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NEA News

Nevada Special Educator is 2021 National Teacher of the Year

Juliana Urtubey, known as Ms. Earth to her students, strives for a "joyous and just" education for every student.
Juliana Urtubey CCSSO
Juliana Urtubey, the 2021 National Teacher of the Year
Published: May 6, 2021

Key Takeaways

  1. The 2021 Teacher of the Year is Juliana Urtubey, a Nevada educator and National Board Certified Teacher in elementary special education.
  2. At her previous school, Urtubey started a campus garden with her student "gnomies" that fed school families.
  3. Her work embodies NEA's core values, said NEA President Becky Pringle—"that educators should inspire imagination...and ensure all students can thrive and live fulfilling lives."

Known as “Ms. Earth” to her students and dedicated to what she calls “joyous and just education,” southern Nevada special educator Juliana Urtubey is the 2021 National Teacher of the Year.

Urtubey, a National Board Certified teacher, serves as an instructional strategist and co-teacher in pre-kindergarten through fifth-grade classrooms at Kermit R. Booker, Sr. Innovative Elementary School in Las Vegas. She is known as Ms. Earth for her work with students in school gardens and other campus beautification projects.

This morning, she was surprised in her classroom by First Lady Jill Biden. “Look at Juliana!” Biden exclaimed. “She’s just the epitome of a great teacher, a great educator.”

Urtubey, who has taught for about a decade and is a member of the state superintendent’s Teacher Advisory Cabinet, also is Nevada’s first Latinx Teacher of the Year since at least 1992. She told the Las Vegas Review Journal that being named the state’s teacher of the year was an honor and responsibility, and she wants to represent students “with specific needs” who aren’t always considered.  

“She Teaches us Things in Different Ways”

On Thursday, Urtubey’s win was announced on CBS This Morning, which surprised her with video testimonies from former students and parents. “She’s kind,” said one. “She teaches us things in a different way that other people didn’t,” said another. “She reminded me of Ms. Frizzle from the Magic School Bus,” said another.

Moved to tears, Urtubey said “they’ve made that same impact in my life.”

Born in Colombia and raised in Phoenix, Urtubey, who has a master’s degree in bilingual special education, first taught in bilingual schools in Tucson, before moving to Las Vegas, the Review-Journal reports. This is her first year at Booker where, as an instructional specialist and co-teacher, Urtubey spends part of her day supporting colleagues through the development of academic, social-emotional and behavioral interventions, and the other part co-teaching students with learning disabilities.

“Teaching is heart work. It’s a work of the heart,” Urtubey said Thursday. “It’s about connecting and making relationships."

Known to many students and parents as “Ms. Earth,” in 2014 Urtubey started a garden program at Las Vegas’ Crestwood Elementary, her previous workplace. She pulled together students—known as “Crestwood Gnomies”—in a weekly garden club and an annual summer camps. Together, they painted culturally responsive murals, planted to attract migrating butterflies, and raise beans, watermelons and more to help feed school families.

Urtubey’s focus, she said, is on a “joyous and just education.” A just education is achieved, she said, when “teachers work collectively to build learning spaces where every child can thrive.”

The Embodiment of NEA Values

This past year, as the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked personal and economic trauma across the nation, Urtubey and so many other educators have dug deeper and worked harder than ever to support their students. In Las Vegas, where nearly half of students are Hispanic and many parents work in decimated service industries, “it’s been tough, we’ve been through a lot of loss,” said Urtubey. “But we’re here and we’re doing our best to stay connected.”

“For so long, teachers have been undervalued,” said Biden. “Hopefully now, after this pandemic, all of America has seen what teachers have done.”

Urtubey was one of four finalists for National Teacher of the Year, an annual award by the Council of Chief State School Officers. The others are: Utah Teacher of the Year John Arthur, a sixth-grade teacher who works with students to advocate for immigrants; District of Columbia Teacher of the Year Alejandro Diasgranados, who teaches English and social studies and works with community partners to get students coats, laptops, and more; and North Carolina Teacher of the Year Maureen Stover, an Air Force veteran who teaches high school science and focuses students’ pathways to college and careers.

Her work embodies NEA’s core values, said NEA President Becky Pringle—“that educators should inspire imagination, cultivate curiosity and critical thinking, and ensure all of our students can thrive and live fulfilling lives, no matter their race, background, ZIP code, or ability.”

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The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.