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Our Full Circle in Motion

The prepared remarks of Convocation speaker Juliana Urtubey
Juliana Uturbey

2021-22 National Teacher of the Year Juliana Urtubey delivers the 2022 Convocation Address

Photo: Jill Anderson

Before I address you all today, I would like to take a moment to address our country’s educators and soon-to-be educators in the wake of the senseless tragedy in Uvalde, Texas at Robb Elementary School. The great American poet Nikki Giovanni addressed the Virgina Tech community and said, no one deserves a tragedy…certainly no two tragedies are the same… but there often lessons from one that help us make sense of what is in front of us… with 30 plus school shootings this year alone, this is a tragedy that for educators and school communities is becoming far too habitual and frequent.

Today, I will share her words and I will interchange Virginia Tech for educators because we are here to say all children and educators have a right to feel and BE safe in our schools and that our society has the responsibility to act now.

Last night, my heart and body was thinking of all the teachers that today confront this reality because our society is unsure of how to unite to pass gun safety measures, and educators alone do not have the tools to keep our students safe. I thought of the families who drop off their children to school instilling their hope in the daily action of school and the sadness, fear, and anguish they must have felt this morning. I think of the students that dream of a better tomorrow. That tomorrow starts with us, today.

Thank you Maestra Giovanni for these words to guide us: “We are sad today and we will be sad tomorrow, we are not moving on. We are embracing our mourning. We are educators. We are strong enough to stand tall tearlessly and brave enough to bend a cry. And sad enough to know we must laugh again, we are educators… No one deserves a tragedy, we are educators. The education community embraces our own and reaches out with open heart and hands to those who offer their hearts and minds. We are strong and brave and innocent and unafraid, we are better than we think and not quite what we want to be. We are alive to the imagination and the possibility, we will continue to invent the future through our blood and tears and all this sadness, we are educators. We will prevail, we are educators.”

Prevailing also means celebrating, celebrating is part of the rising of our next steps. So we celebrate today, knowing our hearts can carry this together.

Hello, Buenas tardes to each and everyone gathered to celebrate the outstanding class of 2022. And, Hello graduates!

Thank you Dean Long, thank you faculty, families and guests. And especially, thank you to all the graduates for all of your hard work, vision, and dedication! I am the third special education teacher to be National Teacher of the Year, most likely the first bilingual education teacher and the first Latina to hold this distinction. It has meant the world to me to represent special education teachers and students who learn and think differently as well as, linguistically gifted communities and Latinx communities in the U.S. and Colombia.

Graduates…You made it through — and during one of the most challenging times — our educational landscape has ever seen. Wow, am I delighted and proud to have the opportunity to celebrate you and the future impact you will have on countless communities. Thank you for this grand honor. The opportunity to be together again is the greatest gift.

Graduates… tomorrow is your day. I want you to take it all in and think of those that walked before you so that you can walk that stage tomorrow, think of those that have walked with you: reminding you that you are worthy and capable, and those that await for you on the other side of this stage. Those waiting for you on the other side of this stage are your future students; the most deserving, mas tiernos and most beautiful students who will love you endlessly and teach you your most valuable life lessons. Those awaiting on the other side of the stage are also the educators that depend on your advocacy to help us sustain our practice and hope... Educators ready to amplify their expertise to better serve our students and communities. Whether your journey takes you to a classroom, school leadership, higher education, research, starting your own business or nonprofit, we are all educators and we all have a collective responsibility to center the joy and justice every child, family, and teacher deserves.

Educators, I want you to continue to take this moment in, think of those seres queridos/ those loved ones with you here today, who will be with you tomorrow, be it physically, from afar, or in your heart. Hold them tight and if they are able to be here today, look at them now and let the twinkle in your eye (you know, the little moist thing coming out of the corner of your eye) let that hold the gratitude you feel for their presence. It is said that the opposite of uncertainty isn’t oddly enough, certainty. It is presence. And during these most difficult past two years, we know the power of presence. Thank you all for being present today. It is people showing up for us that makes a difference.

For me, my students and their families have taught me three incredible lessons that I’d be honored to share with you today. My students have taught me that what matters most is: 

  • First: our humanity, our students’ humanity.
  • Secondly: our collective hope.
  • And thirdly: there is incredible power in the work we do together.

What does it mean as an educator to hold the infinite potential of our humanity in the humanity of each child we teach? There is a quote that has become my mantra for remembering the humanity in our students. Dicen los escritores que el océano cabe en una gota y la_historia_en una página. Many writers say, the entire ocean fits in a drop of water and all of history fits on a single written page… Hoy yo dijo que en cada niño, niña, nine cabe la esperanza de la humanidad. Today I say in each child exists the hope of humanity. What does it mean as an educator to hold the infinite potential of our humanity in the humanity of each child we teach? Remember, it is like Rumi said, “you are not a drop in the ocean, you are the ocean in a drop.” In other words, every child we teach is not a drop in the ocean, they are an ocean unto themselves… the entirety of the ocean is within them.With you all leading our classrooms and schools and systems, our future hope is in excellent hands! My hope was once in excellent hands as I had teachers that inspired me and saw the ocean in me too.

I’m going to tell you a story about finding my voice, finding my humanity … a journey that could only be possible with excellent educators and mentors that believe in me. In 2009, I stood in a similar place as I stand today, in front of my University of Arizona Graduating Class and attempted to give the student address. And when I say attempted, I actually mean I cried through my speech. I was so fraught with anxiety about the changing political landscape of Arizona, specifically English Only Propositions voted into reality that would impact the kind of bilingual programs I dreamed of teaching. When I stood there, overwhelmed with the charge of being a bilingual teacher in a world that seemingly did not want us to hold onto our identities and languages, where I was concerned about massive deportations and family separations, I broke down about the gravity of supporting an unknown group of students I had already preemptively fallen in love with. See, this combination of resilience needed to be myself at the moment and my public speaking anxiety overtook me. My throat closed, I shut down, and the ASL interpreter only had inaudible sounds to sign.

Somehow, I powered through my speech, somehow I stood tall and shared my visions of a school system that would honor Brown and Black and Indiegnous students and their families. But to be honest, I buried deep that anxiety and sense of overwhelm of how to change this system. I went on to teach many many students to hold onto their pride of identity, language, and humanity but never fully addressing the pain of how heavy the charge is and yet, always knowing intuitively that it was possible to show up as our fullest selves. My motivation was that the weight would lessen for my students. But, these buried feelings would be sure to pop up again.

Amazingly enough, my public speaking anxiety did not preculde me from becoming National Teacher of the Year even though I have needed to address my own healing in order to tap into the power of my voice and my story. Although I believe I might have set some kind of world record for the most times cried in a speech: I’ve cried at the White House, live on CBS…twice! and in front of many rooms full of educators during many keynotes. What I have learned is that many needed and wanted to cry with me, that we do not carry the weight of a brighter future alone. Somehow, this vulnerability gave me the strength to face the ails and celebrations with more humility. It is connecting to our most vulnerable humanity that allows us as learners and teachers to show up as for our students as our fullest selves.

I stand before you having completed a full circle and as someone who still feels anxiety for the health of our communities and school systems and still sometimes feels overwhelmed about the task of building spaces where all children thrive and are embraced alongside their identities. I stand beside you as someone who believes in the power of educators to use our own healing to come out a little bit stronger, better, more capable of serving our diverse communities.

My full circle is bigger than just my own experience. Educators, our full circle is in motion. Our schools are becoming more centered around our students' humanity, school systems are becoming more inclusive, more dignified for our students and their families. Today in Arizona and across the country, bilingual and multilingual programs are growing abundant, our teaching force is becoming more representative through programs like Grow Your Own teachers, our systems are shifting to create healthier support systems for students and educators. But it is not without contest, it is with great strength and determination we hold safe the space of holistic education for all; we know it is still not a reality for all. Yet, the seeds are sowing and opportunities are growing.

As a first generation student, I, alongside my family, navigated a whole new world when my family left Colombia. Just like so many of my students, my family left our home country to seek safety from a violent civil war. As a child, I remember feeling pressures of assimilation and that terms like English Language Learner were way too small to capture my family's brilliance and the linguistic gifts of so many like us. My journey inspired me to find ways to heal with community, to build bridges, and to acknowledge and honor the brilliance that has always been here. We are not just ELLs, we are linguistically gifted. I have learned there is immense joy in creating spaces where we all belong just as we are and… I’ve learned that justice is the collective caring for everyone’s wellness while not dodging the accountability we need to build better systems.

Justice is deeply learning the historical contexts of the communities within our school. Justice is ensuring we reframe frames that do not humanize and uplift; I have found personal freedom and healing in calling myself and students like me, linguistically gifted. Justice is that that term holds space for indeginous languages, African American Vernacular English, American Sign Language, and all the languages of our students and their families. Justice is creating educational spaces that respond to our students’ humanity and creativity. Every child deserves a joyous and just education that gives them what they need to succeed while uplifting their families and communities; we all have powerful and unique ways of bringing joy and justice to every child in our classrooms.

The lineage of a joyous and just education isn’t just mine; it’s ours. It is the work of countless teachers, activists, linguists, students, families and more. Joy and justice belongs to us all. Sometimes we can’t see the progress because we are in constant motion, but we are walking and moving. You are making beautiful things happen! The best way for us to hold this truth brightly is to show up each day as your fullest self, build the learning spaces that welcome and nurtures your students' fullest humanity.

My students have taught me that our humanity brings us closer to them, not farther. They also taught me that from seeing our humanity, we exercise our hope so that we do not lose ourselves in the learning. … I’d like to share my reminder of hope I carry each and every time I step into a classroom in hopes that it will remind you of the hope within us all. There is always hope as long as we are disciplined to create it with our students. After all, Alice Walker could never be wrong, she said, “Hope is our best teacher that gives us our toughest homework.”

One day… it was the first day of school…A student from our Garden Gnomie Club ran up to me. It was a very hectic morning while we were all on the blacktop trying to help students find their new teachers. Kimberly quietly slipped a sweet potato into my hand. I looked down quickly and was a bit surprised and confused. As soon as it was possible, I went to her to ask her to tell me more about this curious sweet potato. She looked up at me so very proud and said, “Ms. Earth, I spent all summer investigating ways to grow sweet potatoes just like you showed me how in garden club. And I wanted to bring you my first one!” She gave me her first one. Wow. Best gift ever! What a tremendous reminder of hope, of what it means to be an educator. Kimberly reminded me that the impact of our teaching is always growing, that when it is time to dig up those camotes, there is always an abundance. Sweet potatoes grow underground and their vines are sometimes thinly leafed (kinda reminds me of the resources in our classroom…anyway…) the vines are thin enough to make you doubt yourself, doubt your impact. But then, when harvest time comes around, there is joy in the bounty.

Kimberly reminded me why we spent countless hours making sure our students had a beautiful outdoor garden to learn in, she reminded me of the importance of joy, wonder, and awe of learning. The need for just spaces that allows us all to grow in our brilliance, just as we are.

Memories have a funny way of guiding us; maybe it’s our mind’s way of showing us hope is always tucked away, growing slowly underground, even during difficult times. I want you to think of a time a student showed up for you to remind you of your why and your hope. On the count of 3, let’s all say their names together. Let’s bring them here, now. To be honest, when I am struggling, hope is something I am not always ready to receive. It’s often others, like Kimberly, even all these years later, that gently remind me of the power of hope… it’s why we thrive in community.

Mariame Kaba, activist and abolitionist reminds us that hope is a way of living, a practice. She says,“Hope doesn’t preclude feeling sadness or frustration or anger or any other emotion that makes total sense. Hope isn’t an emotion… Hope is not optimism. Hope is a discipline… we have to practice every single day.” So remember, as educators, you hold the power — the power of our humanity AND the power of our hope. Once we understand the power of our humanity and exercise hope, only then are we able to embrace collective work that transforms.  

Here's what I want you to know about the power of collective work and this is the same conversation I had with my students and their families as we built our beautiful garden. Collective work is a space where every individual matters, our contributions are all of equal value, it’s the only true place where we all can shine together. The garden I co-constructed with my school community was built by students, their families, and staff slowly and together. We loved calling ourselves the Garden Gnomies, you know the Gnomes that are homies. As the garden bloomed, so did our students’ interests, our colleagues' creativity, families' sense of welcome. Together, we filled our school with possibilities. Every carrot we pulled out of the soil was confirmation that this work is only possible together, in collective. The act of us sharing this space beautifully encapsulates the power of coming together for a collective goal. In our school garden, our collective work was to ensure every child thrived.

Today our collective goal is not only to celebrate your accomplishments but also for us to collectively be on this path of building more joy and justice for all students. The lessons of the garden are lessons for life. Graduates, thank you for believing in our students and their families, our profession, and our collective power of transforming the world. And when we transform the world around us, the world within us also transforms.

I stand before you as a maestra, a proud special education bilingual teacher. As an educator who knows the list of challenges and walls that limit students’ potential, I know the horizon can sometimes look tough. I also know the power of educators who stand in community to help students overcome those challenges and scale those walls. My path has not always been easy but it has been a beautiful one that has been lined with many who have taught me what I know, how to hold on to hope, and how to slowly build a world full of joy and justice. As teachers, we model to our students that an ideal life is not one absent of challenge, but one that is created and built together so we all can thrive.

I believe education, now more than ever, has the ability to transform. In the face of marginalization, teachers build classrooms that include and encourage all students to learn and grow; we nurture our students’ identities as a point of pride. We humanize our students and their families. We know that with the right access, all of our students can soar. I stand with this immense gratitude for the possibility of a future where all of our students belong; where each child is seen for their strengths and has the ability to live a life of joy that is full of justice in action. I embrace you all and thank you from the bottom of my corazoncito for being on this journey with me. We have persevered, we have taught through the challenges that seem too big to carry alone.

Class of 2022, our full circles are just beginning. You have the power to ensure the circles of joy and just encircle and embrace every single student and their family, every colleague and member of our communities. Let us continue forward proudly carrying the power of collective humanity and hope, and the power of our collective work. I cannot wait to see you stand in your power and change the world with your students. Muchisismas gracias y felicidades! Congratulations to you all! ….