June 16, 2024

Harvard EdCast: Creating Joyful Educational Spaces

Juliana Urtubey, the 2021 National Teacher of the Year recipient, knows firsthand the importance of valuing all parts of a student’s identity. As a first-generation, bilingual immigrant, Urtubey brings all parts of herself into the classroom. Today, as a special education teacher working at the Kermit R. Booker, Sr. Innovative Elementary School in Las Vegas, she leans into her diverse classroom and community, fully celebrating it.

>> Related: National Teacher of the Year Named 2022 Convocation Speaker

“Our students have so many layers of their identity and the more layers we invite into the classroom of their identities, the better off our students are academically in terms of their collaboration with peers and social and emotionally,” she says.

In this episode of the Harvard EdCast, Urtubey shares her own experience as an educator and what it means to be a teacher today. 


Jill Anderson: I’m Jill Anderson. This is The Harvard EdCast.

National Teacher of the Year Winner Juliana Urtubey wants all educational spaces full of joy and justice. She is a bilingual special education teacher working at the elementary school level. As a first generation bilingual immigrant, Juliana has worked hard at creating a welcoming classroom that embraces all of her students’ identities. She had a lot to share about how this looks in the classroom and the important work of teachers and the best way is to support them. First, I asked her about being name Teacher of the Year and how her work as a bilingual special education teacher uniquely informed the experience.

Juliana Urtubey: I think there’s a parallel with my journey this year as National Teacher of the Year. When I was selected and we started talking and discussing about my body of work, what I was going to advocate for this year, I struggled because I’m a bilingual special education teacher. A lot of my work comes from understanding that schools are spaces of community organizing, meaning that we bring together families and community. And there’s also a large pocket of me that really focuses on social justice within education. And so it was really difficult to just pick one thing to talk about. And I think it’s the same thing for our students. Our students have so many layers of their identity and the more layers we invite into the classroom of their identities, the better off our students are academically in terms of their collaboration with peers and social and emotionally. And so I think that there’s a really beautiful parallel between bringing our full humanity into our classroom practice.

Jill Anderson: I wonder if, when people think about those younger elementary years, if they kind of just forget about a student’s identity because they are so young, you have a tendency to kind of just lump them all together as little kids.

Juliana Urtubey: Yes, I do think that that’s sometimes something that happens and I think it’s so critical for us to not do that. I know personally my journey of being, and staying, and remaining a bilingual, bi-cultural person has been a definite journey. It’s been, if you will, a swimming upstream type of journey where my world, my school world, my community sometimes echoes to me that English and assimilation is the path of least resistance.

And so when our schools don’t fully value all of the identities of our students, their cultures, their language, their race and ethnicity, their families, their histories, and the context of their histories, then we start to dim down who students are. And so it’s kind of counterintuitive because I believe that identity based education is more important in the early years. If kindergarten or preschool is where our students who are, I like to call us linguistically gifted, kids of color. If that’s where we go to assimilate, then we have to make sure that we design backwards to make sure that our students have all the tools they need so that their education connects them to their family. Not further drives them apart.

Jill Anderson: I love the term linguistically gifted. In a way, I’d love to see that adopted. I almost want to steal it myself and use that going forward. Tell me a little bit more about switching to that label and how that impacted your experience as a teacher in the classroom and your students.

Juliana Urtubey: I more than welcome everybody to use that term. One of the things that I get to tell teachers when I travel around the country is that we are powerful enough to reframe our reality when our realities do not fit us any longer. The term for me, English language learner fits like a sweater that was a hand me down that goes up to about my elbows. It’s too small to capture the brilliance and the gifts that people like me and my family bring forward. So I’ll tell you this to story of how linguistically gifted came to be. I was teaching third, fourth, and fifth grade resource special education. And one of my students, Vanessa, and that’s her real name. She has encouraged me to use her story and her name and her mom and family have also given us their blessing on sharing this story.

So when I met Vanessa in third grade, she was really reluctant make connections. And so I knew that as a teacher, as a National Board Certified teacher, my job was to get to know my students. I need to know them inside and out and build long lasting, trusting relationships with them and their families. I just wanted to know everything that I could know about Vanessa, that she was willing to share. And I learned that her first language is American sign language. Both of her parents are deaf. Her maternal grandmother speaks Spanish and taught her Spanish. Similarly, her paternal grandmother speaks Tagalog, is from the Philippines and taught her Tagalog. So Vanessa came to school with three languages and in school acquired English as a fourth. Yet our school system rated her a one out of six on her English language development.

I remember the anger that I felt when I saw that and I knew of her linguistic gifts. It just didn’t fit. It didn’t honor her journey. It didn’t honor her humanity, her family. And so I made a deal with Vanessa. I said, “Hey, I really need to use American sign language finger spelling to teach the younger students how to recognize their letter names and sounds with more fluency so that they can read a little bit better. Would you help me with that?” So I invited her gifts into the classroom and she started parallel teaching with me. So she would teach the finger spelling with the students, with the kids, to the younger ones. And all of a sudden, she started to blossom.

Jill Anderson: Yeah.

Juliana Urtubey: Because she didn’t have to hide or reserve parts of her identity. She could just be herself and even more so, her educational context now saw her as a gift, bringing something valuable. And so I think that’s why I talk to teachers so often about being so critical of how they design space. Our space can either be affirming and inclusive, collaborative, or it can be diminutive and slowly dim down who our students are.

Jill Anderson: Right. And I think about just sort of the state of America sometimes, schools can be unwelcoming places. Are there some other ideas that you might have for ways that we can better support bilingual learners in the classroom from a young age?

Juliana Urtubey: I think the other thing that sometimes gets overlooked is what you mentioned right now is how welcoming and how inclusive our schools are for our students and their families. A lot of what I talk about is creating this welcoming space as a first line of inclusivity. And the welcoming space goes with building trusting relationships, seeing all community members for their assets, truly grounded our asset mindset in social justice, this concept that many worlds can fit. And we can make many worlds fit and we’re accountable to the health and how much these other communities thrive. And so for schools, I think it’s really, really important for them to self-assess how welcoming their spaces are through other lenses, lenses of folks who are most likely to feel unwelcome, or unsuccessful, or not feel what I like to call joy and justice in education. That’s really my body of work this year is ensuring that all educational spaces are full of joy and justice. And the whole purpose is so that our students, along with their families and their communities feel included and feel valued in a school.

So for our first generation, multilingual, linguistically gifted families, well, we need to apply this framework of linguistically gifted to absolutely everybody who brings another language other than English. And there’s no spectrum, there are no conditions to be linguistically gifted. Often we have all these measures and all these scales to determine if you are linguistically gifted or not. As someone who has struggled to be bilingual in many spaces, both in my home country of Colombia and here in the US and having to go between both of them, I’m no longer willing to subject my language abilities to anybody else’s scales. Look, I speak another language. I’m linguistically gifted. A mom that drops off her child that may not speak English, she’s linguistically gifted. She’s bringing us a gift. They may sound like small, minor framework adjustments or mindset adjustments, but they make a huge impact.

Jill Anderson: Right. And knowing that you also are a special ed teacher, I feel like special education also is treated in a specific way that is perceived as negative.

Juliana Urtubey: I think there’s a couple things that are really important for me in this space. First of all, I love being a special education teacher. If you ask me for my favorite thing about being a teacher, it’s this joy and magic in teaching somebody to read. And that person may have thought, I’m never going to learn how to read. They may have heard it from other people, from their teachers. You’re not going to learn how to read. Reading is a human right. And so I believe absolutely everybody has the right to learn in the way that makes the most sense to them. So I’ve partnered with an organization called Understood. I was a teacher fellow in 2019 with them. And basically I love how they frame it. They say that we’re really shaping the world for difference by making accommodations both in the inclusive settings and in the special education settings for people who learn and think differently. And that’s really one in five people. It’s a lot higher than what we think.

And that doesn’t mean that you’re not smart or are not capable, even though that is kind of what you mentioned, the social stigma. And so my first job as a special education teacher is to find the strengths in my students and reflect that brilliance to them and that expectation and that resolve and that hope that they will learn. And that’s really about us collaborating so that I can kind of see how their brain works, see how their strengths allow them to bridge over to some of their needs, and design my classroom based on that individual. And so that’s why I love being a special education teacher, because I don’t have to do a one size fits all model and hope my 30 students learn. And if they don’t, I keep moving. On the contrary, I tell my students that they set the pace, that their ability to master concepts sets the pace and that there’s no expectation for how fast or how slow we’re going to go. It’s up to them. And that takes off a huge amount of pressure.

And so I think what we need to do is be able to universally apply a lens of brilliance and strengths to everybody. I have lots of strengths and I also have a lot of things that I just don’t like to do, and I’m not motivated to do them, and I’m not good at them. And that’s okay. We’re all kind of on this journey. It’s really about being able to equitably and justly allocate resources. I think one of the biggest injustices in education is the teacher to student ratio. I’ve had caseloads of almost 40. I’ve had caseloads of almost 18, the difference of energy, and love, and attention, and individualization I can give is night and day. We put too much on teacher’s plates and expect more and more and more every year without having balanced, healthy work environments, healthy working expectations, equitable pay for our expertise and all these things intersect.

When we look at IDEA and the funding that’s supposed to come from the federal government, the federal government’s supposed to give us 20% for the state. Yet most states hang out between 10 and 14% of that funding, meaning we’re always doing more with less funding. We’re always doing more with less resources. So for me, the special education part really comes in in the advocacy, making sure our buildings are accessible, making sure families who are deaf have interpreters, making sure that we have enough resources, materials, expertise, professional development, to move as fast as research is moving in terms of the world of special education.

So I think that there’s like a human side to it, which is we all learn and think in our own particular ways. And we have a right to feel nurtured in that. And then there’s a [inaudible 00:13:00] lens of advocacy, eligibility and resources. And I think that there are different hats that we put on and they’re both necessary. They say that the number one determinant of a child’s academic success is their teacher. The same thing for teachers. The best determinant of our efficacy, our effectiveness and effectiveness is our school leadership 100%. And so I have found school leaders that prioritize things like special education scheduling before the master whole school schedule, that’s where you see more equity. Building out first to make sure that we have systems in place to support our students who are most traditionally unsuccessful at school, most traditionally forgotten or marginalized. That’s definitely the path to justice and equity in school.

Jill Anderson: There’s been a lot of talk about teachers leaving, a lot of divisiveness coming up in communities. What have you been hearing from teachers in the past year about surviving this?

Juliana Urtubey: It’s an incredible time to be Teacher of the Year and represent a profession where one in two people are considering leaving the profession. I would dare to say that 99% of those folks considering leaving or leaving, do it because they don’t want to teach. That’s the simple solution. It’s not easy, but it’s simple. Teachers want to teach. So we need to design systems so that teachers can teach. We need to be really mindful and careful about all of these extra things that get put on teacher’s plates that take us away from teaching and this can range, and it can go on a spectrum about standardized testing, additional paperwork, again, not having enough personnel on campus allocated to truly meet the needs of our students, not having enough counselors and social workers and psychologists.

Those are all things that add more work and pile more on the teacher’s plate because across the country, what I hear is stories of teachers rising up, providing food, and clothing, and community resources to families in need, providing strict academic interventions for students that are far behind their perceived benchmarks, teachers who are just trying to continue the fun in education, continue play even though sometimes they’re pressured to teach more to the test, to make certain markers so that their school can be deemed more successful. All of these things slowly deteriorate a teacher’s energy.

And so what we need to do is treat our teachers with deep respect for their work because we are experts in our field, provide pathway for those teachers who need a little bit more support. We all deserve the right and the process to become accomplished teachers. Some of us need more support, so let’s put more support in place. And then the teachers that are really good at what they do, let’s make sure or that their professional growth keeps them in the classroom. Meaning that we have spectrums for teachers to become master teachers where I collaborate with instead of just one set of classes, this is kind of the role that I did last year. But I’m supporting a multitude of teachers and I have a smaller teaching caseload.

So I’m still to teaching, which is what I love to do. And then on top of it, I’m promoting some of those effective strategies and resources and mindsets to other teachers that can improve their practice, or just need an extra hand in the classroom. We don’t have enough of those models and enough schools. So teachers have the option of either staying in the class and oftentimes our salaries are frozen. It’s very hard to move up in types of like salary scale, but that’s not all of it. That’s just a part of it.

The other thing is that we just either stay in the classroom or we move completely outside of a school to practice some kind of educational, or not educationally related work, or we’re pushed into administration and central office work that is not the same as being a teacher. Those roles are incredibly important. And I think that they also need a lot of support because there’s also a lot of attrition there too. But those are our options as educators and it’s not fair. We need to have more pathways for teachers, less work for them that is not directly impacting students and their learning, and also better pay. And with that better pay, I don’t mean just more salary. I mean, medical care that is great. Meaning that I don’t have to worry about getting sick because I can’t cover the deductible, or I don’t have to worry about getting pregnant because my district gives, let’s say three weeks, or if I want longer than three weeks of maternity leave, I have to take short term disability. These are all things that make teaching and staying a teacher, even more difficult.

Jill Anderson: A lot of the problems that have been brought to the surface in education through the pandemic have always been there. They’re not new, but there’s this spotlight on them because of the pandemic. How do we actually sustain that interest and make changes to actually happen?

Juliana Urtubey: So I think it’s twofold. The first fold is to make sure teachers feel supported, feel successful and are aware of their impact. Traveling around the country, one of the things I’ve noticed is when I’m with a group of teachers, educators, because this includes our teaching assistants, this includes the cafeteria worker. When educators as a whole, when we realize our impact, our energy sustains a little bit longer, meaning that we’re not the best at saying like, ooh, we’re doing a good job or ooh, look at that child’s progress in this particular skill. We’re not good at that. And so I think when we center our why. Why are we educators? What is the collective why as well? Like I found, because I asked teachers this across the country is what is your why? And what’s the origin of your why? It is often so reflected across the country. And that’s a powerful thing. That’s one fold is making sure short term teachers are supported.

I was having a conversation with my principal not too long ago. And we were talking about this idea of having a four week academic schedule where the fifth day, the children would spend that day with people like camp counselors that really do outdoor learning and do all sorts of really important learning. But one that gives the children a different type of learning that’s important, some of that social time, some of that play time and then gives teachers time to plan, time to grade, time to harness resources. That’s an immediate thing that doesn’t have to be a district or a federal regulation. That’s something schools could do within the relative future and take a huge stress off of teachers backs. Because I love my principal because he says, “When contract time ends, I don’t want you working at home. Let’s design the day so that you have as much time and autonomy so that you are not doing that.” It’s not perfect. A lot of us still take work home. Nonetheless, the energy and the creative willfulness to make that happen is happening.

And then I think on a larger scale, we have to look at the importance of its education, how our country looks at public education because I absolutely believe teachers are the backbone of this country. And so it goes with elevating the profession, the Biden administration and Secretary Cardona have done a really nice job of allocating incredible funds, the most funds we’ve ever seen for public education. So I do have a lot of hope because I know that it’ll take time for states to use those fundings and really allocate it. But I know that there’s hope in the horizon for not just retaining teachers but recruiting teachers. I tell teachers all the time, I want the decision of you staying in the classroom to be the easiest decision you have to make. So I see a hope for that. It’s possible.

Jill Anderson: Any final words you have for those educators just trying to get to the end of the school year now?

Juliana Urtubey: Yes. My advice and this is reflected from conversations that I have with many dear friends that are currently in the classroom. This year, I’m not in the classroom and that’s a challenge for me. There’s nothing like the joy of interacting with your class every day. And especially when we have a really healthy, positive, collaborative learning community, there is nothing more sustaining and more beautiful than that, but you’re right. It is really hard. So my advice is creating a lot of time for reflection, where instead of doing more work, we’re reflecting on the systems and values that we have in place. So play with your students, make learning joyful, make learning a place of belonging, really lean on colleagues that you trust. Ask for help if you need help. Maybe your principal or the teacher next door can’t provide what you need exactly. But there’s those bridges.

The other part of the help, and I heard this on the internet, it was a woman talking about lessons her mother taught her. And one of the lessons she said that was the most important that her mom has taught her is that accepting help from others, even if that help for that other person is inconvenient or difficult is still okay. Because we thrive when we are in community. And so really making sure that you’re reflective of who your community is. And being gentle with yourself, uplifting the joyful moments, uplifting the moments of impact, of growth. All growth deserves to be celebrated, even if it’s tiny. Because to you as an educator of 30 children, 30 plus children, that might be tiny growth. But to that child who finally learned how to write their name, that’s life changing.

Jill Anderson: Well, Juliana, thank you so much for your time. And we’re really looking forward to your visit this spring.

Juliana Urtubey: I can’t wait. It’s just a couple of short months away. I’m very nervous, but I’m very excited. All these things mean a huge amount to my community. So the Latino community, the special education community. So it’s just really exciting. So thank you all so much for making the space for me.

Jill Anderson: Juliana Urtubey is the 2021 National Teacher of the Year. She is also the Harvard Graduate School of Education Convocation Speaker for 2022. She is a bilingual special education teacher at the Kermit R. Booker, Sr. Innovative Elementary School in Las Vegas. I’m Jill Anderson. This is The Harvard EdCast produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening.