Juliana Urtubey is the 2021 National Teacher of the Year and Nevada's 2021 Teacher of the Year. She is a bilingual hybrid teacher and special education instructional strategist in Las Vegas, Nevada.
In this two-part interview with Colorín Colorado, she discusses the challenges and opportunities of teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic, offers some ideas for engaging multilingual families from a distance, and shares her own personal story about coming from Colombia as a child to the U.S.
Articles by Juliana Urtubey
Part I: Teaching During COVID-19
Intro: Meet Juliana Urtubey
My name is Juliana Urtubey. I am a hybrid teacher, at Kermit Booker Elementary in Clark County School District. I spend part of my team co-teaching with our special education educators and then the other part of my day I spend as an instructional strategist.
Closing technology gaps in Nevada
So we have a lot of shifts in housing which makes our distance education model a little bit more challenging. I do have to celebrate that in Nevada our governor, our state superintendent and a lot of philanthropists worked really hard to make sure that all schools that were distance education, the students had one-to-one devices and Wi-Fi hotspots.
And as of yesterday, I think they're just shy of 2 percent of our statewide students who still need access. So in a matter of weeks, they supplied, I think it was 400,000 families with Wi-Fi hotspots and devices.
So that's making it a little bit easier, because regardless of where they go, if they have to go to work with their parents, they can have their little Chromebook and their hot spot and they can still be participating.
Shifting how we teach through distance learning
We all kind of went through this process let's just do what we do in the classroom, but let's just do it in front of a camera. And then we had to evolve to, "That's not going to work; we need to really rethink how we facilitate learning."
So some things that are working are engagement strategies, things that normally would have taken 30, 40 minutes, making them condensed into ten minutes tops. Ten minutes direct instruction face to face and then giving students ample time to practice, investigate, apply on their own and checking in with students as smaller group size.
That's challenging because that means that we get to do less. We get to cover less material, less content, less strategies. However, if we think about it in a more holistic way and we plan thematically and we use our students' interests, then that is what is guiding their motivation to learn is their interests.
So it's almost like a re-shift. We've learned that things that we've always known that work and want always to do more of, like music in class learning, brain-based learning, play, physical exercise, brain breaks.
That all of those things are helping us get through. So there's nothing like seeing all of the cameras go off during our virtual session and say, "Okay, everybody stop, let's come together and let's do a fun exercise video and then we'll get back to our learning." And then you see all the cameras come back on.
How administrators can support teacher wellness
I get to talk to teachers from across the state and across the country frequently. And the difference that a supportive, positive, caring and responsive administrator makes on a teacher's life is huge.
So I am so fortunate right now to be at a school where our administration team is superb about teacher wellness. They come in at, during our contract time, the second it's over, and you'll hear them on the loudspeaker. "We know you have a thousand things to do. We will help you do them. But right now, go home. Your family needs you."
And also honesty. When we're burnt out, we should have the space to be able to say, "I need to unplug for an hour. I'm really overwhelmed. I can't think about this right now. Can we come back to it?" And acknowledging our feelings, acknowledging our energy levels and checking in with each other.
You know, when you notice other teachers who may not feel comfortable doing that themselves, checking in with them, do you need some time? How can I help you? How can we redesign this so that it's integrated to something else?
Special support in our autism program
We are so lucky to have really engaging, kind, teachers in our autism program. My favorite way to start my day is by going to our primary autism teacher's classroom, because she starts the day with singing and she has a tambourine and they sing the catchiest, most engaging songs.
And then she always ties it back to her instruction. And so when she notices that her students' attention is waning or cognitive levels are just, you know, being pushed to the max, she goes back to the song. And then she reminds them, if you can sing the song, you can learn this whatever topic they're talking about. That's working really well.
School is not the same without students in the building
I've worked some day's home, some days at the school and the school just doesn't feel the same without the laughs - even the screams. Even kids being kids. It's just not the same without them. So we can't until it's safe to be able to go back.
An opportunity for collaboration
This is an exciting time because if schools are thoughtful and able to, we can harness teachers' expertise. So I think it comes first with building relationships.
Knowing people's strengths, right? If you know your colleague's strength is in teaching vocabulary, but maybe your strength is in comprehension, how can you work together to combine your classes? To have one person maybe leading the instruction, another person managing the chat box or managing the students who are asynchronous.
Again, I think that this is so critical to have a really supportive administrative team to say, "Hey, I have this challenge. I have this proposed idea. Can you guide me on a solution, can you guide me on another teacher that would like to collaborate with me on this project?" And if it works, can we roll it out to other teachers so that their plate is one less item heavy?
Why schools need teachers who can help students develop their interests
So if we're thinking about our teaching in the future, we're going to be changing how we're teaching. We're going to be hopefully grouping students by their skills, but also their interests.
So we make sure all students have foundational knowledge and then the rest of the time we're really letting them explore their interests and their strengths, if that's STEAM or STEM. I like STEAM with Art integrated.
If you are really interested in literature and a debate, if you're interested in robotics, if you're interested in gardening, having teachers at the school who have that strength really lead that kind of knowledge and learning is really important.
My platform as Nevada's Teacher of the Year
My platform as Teacher of the Year is really looking at what equity looks like and making sure that equity practices are in place every step that we take. That every step that we take, we're taking it with our students, our families and their communities in mind.
Making schools a warm and exciting and nurturing place for all families, particularly first- generation families. Families of color that typically might feel marginalized or separated or unwelcomed, how do we transform our practices to make sure that they're welcomed so that we can truly see their assets? Our multilingual students come with a tremendous amount of assets and we really want to harness and show the families that they are most celebrated in their schools.
I also really want to focus on attracting and retaining teachers of color into our force. In Nevada we have one of the highest rates of diversity in terms of linguistic, cultural and ethnic diversity. And we really need teachers of color in our schools supporting our students and leading the way in how we make our schools more culturally, not just relevant, but responsive and responsible.
How I found out I won our state's Teacher of the Year Award
So I'm part of the Superintendent's Advisory Committee so on a state level, we meet frequently. One of my projects is teacher retention. And so they told me that they were going to have a teacher retention meeting in the middle of the day. And it struck me a little bit odd, but then that was fine.
Apparently my husband had been keeping the secret for about two weeks, but then I logged into this call and my family was there, the governor was there, assemblymen, representatives. It was a big party. And when I logged in, I saw our governor and our state superintendent and my assemblyman from my district.
And it was just a beautiful surprise. I had no idea. My school also really helped make that happen. The principal drove to go get the plaques so that he would be able to have them there to present me with the plaques, the in-live. So it was really special and beautiful.
Part II: Immigrant Family Engagement During COVID-19
How to partner with families working in the service industry
In Las Vegas, most families don't work your typical 8-4 type of job. Most families are working night shift. One parent is working night shift, another is working day shifts. Shifts are just ever-changing. And families don't typically have the flexibility of being able to communicate with the school during the school day. It's a procedure if we need them to come in.
So that just made us really creative about how we design parent engagement times. Making sure that we understand and we don't want to put the pressure on them to feel uncomfortable at work, especially now in this COVID world that we're living in, not risk their employment for any reasons.
And so I do know of moms who've gotten in trouble because they answered the school call during the school day. And so you know, there's work-arounds. Our Latino community loves WhatsApp, so let's communicate through WhatsApp. And so overall, yes, a lot of our parents work in the industry. There's a lot of, also, construction, so all the off-shoots of the industry. A lot of the families I work with, their families do work on the Strip or in the hotel business. And it's really interesting because coming to Las Vegas after teaching in Arizona for a couple of years made me realize how flexible schools need to be when we're talking and reaching out to families.
Housing challenges during COVID
I have heard of a lot of families who have had to change living arrangements. So housing in Las Vegas has really been difficult. We have had to extend the eviction notices quite a few times, and I'm really glad that at a state level, our governor is being really supportive with that. You know, but we do hear of individual cases of folks, especially undocumented folks, who landlords know about their status and may not respect those laws.
And so I've also seen my role as a connector connecting those families who are experiencing that to people in the community who are doing work to making sure undocumented families really have that support. And that's a very real consideration for a lot of the students.
Engaging with families around technology
It's been really rewarding for me to sit down with senoras (on the phone) and be able to show them, "Okay, these are the parts of the Chromebook, this is how you make sure it's charged, this is how you turn it on. This is how you troubleshoot the volume, the camera, et cetera."
And so what I think that does for families who want to learn English or haven't been successful is really tremendous. It has not been an easy process. I don't want to sugar coat or throw false positivity on there.
It's been a challenge. However, within these challenges, we've had light shined on inequitable practices. Even within my practice, my biggest reflection when March came around and our schools shut down on a Sunday without any of us knowing prior to that Sunday, was I preach equity, I work for equity, but never once had I considered moving beyond the one-to-one in our school and having great internet in our school, to that applying to the students in their home.
And so it was a great lesson to learn and something that we move forward, we shouldn't ever move back on that. And so, again, it just reiterated to me how important it is to take every step forward with families.
How families feel about sending their kids back to school
As a special educator, it's really hard because some of our students are doing great with distance education. They like that they can do it on their own time, they like that they can have their camera off. They like that they can be running around while they're listening to classes.
For another larger chunk, this is really hard for them. It's really hard to make sure that we're providing all the services, accommodations, social interactions that our students need to learn. So I think a lot of families are finding themselves in a really hard place.
Do we get back to a time where we can go to work, drop off our kids. Our kids can learn, but do we risk health? And again, when we're looking at folks who may not have access to health care, it's a big daunting question.
How a family is supporting their child with autism
There are families who, their students need a physical person there to guide their instruction, be it hand over hand strategies or prompting or reinforcements. Those families are there. And one of the families, I notice it's kind of a revolving door of adults. There's three or four adults that spend time with that child.
And so I'm just in awe of how much love and consideration they put in to making sure that their child gets all of that support. And this is a child who is non-verbal at this time and he's really struggling. But there you always see grandma helping him stretch and do the cross-body. And it's really, really touching. So I think everything starts and ends with family relationships. If we build the family relationships, then we will make it happen.
Part III: The Value of Family Engagement
My bilingual journey
We’re from Colombia. My dad was a musician. My mom was a human rights lawyer. I was born at the height of the Colombian Civil War. And so my family decided to leave Colombia in part to have a safer place to raise our family, and so we moved to Chicago. And it wasn’t until years later that I fully heard this story from my mom’s perspective. I remember the emotion of it, but I don’t remember the details of it. Luckily she was able to find a bilingual magnet program, and so I had options when I was young to go to that bilingual school.
So, for me, even though right now I consider myself fully biliterate, bicultural, and bilingual, it was a journey. You know, there was a part in my adolescence and my early adulthood that I felt very insecure about my Spanish and my connection to my roots. So, when I went to college, I got a second degree in Spanish literature just to be able to maintain the language. In maintaining that language, I realized the richness, the vastness, and the diversity of the Spanish language. I went to Puerto Rico and I studied a semester there. I went to Ecuador and taught a summer over there. I went to Mexico for six summers in a row to teach there. And I also got to go to Alicante in Spain to teach.
And all of that helped me realize the assets that our very diverse Latino community has to offer. And so it’s a constant every day mantra that I tell myself that who I am and all of my experiences matter and they value, but it is a little bit of an upstream battle, an upstream swim. It’s a balance of having positive role models who embrace our identities and having those reminders, those reminders that we are exactly who we need to be.
Valuing family engagement
For me when I became a teacher, I had no option other than to recognize inherent strengths that families have and the role that my family played in my education. And so that’s something that for me has been critical in my professional development is to always, always, always make sure that I’m keeping families front and center because ultimately the family health is what will determine our students’ health and their academic success. Teachers have a huge role to play, but we can play an even bigger role if we’re inclusive to the families.