Colorado's teacher of the year, Autumn Rivera, was one of many teachers honored at the White House on Wednesday, April 27. President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden, who is a teacher herself, spoke to the crowd of educators and more at the White House.
"Never forget that student by student ... now I'm getting emotional," said Jill Biden while talking directly to the teachers. "The lives you change go on to change the world. Thank you, thank you, thank you."
Watch the full ceremony below.
WATCH LIVE: President Biden welcomes National and State Teachers of the Year to the White House
The ceremony also included a speech from the 2022 National Teacher of the Year Kurt Russell of Ohio. He will spend the next year serving as an ambassador for education and an advocate for all teachers and students.
"As your 2022 National Teacher of the Year I am committed to uplifting the wonderful work of educators. I am truly blessed to be a part of a profession that transforms and legitimizes students' voices and plant the groundwork for a more culturally responsive education," said Russell to end his speech which was met with a round of applause.
Rivera was one of just four finalists for the national teacher of the year title, a high honor itself. She made her excitement for Russell clear saying, "This is all things good" in a tweet that announced his win.
Rivera also shared several pictures from her time at the White House on social media calling it a day she won't soon forget.
In addition to White House ceremony, Rivera has spent the week in Washington, D.C. a part of different town hall and panel discussions while also getting to explore some of our nation's biggest museums. In the case of the National History Museum, really connecting with her passions as a science teacher. Rivera will continue her work throughout this year representing Colorado's teachers on top of her job as a middle school science teacher in Glenwood Springs.
Colorado's teacher of the year has been named as one of just four finalists for the national teacher of the year competition. Autumn Rivera is a sixth grade science teacher at Glenwood Springs Middle School. Her work inside and outside the classroom is being recognized as some of the best in the country.
"It is all a bit surreal!" Rivera told Rocky Mountain PBS in an email.
Her description on the National Teacher of the Year website reads, "Autumn Rivera, the 2022 Colorado Teacher of the Year, is a sixth-grade science teacher who encourages students to make a difference now, rather than waiting until they are adults. Her students raised funds to help save a local lake from development and conserve it as a state park." That final part is reference to her work to help make Sweetwater Lake the 43rd state park in Colorado.
Overall, Rivera is a great representative for the state and the state's education system. She loves her students beyond the classroom and is part of several organizations in her community.
"I am so honored to be listed among these amazing teachers! I couldn't be where I am today without the amazing support of my community, colleagues, family, friends and most importantly, my students," said Rivera. "I am so grateful to everyone and look forward to advocating for students and educators!"
Rivera and the three other finalists will conduct interviews with the National Teacher of the Year Program’s Selection Committee, and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) will announce the selected 2022 National Teacher of the Year later this spring. That person will spend the next year serving as an ambassador for education and an advocate for all teachers and students.
Original story posted below on Nov. 10
GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. — Inside a sixth grade science classroom, in the fall of 2021, students were busy learning during what seemed like a typical school day. Then, the principal came in to call the teacher, Autumn Rivera, and her students down to the office—not usually a sign of something good. But this time, a trip to the principal's office was some of the best news Rivera could hope to get.
“I walk in and I see my family and I see … I can kind of pick out different people and it was just really exciting,” described Rivera. “It was very exciting and meaningful to have a lot of people that supported me and my life, but I didn't realize how meaningful it was going to be to have the students there … to see them be there and be able to witness that was just such a powerful moment.”
During the small awards ceremony at Glenwood Springs Middle School, various education leaders, colleagues and students spoke about Rivera and the impact she has had as a teacher.
“She’s a really caring person. She treats kids equally. Also, she’s extremely smart,” said Andre Garcia, one of the students at the ceremony.
As the teacher of the year, Rivera will get to represent the more than 60,000 educators in the state for the National Teacher of the Year competition. She will be invited to the White House and NASA space camp next summer—as a science teacher, Rivera was elated when she heard that news.
Rivera also becomes an automatic member of theColorado Education Commissioner’s Teacher Cabinet, an advisory group of 22 Colorado teachers that share their hands-on classroom knowledge with each other. Rivera also received a check for $4,000 to help her pay for travel expenses related to her new accolade.
The Roaring Fork School District shared the ceremony on its Facebook page; you can watch here. Rivera felt especially honored seeing all of her supporters there, including her family — her parents, two brothers and a couple of nephews.
“Of course my mom is crying in the back,” Rivera said with a laugh as she described the special moment on October 22 when she found out she had won. “It was an awesome experience.”
Family and the love for rural Colorado
Rivera was born and raised on the Western Slope of Colorado. She describes the area she called home as about an hour from Glenwood Springs, north of the Dotsero exit on I-70. She went to school in Eagle and Gypsum, towns both with a population less than 10,000 people.
“I was just used to the small town world and being in that community that comes with it. I loved knowing my teachers and having them multiple years in building those relationships,” said Rivera.
Her love for education and teaching started there, building long-lasting relationships with her own teachers. Plus, it didn’t hurt that her mom, Janet Rivera, was also a teacher.
“She was a middle school science teacher as well. And so I definitely followed in her footsteps,” said Rivera.
Continuing with the idea that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, she also graduated from the same high school her father, Benny, did. Throughout her career and this Colorado Teacher of the Year application, Rivera feels like her family has been right by her side through it all.
“I come from a very big Hispanic family in the area,” explained Rivera. “My mom's family, also a big family, is on the East Coast. So I have gotten a lot of love over the course of this process and am very grateful for it.”
Her fondness for the small-town life contributed to her decision on where to go to college. She earned a degree in biology and masters in arts for teaching from Colorado College.
When Rivera first pursued her teaching career, she thought she wanted be at the elementary school level, but a couple of professors encouraged her to observe a middle school classroom and that is where she felt at home.
“I realized, like, Oh, those are my people.” explained Rivera. “And so [I] went into science and just did the amazing work there and worked in Colorado Springs for about seven years, and I really enjoyed my time there but really missed the small town."
That love of rural life is what brought her back to the Western Slope in 2012 when she moved to Glenwood Springs.
“I'm very grateful to live in this community and be able to do that and be around people that have similar values and are really into that stewardship and taking care of our amazing wilderness areas that we have here,” said Rivera.
Her passion for rural Colorado and teaching in less populated areas is something she hopes to advocate more for with her new platform as Colorado Teacher of the Year. She wants to get more support for areas of the state that may be overlooked.
“So I just really feel like as rural teachers in Colorado, we just don't have the support that maybe other school districts have just because of our location and just … we don't have the same resources always available to us,” said Rivera. “And I really want to try to advocate and support those teachers and those educators who are working really hard this year.”
Surviving the pandemic as a teacher
If you talk to any teacher these days, they could tell you what an incredible challenge the last two years of has been for them and their students. From the back-and-forth of remote and hybrid learning to the general stress of keeping everyone safe and healthy, the pandemic has changed the education landscape.
“I think all of us teachers at some point in the last two years have really stopped and thought like, ‘Is this something that I want to keep doing' because it's really hard; it has been exhausting,” said Rivera.
“I just stared at a computer screen for an hour trying to talk and get kids engaged. And they're trying to engage with me, but I can only see the pictures that are this small of them and really trying to build those relationships,” said Rivera. “It was hard. It was really hard. And there were some days where you would go home and you would cry. You'd get in your car and you would cry before you walked into work and have to kind of psych yourself up and say, ‘We got this’. Because you want to be there for the kids and you want to be excited for them, but it has been very, very difficult.”
While Rivera recognizes how hard it has been, she says she is coming to terms with the reality of the situation and what educators have to do moving forward.
“I think we all, maybe naively, thought it would get a little bit back to normal, but we're having to realize that there is no normal now and we need to decide what pieces from the past we want to keep and what normal we want to create,” said Rivera.
For her, she hopes to invest even more in relationships with students and their mental health.
“I want to make sure I prioritize those relationships because I think students, right now, we all need to love each other a little more,” said Rivera. “We might not get to all the content today, but if we need to stop and rally around something or address a situation, that mental health is almost more important than the other pieces.”
Right now, Rivera is teaching between 80 and 100 students. Most of those kids are in sixth grade science classes; Rivera does teach one social studies class. Glenwood Springs Middle School is currently in-person, full-time with everyone wearing masks.
No matter how many students she has, Rivera has learned that true, authentic interest in a kid’s life can go a long way in their development as students and just as young adults.
“I think something as simple as having a conversation, when a kid walks into your classroom before a class starts, or going to watch him play basketball, play soccer, see a dance recital, really just building those relationships outside of school,” said Rivera. “That's something I really try to focus on and prioritize in my teaching because if students feel like they're respected and that they belong and that you see them as a human being in your classroom, they're going to want to learn.”
As Coloradans move forward in this pandemic and send their kids to school, let’s not forget about how hard our teachers are working. That is one of the messages Rivera wants to get across as teacher of the year.
“It's really exhausting being a teacher right now,” said Rivera. “And I just, I think people just need to love on their teachers a little bit because there's a lot going on.”
Passion for science and teaching
The advantage of being a science teacher in Glenwood Springs is the abundance of opportunities to teach class outside.
“So we do a lot of, we call it field work in our school, which really is focusing on getting the kids outside and getting to explore,” said Rivera.
The field work is one of reasons why students identified Rivera as such a great teacher. Not only do they get to do hands-on activities, but it is also relevant to what is going on in the world around them.
In August 2020, the Grizzly Creek fire in Glenwood Canyon burned more than 32,000 acres in a four-month period. This summer, rain prompted mudslides where the fire had destroyed vegetation, creating more significant damage in the canyon and I-70 below. As tough as the whole situation was, Rivera took the opportunity to teach her students about the science of what was going on.
“So we are currently in our second year of sort of studying that fire. I started last year with last year's kids, but this summer we got another level to it because on top of the fire then came the mudslides. And so just really helping students today, we talked all about the mudslides and what's caused the mudslides. And we really just focus on the science behind that,” said Rivera.
For her students this fall, that even meant a rafting trip on the Colorado River. Rivera said they put in at Grizzly Creek where the fire started and rafted down passed the school.
“So the students were able to see and experience firsthand. Here's where the fire started, here's where the mudslides happened and they were able to see it. And so when we talk about it in my classroom, it's not certain kids having a reaction to what all kids were there, all kids experienced it and were able to sort of have that conversation. And it's really powerful,” explained Rivera.
Field Work days in Rivera's class
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Rivera takes her passion for science and teaching beyond the walls of the classroom. Just part of her long list of extra-curriculars includes being a member two committees with the Colorado Science Education Network. Rivera is also the Region 3 Elementary Board representative for the Colorado Association of Science Teachers. She also volunteers with the American Association of Chemistry Teachers. The listgoes on and on.
On top of all the committees, she is also an adjunct professor at Colorado Mountain College. She teaches an elementary science methods course and an elementary social studies methods course. When Rocky Mountain PBS asked her how many hours of sleep she gets, she didn’t exactly answer.
“I'm trying real hard. I'm going to be honest … My goal for the month of November is I'm trying to meditate every day to help decompress and everything. But yeah, sleep is definitely something all teachers are working on for sure,” said Rivera.
Her passion, her dedication, and her ingenuity all are part of the reason she received this honor this year. But she realizes she is just one of many teachers across the state who help our state's kids learn and grown.
“I'm just really excited to sort of see where this goes and how I'm able to help bring it back to my classroom and bring it back to my school and my district,” said Rivera. “I think Colorado is a great place to live and a great place to learn, and I'm excited to help to just continue and better that process as we move forward.”