Shortly after being announced as the 2021 National Teacher of the Year, Nevada special education teacher Juliana Urtubey was personally congratulated by another notable educator — First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.
Urtubey is the first teacher in Nevada to win the award, and the first Latino teacher honored since 2005, according to the Council of Chief State School Officers.
“Juliana Urtubey exemplifies the dedication, creativity and heart teachers bring to their students and communities,” Carissa Moffat Miller, the council’s CEO, said.
An educator for 11 years, Urtubey works with elementary school students and focuses on their individual needs; her approach is to consider students holistically, taking into account their backgrounds, interests and families, and using that to help them play to their strengths.
“There’s always strengths to find, and so once you find those strengths, you start there,” Urtubey said.
After speaking to CBS News about the honor, Urtubey was surprised in her Nevada classroom by Dr. Biden, who handed her a bouquet of flowers and a certificate for her impressive achievement.
“I'm so excited because Juliana is our National Teacher of the Year,” Dr. Biden said, “And I'm so proud today to be an educator because — look at Juliana, I mean, she is just the epitome of a great teacher, a great educator.”
Urtubey, who referred to Dr. Biden one of her heroes, said she was “elated” by the surprise.
“It's so amazing,” Urtubey said. “And I'm so grateful for a change of tone of positivity, of focusing on education to get our students what they need. It's so beautiful.”
When asked why it was important for her to keep teaching, Dr. Biden said, “that’s my profession.”
“I love teaching, and part of my platform as First Lady is to lift up teachers and lift up our profession,” Dr. Biden said. “I think for so long, teachers were undervalued. But now, hopefully, all of America after this pandemic has seen what teachers have done and how they’ve just taken care of our kids.”
“It’s just been such a tough time,” she continued, “and teachers have risen to this moment.”
"It's been tough, it's been a hard year," Urtubey said prior to the surprise about the challenges of teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic. “We’ve been through a lot of loss. We're here though. We're here, and we're doing well, and we're doing our best to stay connected.”
Dr. Biden said that mental health resources will be critical for educators and students in the aftermath of the pandemic: “The kids have been hurting this year, so they're going to need a lot of support.”
Urtubey is known to her students as “Ms. Earth,” referencing a community garden she planted with her students at Crestwood Elementary School, where she taught for several years before joining Kermit R. Booker, Sr. Innovative Elementary School in Las Vegas this year. Urtubey turned the barren area into a lush garden filled with flowers and vegetables, surrounded by several murals.
One of her first initiatives at her new school? Planning to launch a new community garden.
Dr. Biden’s visit with Urtubey was part of a multi-day tour touting the sweeping spending bills proposed by her husband, President Joe Biden, the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan.
Combined, the two proposals total nearly $4 trillion, and would fund projects ranging from rebuilding the nation’s roads and bridges to “human infrastructure” programs, including allocating $109 billion for two years of free community college; the plan also includes $200 billion to provide free preschool to all 3- and 4-year-olds.
The first lady stopped at Glendale Middle School on Wednesday, which has a diverse student body and returned to in-person instruction a few months ago, amid Teacher Appreciation Week. Dr. Biden took the chance to thank assembled educators for their ongoing efforts to help students during the coronavirus pandemic.
“There have been losses that we will never get back: Loss of time with each other, loss of learning, and the loss of so many,” Dr. Biden said Wednesday. “But the best gifts that we can give to show our appreciation for everything that you do, does not come from a store, it's giving you what you need to be your best, investing in you.”
“Your president knows that,” she added. "After all, he's married to me. Joe believes that there is no greater investment we can make than in education.”
The winner of the National Teacher of the Year award is often honored by a ceremony at the White House, but that has been postponed two years in a row due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The council is attempting to schedule a ceremony for Urtubey, as well as 2020 winner Tabatha Rosproy, when COVID restrictions allow.