A Nevada special education teacher is having her hard work and dedication celebrated in a big way — after being named 2021 National Teacher of the Year, Juliana Urtubey was personally congratulated by fellow educator and first lady Dr. Jill Biden.
"I'm so excited because, you know, Juliana is our National Teacher of the Year, and I'm so proud today to be an educator," Biden said exclusively on "CBS This Morning." "Look at Juliana — I mean, she is just the epitome of a great teacher, a great educator."
Dr. Biden surprised Urtubey in Nevada Thursday with a bouquet of flowers and a letter from President Biden to thank her for her contribution to the country's education.
Urtubey, who has called Dr. Biden her hero in the past, was shocked and emotional when she encountered the first lady.
"I was obviously elated. I mean, it's so amazing. 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," she said.
Known as a passionate educator and advocate for her students — who call her "Ms. Earth" — Urtubey was named the Council of Chief State School Officers' Nevada State Teacher of the Year for the 2020-2021 school year.
She currently serves as "a co-teacher in pre-kindergarten through fifth-grade special education settings and as an instructional strategist developing school-wide Multi-Tiered System of Supports for academic, social-emotional, and behavioral interventions," according to her biography on the CCSSO website.
Urtubey is known for going above and beyond for her students and their families. The majority of the students at her school come from Spanish-speaking households. Bilingual herself, Urtubey is able to connect with these students and families in a special way.
She estimates that 60-70% of her special education students have both disabilities and are English language learners — who she calls "linguistically gifted."
Her students have described her as "kind-hearted" and a "good leader" — and even threw in comparisons to "Magic School Bus" character Ms. Frizzle.
"She, like, even had the little earrings that Ms. Frizzle had!" one young student said.
Parents are equally in awe of Urtubey's influence on their kids.
"Thank you for all the help, for all the support she's given us because Joseph can achieve more and go much further," mother Alejandra Montoya said in Spanish. Her son Joseph Moreno has autism, and is one of Urtubey's former students.
Joseph said "Ms. Earth" changed his life, "knowing what could be done when it comes to taking care and protecting our social and our economical environment."
When she found out she won the honor, and saw how much of a lasting impact she made on her former students, Urtubey grew emotional.
"I get to be part of a whole new world with so many students. I haven't seen so many of those students in such a long time. So it's so beautiful. I'm just so excited," she said. "They have made that same kind of impact in my life."
She acknowledged the hard work but gratifying work that goes into teaching — calling it "work of the heart."
"It's about connecting and making relationships. I'm advocating for students to have a joyous and just education, where they experience joy in every part of their school."
Dr. Biden said she hopes the COVID-19 pandemic has shown America how crucial teachers are.
"For so long, teachers were undervalued," she said. "But now hopefully, you know, 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, and teachers have risen to this moment."
She said mental health resources are crucial for both teachers and students to cope with the emotional toll of the last year.
"The kids have been hurting this year, so they're going to need a lot of support."
While the awards are bestowed on educators by the CCSSO, "CBS This Morning" has the honor of announcing the National Teacher of the Year.