How to Make Learning Joyful and Just: In It Podcast
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Joy and justice with Juliana Urtubey, National Teacher of the Year

How can we make learning joyful? How can we build schools that include and celebrate all kids, families, and communities? 

In this episode, hosts Amanda Morin and Gretchen Vierstra learn from Juliana Urtubey, the 2021 National Teacher of the Year. Juliana, a bilingual special educator in Las Vegas, aims to make learning “joyful and just” for all students, including kids who learn differently. Listen to Juliana’s tips for how schools can create a sense of belonging for everyone. Hear what Juliana has learned from listening to her students and their families.

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Episode transcript

Amanda: Hi, I'm Amanda Morin. I'm the director of thought leadership for Understood.org and a parent to kids who learn differently. 

Gretchen: I'm Gretchen Vierstra, a former classroom teacher and an editor here at Understood. 

Amanda: And this is "In It." "In It" is a podcast from the Understood Podcast Network. On this show, we talk to parents, caregivers, teachers, experts, and sometimes even kids. We offer perspectives, stories, and advice for and from people who learn and think differently. 

Gretchen: Today, we are speaking with a very special guest, Juliana Urtubey.

Amanda: We know Juliana as a member of our very first cohort of Teacher Fellows here at Understood, but maybe you've heard of her too? Last year, she was named 2021 National Teacher of the Year.

Gretchen: And then "People" magazine put her on the cover of their People of the Year issue as a stand-in for all the teachers who did incredible work this past year.

Amanda: Juliana teaches special education at an elementary school in Las Vegas. She was born in Colombia, and she teaches many students who are immigrants and English language learners, just like she was when she was a kid. And as Teacher of the Year, she has made it her mission to advocate for a joyful and just education for all students. And that includes students who learn and think differently.

Gretchen: We wanted to catch up with Juliana in the midst of this exciting and challenging school year and learn about how she's thinking about joy and justice in the classroom.

Amanda: Um, but first things first. Juliana, it's your "People" magazine!

Juliana: Oh my goodness. I can't even believe it.

Amanda: Here's what I really want to know: What was it like being styled for "People" magazine, and do you get to keep the amazing dress? 

Juliana: So I said this several times that day — um, this is the least "teacher-y" thing I've ever done. And it's interesting because some people will send me funny comments that people have made on the post. And most of the comments are about the dress, about how nobody goes like that to work. I just want to clarify: I also did not go out in that blue dress to work, but it felt super beautiful and glamorous. 

And, you know, I think that we're moving into a time where people's identities really matter, because I had a phone conversation with the stylist, and she asked me about my traditions. She asked me about my preferences. She really listened, you know. She really, really listened. And the similarity amongst all the folks that were there for "People" magazine making it happen, is that they all had a story about a teacher, and they all wanted to share that story. And it made that moment of being there together so much more special.

Gretchen: One of the things that I know you want to do as, in your work as Teacher of the Year, is to prioritize helping educators and communities work together to provide our children with joyous and just education systems. So talk a little bit about that. What does that mean to you and what does that look like day-to-day in the classroom?

Juliana: Yes. When I became National Teacher of the Year and I had to solidify what I was going to be talking about for the whole year as an educator, I struggled because there's so many different parts of me, just like my identities. I have all these layers. Well, as a teacher, I have all these layers too. First and foremost, I am a special education teacher, and I work with students with learning and thinking differences, and that's my heart. And then on top of that, we co-constructed a garden program at the school. And that was only possible through the collaboration and the relationships that we had with the families and the community.

And then on top of it, I'm a bilingual special education teacher. And so what I wanted to do was have a body of work or a platform that was inclusive. It didn't exclude teachers or the cafeteria workers or the parents or the families. It was inclusive of absolutely everybody. And so, for me, joy is, you know, the first ingredient that anybody needs in education. Joy comes from knowing who you are and knowing who you are in your community, right? So making sure the school highlights every single person in the community. 

And then the justice part comes in because we all know that there are inequities and injustices that exist in our public education system. And we have to be honest, and we have to be vulnerable, and we have to be accountable about making those wrongs right. And I think that students have a lot to tell us about how to go about making it right.

Gretchen: So what about families? How can families listen to their students, and how can families help cultivate this joyous and just education?

Juliana: You know, I found that with the students that I worked with, that, you know, had learning and thinking differences, when I partnered with their families, I mean, holistically truly partnered, you know, I would tell the families, "This is just the beginning of a lifelong relationship. Like, I will forever be your child's teacher, therefore forever will be here with you." And so by building it with the families, you kind of get to know the child on a whole different level. And then you get to co-construct goals that you mutually have for that child, and then that child sees themselves reflected.

I'm thinking about my student, um, Joseph, and his mom, and Joseph loved me sharing his story. So this is his real name, and he's, you know, he's becoming an advocate. He's almost toward the end of his middle school years. But when I started working with him, he felt a heightened sense of anxiety to outperform at school.

And I noticed that it was kind of dwindling his joy. And so what we ended up doing was working through comics, and he would draw comic book after comic book. Um, he had an alias for himself. He was called Mr. Joseph aka Comic Squad Creator. And he would sign his homework like that too. It was really cute. But basically by letting him learn in the way that was the most joyful, most interesting to him, he flourished.

Amanda: Wow. One of the things that I'm really interested in talking to you about is the fact that you have all of these different certifications. I mean, you're a general education certified teacher. You're a special education certified teacher. I know that you teach English language learners. I also know that that's not always the word that people prefer. And I'd love to know, do you use the term "English language learner"? 

Juliana: So I do use "English language learner." However, as an adult, as I look at my own experience acquiring English and I look at my students' experiences, I feel like the label "English language learner" falls short. Ultimately, what we want is children to be able to preserve their identities and build more identities. And I feel that the term "English language learner" puts one priority on that child: to learn English. 

And this is where the "just" part of "joyous and just" comes in, right? The U.S. public education system has a lineage of assimilation. And to this day, I still see family members encouraging their linguistically gifted children to only speak English because they don't want the children to feel left out, discriminated against. And then what we find out is then when these people become adults, part of them is missing. And that's a huge identity crisis.

I know I went through it myself, even though I had a lot of support to maintain my Spanish language. When I was in high school, I had zero confidence in speaking to other people in Spanish. And it wasn't until very recently that I understood that my Spanish didn't have to be perfect for me to consider myself bilingual. 

But "linguistically gifted" doesn't only apply to students who come to us with another language. It applies to their families and their communities. You know, it applies to, um, you know, the Deaf community and American Sign Language; it applies to African American Vernacular English; um, also to all of our indigenous languages, and then first-generation languages. I think it's really important to change the frame, to see these children as linguistically gifted, because they have a gift to offer us.

Amanda: I'd love to talk with you a little bit about your work with families when it comes to sort of identifying and addressing learning challenges. Because I think there may be some barriers to doing this, especially when you have people with different cultural backgrounds or when you have parents who may not speak English. How do you have those conversations with parents? How do you start sorting out those kinds of things? 

Juliana: This is where that historic, knowing the historical context of your communities really comes in. So during the time that I was finishing up my degree, there was a proposition that was passed in Arizona where I was going to school, and it was Proposition 203, and it was an English-only law. Which folks who were doing community organizing around human rights and immigration, we realized that that was part of a whole series of attrition laws, right? Laws that would make it more difficult for you to live undocumented or as a brown person in Arizona. And so understanding that led me to understand, you know, the larger context of immigration in this country, the immigration policies that were dehumanizing communities. If you are apprehended and you go into detention, you can wait your time out to have your court case, or you can self-deport by signing papers.

So all of this is really important when I'm meeting with families and asking them to give me consent and signing these very long and lengthy papers, right? I have to understand families' experiences with this, right? And say, "What does this family need to know that their decision keeps them in the safety that they're trying to keep their family?"

And so I would go out of my way to explain free and appropriate education. Um, I would go out of my way to explain how we kept all the files and basically letting them know this is only for the school — we're not sharing this with anybody. That's one big layer of it. But then if you think about a community that has faced this kind of dehumanization and criminalization, then you also have to build safe, welcoming spaces so that they know they can be themselves in the space, so that they can see themselves as valuable contributors to the Individualized Education Program. Um, and I think that that's the first step was really building that trusting relationship, um, and taking it slow, right? IEP meetings are usually so short, and there's usually so much to do, that we forget about the most important part, which is family input.

So gathering that input ahead of time, before time, because sometimes it's hard to share something in a long table of adults that are professionals at the school. And then they ask you for your input and, you know, you, sometimes you blank. So giving families an opportunity to share that ahead of time starts conversations going that really need a dedicated amount of time versus what you can do in an IEP meeting.

Amanda: You're really talking about building community in a big kind of way, right? Not just spending the time to say, "You need to sign this form, so." You're talking about letting people know that you understand who they are. Are there other concrete things teachers can do to build community, and maybe in particular teachers who may not share the same background as their students, in terms of language, immigration experience, and so forth?

Juliana: Absolutely. Um, I think first and foremost is kind of understanding how you present yourself in a space and, um, with different, different cultures. And I have seen so many teachers across this country really rise up to understanding how they show up in a space and always being reflective and accountable about that, right? So, for example, taking on a few Spanish words really shows that they matter, right? That their language matters and that you don't see it as a barrier. And I always say that spending time with folks who have different experiences than you in informal ways is really important. And if you think about schools, we're so busy and so go, go, go, we don't often spend informal time with families. And so one of my favorite quotes from one of the teachers when we were building the garden was, basically she was telling me how before, she felt so uncomfortable; she felt like she wasn't good enough because she didn't learn Spanish in all the years that she had taught at the school.

But then when we were doing the garden build and she was side-by-side with a family member who they both didn't speak the same language, she realized how important it was just to share that connection and that you don't necessarily have to have the same language to have the same goals for children. And I remember when she told me that, we were both crying, because it was so beautiful.

Oftentimes, both sides want to be able to build a relationship. It's just we need the tools and the time to be able to do it. Right? Teachers are always at the top of the power structure, and parents are always below. Find ways to kind of turn it on its side. We often ask family members to cook and to bring supplies and to do all these things. How can we invite families in to just be themselves and share something?

Gretchen: I'd love to hear a little bit about what you've seen as Teacher of the Year, while you've been going into classrooms across the country. What are teachers doing that's inspired you in terms of just and joyous education?

Juliana: You know, I think what we have to do more of is share celebrations. Sometimes during crisis — right, we're all in a crisis — your brain goes on survival mode, and we forget how much it matters to celebrate the little moments of impact, right? And so if I have one thing that I've learned from teachers across the country, it's how they are sharing their celebrations. 

Gretchen: What's your favorite thing you've seen school communities do to celebrate each other and the students?

Juliana: I'm thinking about Jon Juravich, the art teacher. He posted this hallway art exhibit that his students helped them make about overcoming their fear of COVID and how to turn that fear into — he doesn't say it like this, but I understood it as collective wellness.

Amanda: So Jonathan Juravich and Juliana are both Understood Teacher Fellows, right? And amazing teachers. Jonathan does this series called "Drawing with Mr. J.," which, actually, I think it won an Emmy this year.

Juliana: It did.

Amanda: Like, he does these amazing things with his students where he's getting them to express their emotions, their fears.

Juliana: It's "Seeds of Hope" is what he called it. And he talked about acknowledging worries, sadness, anger, and being able to channel that into your community. And so when they were talking about finding hope, one first grader put it as "being filled with rainbows while you wait." 

Gretchen: Oh my goodness.

Juliana: Yeah. I mean, when we stop and listen to students, and when we give them the environment and the tools that they need, we kind of just have to get out of the way. And that's what I think Jon does with his collective art with his students.

Gretchen: Juliana, is there anything that you've seen that families have done to celebrate their child that you think, "Wow, this is a great model of celebration"?

Juliana: My favorite example is this family who had a student with autism in the self-contained program. In that classroom, there's physical therapists, there's speech and language therapists, there's a teacher, there's an aid. There's a lot of supports to make sure that these kids have everything they need to really participate in the learning. And so you can imagine the challenge of going virtual with this subset of classrooms. Um, there was one family who, every single day, had a different family member sitting next to their child. One day was an aunt. The next day was a cousin. The next day was mom. The next day was dad, and the next day was like a grandparent. And then there was always someone there providing the hand over hand, so the child could practice their motor skills, um, standing up and dancing with them so that they could do their brain breaks together.

I just will never forget that family because of what they did to be able to organize themselves to give that child what they needed. They made the best out of a terrible situation. And I think that that lives inside of me because this wasn't a family who counted on socioeconomic privilege, right? This was a family who said, "We've got to make this work, and we're going to do it the best way that we can." And I understand not all students had that kind of support, but I want to celebrate it because it is possible when we see ourselves as caretakers of each other, right? 

Amanda: Yeah. Oh my goodness.

Gretchen: It's such a pleasure to be able to talk to you, Juliana.

Amanda: I mean, this brings me joy. Thank you so much for taking the time and joining us.

Juliana: It's my pleasure. Thank you all for what you're doing.

Gretchen: Amanda, Juliana is just so inspiring. She's such a role model. I'm wondering what stayed with you from this conversation.

Amanda: So one of the things that stuck out for me from this conversation is, you know, we often talk about, like, how do you get kids interested in learning, and how do you get them into it in a way that makes sure they're going to learn what you're trying to teach them?

But when Juliana talked about Joseph and his comic book, she said, "It was his joy," and she connected joyful learning to interests. And so finding his interests helped him find his joy. And I thought that was a really cool way to talk about it. The other thing's a little more technical that stuck out to me, I wanted to mention and emphasize something Juliana said.

She talked about free and appropriate public education. And we talked about that in our IEP episode when we talked about FAPE, right? That free and appropriate public education. One of the things that was really important in this conversation is the idea of informed consent. That when we ask families to sign papers, they really need to know what they're signing.

And one of the things that really struck me is Juliana talking about informed consent not just being about understanding what you're signing but also having access to it in the language that's your primary language. And I think it's important to point out that that's actually part of the law.

Families need to be able to have access to the paperwork in their primary language that they speak so they can give you informed consent. The other thing that's worth emphasizing when it comes to free and appropriate public education — and I know we talked about this on the episode we did with Andrew Lee, as well — is that regardless of immigration status, regardless of language that you speak, regardless of whether you come from a family of mixed status in terms of immigration or not, students are still entitled to a free appropriate public education, no matter what. And so I want to encourage all families to keep that in mind — that your student is entitled to those services. Gretchen, what stuck out for you from this conversation?

Gretchen: Juliana really reminded me that teachers are a great resource for families, right? She brought up so many tools in her toolbox of how she teaches and how she makes sure that kids have a joyous education. And some of those tools are from her expertise as a teacher. Some of those she got from talking to families or talking to her students and really listening to them. And as parents, we should remember that if we're trying to make sure our kids at home are learning in a joyous way, that we can ask the teacher what they're doing.

Um, you know, I'm a former teacher, and even I forget the power of teachers. So I don't want to forget that. And I also want to remind listeners out there that if you are a teacher, teachers were a People of the Year in "People" magazine. So guess what? That means you're a Person of the Year. Go ahead and put that on your résumé, because you do so much for our kids and deserve that recognition.

Amanda: You've been listening to "In It," part of the Understood Podcast Network.

Gretchen: You can listen and subscribe to "In It" wherever you get your podcasts.

Amanda: And if you like what you heard today, please tell somebody about it. 

Gretchen: Share it with the parents you know. 

Amanda: Share it with somebody else who might have a child who learns differently.

Gretchen: Or just send a link to your favorite teacher. 

Amanda: "In It" is for you. So we want to make sure that you're getting what you need. 

Gretchen: Go to u.org/init to find resources from every episode. That's the letter U, as in Understood, dot O R G, slash in it. 

Amanda: And please share your thoughts with us. You can email us at in it at understood dot O R G. That's init@understood.org. Or you can leave us a voice message at 646-616-1213, extension 703. That's a lot of numbers, so again it's 646-616-1213, extension 703. And we might just share what you have to say on a future episode. 

Gretchen: As a nonprofit and social impact organization, Understood relies on the help of listeners like you to create podcasts like this one to reach and support more people in more places. We have an ambitious mission to shape the world for difference. And we welcome you to join us in achieving our goals. Learn more at understood.org/mission.

Amanda: "In It" is produced by Julie Subrin. Justin D. Wright mixes the show. Mike Errico wrote our theme music. Laura Key is our editorial director at Understood. Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick and Briana Berry are production directors. Thanks for listening, everyone. And thanks for always being in it with us.

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Hosts

  • Amanda Morin

    is the director of thought leadership at Understood and author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education.” She worked as a classroom teacher and early intervention specialist for more than a decade.

    • Gretchen Vierstra, MA

      is the managing editor at Understood and co-host of the In It podcast. She’s a former educator with experience teaching and designing programs in schools, organizations, and online learning spaces.

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