Juliana Urtubey, a bilingual special education teacher in Las Vegas, received widespread attention last month after she was named the National Teacher of the Year — becoming the first teacher from Nevada and the first Latina in at least the last 16 years to receive the award.
Having immigrated to the U.S. from Colombia at age five and being an English and Spanish speaker, Urtubey says her personal background helps her connect with her Kermit Booker Elementary School students, many of whom are learning English as a second language and come from immigrant households, as well.
“Like a lot of my students, my family left for a safer environment, more opportunities,” she said during an interview this week with The Nevada Independent.
Urtubey’s family had access to a safe immigration process, she said, a privilege she acknowledges as distinct from some of her students’ experiences. She said she doesn’t carry it lightly and uses it to speak out about how to make schools a more inclusive and welcoming environment.
“It could be as tiny as having a welcome sign in the languages that the families speak right in the front office, as soon as they walk in. It could be painting murals that were culturally responsive, like I did at my school, so that no matter where you were at the school, the school non-verbally communicated to you, ‘We love you. We’re so excited you’re here,’” she said.
Latino students make up the majority of children enrolled in the Clark County School District. Kermit Booker Elementary, a Title I school, is in the Historic Westside of Las Vegas, where 40 percent of residents identify as Latino and 38 percent identify as Black.
Chosen by a national selection committee from the annual cohort of the State Teachers of the Year, Urtubey is released from teaching for the year in order to travel the country meeting other educators and speaking at more than 100 events, according to the Council of State School Officers.
She has chosen to promote a “joyous and just education” as part of her platform.
Urtubey spoke with The Nevada Independent on Tuesday regarding her national recognition, what a just and joyous education looks like, the role teachers have in the pursuit and more. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Your award is notable as Nevada’s first recipient, the first Latina and the third special education teacher to receive it. How do you feel to be recognized as National Teacher of the Year?
Being recognized as National Teacher of the Year gives me a huge sense of pride. Because not only are we in some of the toughest times for teachers, and we get to shine light on the wonderful work teachers do, but this time around, we get to bring so many communities with us. Like you said, I’m the first teacher from Nevada to be recognized as National Teacher of the Year, the third in special education and we believe the first Latinx teacher. And so we realize that this opens the path for communication and collaboration with so many communities that are yearning to be seen and recognized, as well.
Do you think your achievement will inspire your students who identify as Latino or come from immigrant backgrounds?
I do think that it’ll help inspire not just my students and their communities, but other teachers across the country. And the beautiful thing is that we’re a community of people of color.
When we see ourselves represented in positions like this, it’s really exciting. And I know this is true, because I have teacher friends from across the country who tell me that their students are so excited. I have friends and even people that I don’t know writing me messages about how they watched the announcement on CBS with their daughters and how exciting it was for their daughters to be given a mirror on such a national stage.
It just goes to show that we are more powerful when we are representative, and inclusive of all people. And when we look at people for their assets, right — a lot of my students are traditionally known as English language learners, but I like to call them linguistically gifted. I like to call our community, who are first generation, also linguistically gifted. I believe if you speak another language, whether you speak English or not, you are linguistically gifted, because you have so much to offer our communities here.
Please read the full interview here: Indy Q&A: National Teacher of the Year Juliana Urtubey on uplifting students’ diversity
This article was written by Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez on June 2, 2021 for The Nevada Independent, and shared with Noticiero Móvil.