By The Associated Press, NBC News
The coronavirus pandemic forced students out of the classroom and starkly revealed how learning difficulties, distractions and challenging home dynamics can make it tough to adhere to a rigid curriculum. In a year with so much loss, a silver lining is that educators are embracing a flexible approach that meets students where they are, said Juliana Urtubey, the newly named 2021 National Teacher of the Year.
“We, as teachers, are much more open to this self-paced learning, this flipped classroom, which has been an invitation for students who think and learn differently,” Urtubey said. The Council of Chief State School Officers recognized the Las Vegas special education teacher with the award Thursday.
“Juliana Urtubey exemplifies the dedication, creativity and heart teachers bring to their students and communities,” council CEO Carissa Moffat Miller said. The council said she is the first Latino recipient since 2005 and the first Nevada teacher to win the award.
First lady Jill Biden, who was in Las Vegas as part of a three-state swing through the U.S. West, congratulated Urtubey during a surprise visit to her classroom Thursday. “CBS This Morning” aired video of Urtubey appearing shocked when Biden, also an educator, walked into the classroom and handed her flowers.
“She is just the epitome of a great teacher, a great educator,” Biden said as she sat for an interview with Urtubey.
Urtubey, who has been an educator for 11 years, works with elementary school students, individualizing lessons to match their academic, emotional and behavioral needs. That can put her everywhere in a school, from spending hours with struggling pre-K students to helping a fifth-grader with science class and strategizing with teachers on how to work with their special-needs students.
She said her approach is to think about a child holistically — taking into account their interests, hobbies, family structure and community — and using that to understand what they will need and how to find their strengths.
“There’s always strengths to find, and so once you find those strengths, you start there,” Urtubey said.
She said she learned early in life the value of an education that takes a child’s background into consideration. She moved to the U.S. from Colombia as a young child and spent part of her early education in a bilingual magnet school before her family moved and couldn’t find a similar school nearby.
Urtubey said it hammered home the importance of a school “that really knows how to nurture and uplift” a student in a way that takes their identity into account.
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