Understood, where she is a teacher fellow. “What can [this student] do? What are their interests? What are their goals? What do they love? What does their family look like? What does their community look like?” she asks. The answers, she says, help craft successful learning plans. 

She loves it when outsiders don’t even realize the campus has a special education teacher. “I'm, like, ‘Good! Good!’ That means I'm doing my job, because, really, I'm an inclusion teacher. My job isn't just to teach kids their IEP goals and make sure they're successful in that -- though that's a huge part of it. My job really is to look at the school space and think about how I can redesign it or make small little adjustments so that inclusion feels inclusive,” she says.

Those little adjustments often take the shape of helping students see themselves as change agents for their own learning, teaching them to determine what they need, recognize their inner grit and advocate for themselves. Often that involves finding the right tools and resources to help students better integrate into a classroom, such as those that allow a student to hear rather than read a book to make it easier for a student to participate in class discussions.

Urtubey also works with school staff. “A lot of the barriers are invisible. The people who don't face the barriers don't see them. So it's our job to make them visible so that eventually we can kind of start knocking them down,” she says.

Center students to themselves

“Normal” is another word she’d be happy to see disappear. “There is no normal culture, ethnicity, language, family structure, sexual orientation. That doesn't exist,” says Urtubey, a native of Colombia who didn’t feel “normal” growing up in the US. “I was always like sub-categorical or different or this and that. So one of the most important things that we can embody as teachers is understanding and centering our students to themselves. ‘This is what's normal for you. This is what's normal for me. What are the bridges in between?’ 

“Schools often emulate societal barriers, societal inequities, systemic inequity, unintentionally or intentionally,” she says, noting that to help students become fulfilled, self-realized community members, they need to view the classroom and school as a collective place. Young students’ brains aren’t fully developed yet; they’re malleable, and, over time, they can learn new ways to behave and integrate.

“This is how you find your strengths and find what you can share with your community. It empowers our students to think of their own behavior and how they can help others,” she says. 

Urtubey tells students that sometimes they can help others by ignoring their behavior or mentoring them. And she lets families know that each child is equally important but often needs different things. “That doesn't mean that the child that needs less gets ignored. That means that we just support different students differently,” she explains.

Field trips and guest speakers can magnify interpersonal community connections, Urtubey says.”We need more community liaisons coming into our schools. And we need to shake things up. Right now, we're working on career week. I want to make sure I recruit career week folks who are culturally and ethnically diverse.”

She wants speakers to reflect the variety of jobs, from grocery store worker to young doctor -- and hopes teachers aren’t dismissive of some students’ blue-collar aspirations. She’s talked to one student who wants to become a park ranger and another who wants to tackle park trash-cleanup because of the cool trucks involved. “We have to embody that idea that all work is important -- and frame [speakers’] work as their purpose, as their contribution to the community,” she says.

Watch students grow with a school garden

A school garden is a microcosm of a community and of the school. It’s a “welcome mat” that bonds students and staff, aids with language issues and instills pride. 

She lets students loose in a school garden:  “Go to what calls you. Make notes; make drawings. What do you notice? What do you wonder about the garden?”

Students who typically struggled with class behaviors -- sitting down, looking at the teacher, listening attentively -- often don’t have those behavioral challenges in the garden, she says, “because the rules of the garden are different. Here, students’ intuition is their guide, and collaboration is second nature. 

It also helps students make sense of things on their own terms -- such as the student who noticed the strawberry plants each have three leaves. “So three strawberry plants will have nine leaves!” he said. “And I was like, ‘You're multiplying! Go find other examples of multiplication’ and encouraged him to draw and write about it.”

Gardens also aid in social-emotional learning. “When you cultivate a plant, you love that plant; you notice every single little leaf. And it brings a sense of calm; it brings a sense of purpose; it brings a sense of joy.” It also imparts lessons in social justice: Ask the students to find something in nature that is the color of their skin, and you can explain that they all are the color of the Earth, she says. “It is really liberating, because it's a beautiful way of telling kids we are all perfect. We are all normal.”

Kanoe Namahoe is the director of content for SmartBrief Education and Business Services. Reach her at kanoe.namahoe@futurenet.com

Diane Benson Harrington is an education/leadership writer at SmartBrief. She can be reached at Diane.Harrington@futurenet.com.

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