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August 29, 2022
Vol. 80
No. 1
Interview

Juliana Urtubey on Seeing Families Through a Lens of Gratitude

    When we welcome all families' brilliance and contributions, true family-school partnerships can blossom.

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    School CultureEngagement
    Photo of educator Juliana Urtubey
    Credit: Photo courtesy of CCSSO
      Juliana Urtubey, the 2021 National Teacher of the Year, coteaches in preK–5th grade special education settings at Kermit R. Booker Sr. Innovative Elementary School in Las Vegas and is an instructional strategist who supports students' learning needs, particularly students with learning differences. She advocates for a "joyous and just" education that celebrates all students' families and communities.
      A first-generation immigrant who was born in Colombia, Urtubey uses her expertise in bilingual special education and her understanding of many realities of newcomer students to tap into the strengths of bilingual and immigrant students and families. She has launched school garden projects that weave in the ideas and talents of families, including at schools in Las Vegas, where one garden included outdoor classrooms and ways for families to purchase produce grown on school grounds. Urtubey talked with EL about how, when educators collaborate closely and often with families, it opens their eyes to how much teachers and families can accomplish together, and how strong a community can be built for children.
      How schools can better partner with families was a key part of your message as 2021 National Teacher of the Year. Why is this such an important issue for you?
      I've always felt that my students come to the classroom with a wealth of knowledge, so who they are holistically matters to me in terms of their learner profile. The only way I can understand who my students are is by really understanding their families, their cultures, their histories, their journeys. It's not just about family engagement and partnerships—it is about that, but also about building and sustaining lifelong relationships with families so we can truly be a community around children.
      My views on family engagement have changed somewhat over the years. The more I've built relationships with families, the more they've shown me how much more is possible. Initially, I was only scratching the surface.
      September 2022 Juliana Urtubey Interview AP PhotoCredit: AP PHOTO / JOHN LOCHER

      Teacher Juliana Urtubey works with a young student in a class at Kermit R. Booker Sr. Elementary School.

      Can you give an example of what you mean by seeing how much more is possible?
      One example is with school garden programs, which I've been involved with since I started teaching. In 2014, I was in charge of creating a garden with students and colleagues at Crestwood Elementary in Las Vegas. We started with five garden beds. I saw how this project impacted the families. Having a garden next to the street where they walked to and from the school uplifted their sense of welcome and sense of contribution to the school. So we shifted to working collaboratively with students and families, about their ideas of how to expand the garden: What do we want next and how do we make that come to fruition?
      It took us seven years to finish building all the parts of that garden. We made a preschool garden bed to accommodate the way little ones learn and an accessibility garden with beds that were taller for students who use wheelchairs. We would have community build days led by our "Crestwood Gnomies"—students who were stewards of the garden. They helped us plan the garden and get family input to find out what people really wanted in the gardens. For example, the preschool garden had a bee theme, which matched nicely with the standard the preschool teachers were teaching to, and with what we wanted to communicate about the community we were building—that in this hive we depend on each other.
      A mothers group painted a mural in the garden area. That mural links to the time when the school community came together to start the garden. So there may be families that weren't part of initially building the garden, but they see this mural and feel their connection to creating the garden. The mothers also planted medicinal plants in the garden—like mint and chamomile. Soon, if a student had a stomachache, they'd go to the garden and get a piece of mint to chew on. If they felt overwhelmed, they'd take a whiff of chamomile. Students used the garden as a place to self-regulate.
      Do you think the pandemic and remote learning have inspired any real changes to how schools and families work together?
      Yes, because our students' progress and wellness depended on us being able to partner with families. Before COVID-19 hit, I was privileged enough to have really close relationships with my students and their families. As a special education teacher, it was important to collaborate between home and school to ensure my students reached their goals. So when the pandemic hit, one thing that smoothed the transition to virtual teaching was the fact that I could call all the families up, and we weren't starting from square one, we were starting from years of having a relationship.
      I remember what a sense of gratitude I felt toward families that they were figuring out how to get their kids connected. For instance, we had grandparents who had custody of their grandchild and still had to go to work. They had the kid in the work truck and sitting at the job site with their smartphone so they could participate in class. That meant sometimes the child could participate full time and sometimes they couldn't, so my responsibility was differentiating instruction for students when the family couldn't make it work. This meant checking in with the family, being flexible, figuring it out together.
      There are so many pandemic-related stories of teachers who went above and beyond to connect with families—and vice versa. One teacher I know of, for example, had a student with autism who was having problems with emotional regulation at home. This teacher put together the best safety gear she could find for herself—it was during that first week of lockdown when you couldn't even find surgical masks—and stood outside the student's window every day for an hour, talking to that child, teaching the self-regulation skills they'd been working on in class. She did that until the student was more regulated at home. That showed me the power of her relationship with the parents because the family was comfortable with her doing this.

      During the first days of COVID, one thing that kept me grounded was this gratitude I felt for families—and the gratitude families felt for me.

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      You've noted that there are often barriers to family involvement, barriers that schools may not be aware of. What are some common barriers?
      There are some obvious barriers in terms of language. Many newcomer communities have students who are what I call linguistically gifted—they have languages other than English that they feel confident communicating in. Some schools do great with the language inclusivity: you have translated signs, you have staff members who are confident speaking in that language who are available to translate for families. But it's not just about having the language accessible, it's about affirmation that those languages matter. It's not just about having an accommodation because you're a Spanish speaker and the staff speaks English. Instead, it's saying we care about your language; it's an important language and we want to sustain it within our school community. Those are two significantly different perspectives.
      So it's a barrier to families when (1) there aren't those language access tools available, and (2) those tools are only there to temporarily accommodate the family in its communication with the school, which is what I see happening a lot. By contrast, when you communicate that deeper message, "Who you are matters to our school, we have things to learn from you, we want to really know who you are"—that's when I see significant family partnerships blossom because families can really be themselves. Families can be acknowledged for their brilliance.
      Another invisible barrier is not fully understanding the historical context of the communities of families that we serve. We have to commit to being learners of historical communities whose contexts are different from our own and putting that understanding into practice. For example, a lot of teachers know that there are immigration issues for some families, but may not understand the historical context and the implications of what it means to thrive as a family in that kind of situation.
      How can a school uncover barriers that may not be visible to educators?
      Every school just needs to take a deep look at their community. What I often say is, "I want to know about barriers to people feeling comfortable at the school as a human." Yes, I want to know as a teacher and a professional, but also as a human. I'm part of this community and have a role in its collective wellness. The first step is not seeing the school as an island. It's intertwined with the community, so ask yourself: What is the community? We need to be on a journey of constantly asking questions with curiosity to help us understand more. One thing I suggest doing is an equity walk on your campus. Walk around the campus and try to see folks that might not be feeling successful or welcomed. It may be as obvious as someone having more shy and reserved behavior.
      What should educators be aware of as they connect with families of students who are getting special education services—especially newcomer families or those from non-mainstream cultures?
      One thing I've enjoyed talking about as National Teacher of the Year is this concept of being "linguistically gifted." Being an English language learner myself, I've always felt the term "English language learner" is too small to capture the brilliance of our community, and that it shouldn't be contingent on English for that strength to come through. I want all my students to have a strong academic knowledge of English and at the same time I want them to maintain their connections to their languages. By shifting from "ELLs" to "linguistically gifted," our students know we appreciate their languages, we see the giftedness in their families.
      Students who have disabilities are the ones who may have a more challenging journey in retaining both languages. There are people who think that kids who are eligible for special ed can't be bilingual. Every day of my teaching life has shown me the opposite!
      When we're generous in framing our students' skill sets, it translates well into having a better connection with students and their families. And it's important for them to feel we are connected to their families, to know that we know who their trusted adult at home is, that we don't judge their family.
      It's so important for educators to tell families that they see their students' strengths. And having a disability is culturally nuanced in a lot of ways, especially disabilities that aren't visible. For kids with a learning disability like issues with short- or long-term working memory, some families from Central and South American cultures might just see that as a difference in their ability to learn. The word disability might be a very heavy term. And if you say something like, "Your child isn't learning well because they're not focusing in class," a family might take that to heart because in many Latin American cultures, it's a family's job to make sure the student behaves in school. But if you say, "There's nothing wrong with your child, he just learns in a particular way and we need to give some accommodations so he can learn in the way best for him," then the family knows that we know they're doing their job. That's what I mean by co-constructing with the family what that disability means. So for example, you might say, "Your child needs a reference sheet on their desk with math vocabulary terms because we want their cognitive load to go into doing math reasoning, not remembering vocabulary that we know they understand."
      As you're building relationships with caregivers, ask a lot of questions, like, In your country what does this look like? What's your experience with the term disability? It's a conversation rather than just, "I'm the teacher, here's what you need to know."

      I talk about the concept of being 'linguistically gifted.' I’ve always felt the term 'English language learner' is too small to capture the brilliance of our community.

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      Can you describe a time in your teaching life when connecting with a family made a real difference to a child's school experience?
      I'll tell you about Leila. Leila was transitioning from a self-contained autism program over to general education. Her oral communication had developed, but she wasn't very chatty. When I started working with her, I noticed that she didn't feel comfortable in her classes. Leila was a gifted writer, but she really struggled in math. She loved drawing emojis, and when we were doing math, she would draw all sorts of emojis on her math paper—like a poop emoji or the crying emoji. It was her way of communicating how she felt.
      By going to the community events, I got to know her mom, who was a local artist, and she and I ended up becoming friends. Leila's mom let me know a lot of things about her daughter as a learner, about what was making Leila uncomfortable. I would ask a lot of questions like, "Can you tell me about a day at home with Leila?" and listen to nuances about Leila's behavior. I feel like a big resource I have as a special education teacher is to stay on top of what is interesting and motivating to a kid that current week—kids' interests change so fast—and Leila's mom was good about telling me those things.
      We put a lot of things in place for Leila—behavior plans and checklists and incentives. We ended up incorporating emojis into some of her math work, and that started building into discourse strategies. But it was through this relationship that I had with her mom that Leila eventually started feeling comfortable in school. Once she did feel comfortable, her academics flourished. She went from being a student who hid behind her bangs and her hoodie to being a student who made eye contact, who was comfortable disagreeing with peers during math talks.
      It wasn't just one strategy we used for Leila to feel comfortable. It was a holistic embrace—that her mom had a huge part in—that allowed Leila to feel like herself. It transferred between home and school and let Leila be herself in both places.
      What's one thing that would be good for educators to say to families right now—or for families to say to educators?
      Right now, it's critical to acknowledge everything people do for children. I mean, teachers, educators, nurses, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, the principal—and the families. During the first days of COVID-19, one thing that kept me grounded was this gratitude I felt for families—and the gratitude families felt for me. I encourage all of us to hold on deeply to this gratitude. The only way we're going to come out of this stronger—because still to this day, kids and families and teachers are feeling the impact of the pandemic—is using gratitude as a lens for how we continue to inspire and nurture children. It's like hope: Hope isn't just something you feel, hope is something you're committed to, that you work for. I think it's the same for gratitude.
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      Sept 2022 EL Voices / Juliana Urtubey

      1 month ago
      End Notes

      Editor's note: This interview has been edited for space.

      Naomi Thiers is the managing editor of Educational Leadership.

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