A year of learning, sharing for Glenwood Springs Middle School’s Autumn Rivera as Colorado’s 2022 Teacher of the Year
Teachers are dedicated professionals, but they’re not robots. And neither are students.
That was one of the major points Colorado’s 2022 Teacher of the Year, Glenwood Springs Middle School sixth-grade science teacher Autumn Rivera, emphasized during a whirlwind year in which she said she learned as much as she was able to share.
“My biggest takeaway is the importance of sharing your story, and that when you get to know someone else’s story it humanizes the situation,” Rivera said in a pre-holiday interview, reflecting back on one of the biggest years of her life.
“I feel like a lot of times these days, we’re trying to turn our teachers into robots and we’re trying to turn our students into robots. And we’re not, we’re humans,” she said.
“We need to go away from that and humanize the profession, and to do that we need to share our stories.”
Likewise, students can learn as much by sharing their own stories and life experiences with each other. “I really think that is what’s going to help turn us in the right direction,” Rivera said.
A teacher’s work is never done, and Rivera’s role as an education leader in Colorado and nationally continues into the New Year.
Recently, Rivera returned from her third trip to Washington, D.C. in a year, where she was invited to view a special student self-portrait project at the White House.
In October, she and the teachers of the year from other states were asked to have their students make mini-portraits of themselves, which were then sent to the White House and turned into Christmas ornaments.
Fifteen of Rivera’s students participated, and Rivera got to see them on display.
The White House was adorned with 77 trees altogether, four of which were covered in student artwork.
“The school district (Roaring Fork Re-1) was really great and supported me in going to see their artwork,” Rivera said. “I was able to find the ornaments of six of my students, and some of them were on display in the private residence, so we couldn’t see all of them.”
Also in early December, on the local leadership front, Rivera joined GSMS ELL reading and writing teacher Lucia Campbell and Principal Joel Hathaway, along with a group of students, in presenting the school’s EL Model of Excellence Project at the EL National Conference in Chicago.
Once COVID concerns subsided last spring, travel for various conferences and field trips became a major part of her role as Teacher of the Year.
Additional trips to the nation’s capital included interviews for National Teacher of the Year, for which she was a finalist, and another time she had the privilege of meeting President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden.
There was also a trip to Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama in July, where teachers took part in team-building activities.
“The idea was to take you out of your comfort zone and to try new things, which was really cool because it helped me remember what it’s like for my students to go through unique situations and be out of their comfort zone, and to reflect on how I can help them better process things,” Rivera said.
Last January, she got to attend the college football championship game in Indianapolis. And, various speaking engagements and panel discussions have taken her to Princeton University, New York, Florida, California and multiple events throughout Colorado.
This March, Rivera will also be a keynote speaker at the National Science Teaching Association conference in Atlanta.
All of the engagements are an opportunity for the country girl who grew up near Sweetwater Lake to share her unique rural Colorado story, and how she stayed around to do her part to improve the education experience for students who are like her when she was in school.
“It’s a story that not a lot of people get to hear,” she said. “And it’s a great chance to share the awesome things that our students are doing, and that just because we might have less resources and opportunities than districts in bigger cities, we still do great things.”
Like her 2019 project to have students learn about the unique ecosystem at Sweetwater Lake and to then write letters in support of its preservation through the Eagle Valley Land Trust’s Save the Lake campaign. Sweetwater Lake and the surrounding area has since been sold out of private ownership and is now part of the White River National Forest holdings.
“I also talk a lot about the importance of our community here in Glenwood Springs and the Roaring Fork Valley, and how that really supports us in building the background knowledge to do a project like that,” she said.
Rivera admits she didn’t fully know what she was committing to when she was nominated for Colorado Teacher of the Year in fall 2021. That was probably good, she said, because it allowed her to maximize the experience, and learn from it herself.
“I had no idea the amount of speaking that I would do, or the amount of interviews and the travel,” Rivera said. “But I’ve gotten comfortable with it, and now I can get up before 2,000 or 3,000 people and talk, and that’s normal for me now.”
She said it’s also been a chance to reflect on who she is as a teacher, and to celebrate being a person of color.
“Being a Latina teacher, that’s something that when I grew up and graduated from Eagle Valley High School, I never had a teacher who looked like me,” Rivera said. “It’s important to me to allow my students to see examples of Hispanic and Latinx people who are teachers and professors and leaders in other situations, so that they have a wider idea of what they want to be when they grow up.”
This past fall, Rivera was part of the interview team to select the 2023 Colorado Teacher of the Year, Jimmy Day II, who is a music teacher at East Middle School in Aurora, and also a person of color.
“He is our first Colorado Teacher of the Year who is an exploratory (specials) teacher and our first music teacher. So, it’s exciting to see us keep moving in this diverse direction,” she said.
Long term, Rivera said she hopes to continue in a leadership role in Colorado education, especially as it involves rural science educators.
“I’m excited to just keep meeting new people, and to keep sharing our story and advocate for rural education, because we really are doing some awesome things here,” she said.
Rivera is in her 18th year as a teacher, and her 11th at Glenwood Springs Middle School.