This is Why We are Here
By Alisa Cooper de Uribe
2021 New Mexico Teacher of the Year
“There once was a boy named Nikolai who sometimes felt uncertain about the right way to act.” So begins Jon J. Muth’s masterful book The Three Questions. It is a story of a child’s discovery, in relationship with others around him, that the answers to his essential questions are embedded in his immediate experience and his selfless, uninhibited, and courageous gestures of kindness. It is a human story, a meditation on how we can use our most seemingly simple questions as a clarifying lens for guidance on how to act when much is on the line.
Nikolai sits with his desire to be a good person, and asks, “When is the best time to do things?” “Who is the most important one?” and “What is the right thing to do?”
As educators, we often share these same questions while hearing them echoed in the voices of our students. They are universal, and they tend to surface with greater urgency in times of collective upheaval.
It is now January 2021, and New Mexico teachers were informed of our inclusion in the state’s next phase of vaccination for COVID-19 on the heels of unsettling news from the nation’s capital. The halls of Congress were breached in an attempt to obstruct the transition process of presidential leadership, and while these events may or may not have come as a surprise, the destabilizing feelings that emerge are often inextricably tied to questions we wish to answer for ourselves and for those who learn with us.
As teachers, we are often sought out to provide insight and answers, and the teacher figure in The Three Questions, Leo, provides a wise model. Observing the frightening events that unfold in the story, he helps Nikolai understand how he was already living out the answers. His gentle words for Nikolai were, “Remember then that there is only one important time, and that time is now. The most important one is always the one you are with. And the most important thing is to do good for the one who is standing at your side. For these, my dear boy, are the answers to what is most important in this world.”
It was the boy’s lived experience and his courage that kept those words from becoming truisms, and it is our current experience and that of our students that can make them useful for us in this time, too. The most important time is always now, and in our professions, the most important ones are those who we are with day in and day out, on or off a screen: ourselves and our students. If we remain courageous, we can do that most important thing: good for the ones standing at our side.
Our students have been standing with us as best they can in these times, and I am encouraged to see that, at every turn, colleagues across the state have done good for them, including now. And what can this “good” be? For us, it can certainly be education. How the good is manifested is as different as the teachers themselves. Is the good providing space for students to ask their questions and feel safe to test their emotional, intellectual, and civic courage? Yes. If, like Nikolai, we are uncertain about the right way to act, can the good be providing space for ourselves to learn and process thoughtfully? To fully commit to a near future of critical instruction and dialogue, with a plan for ensuring that voices are heard while vulnerable groups are safer from experiencing emotional harm? Also yes. As Brett Turner wrote in the essay “Teaching Kindness Isn’t Enough,” it is okay to say “That didn’t feel right, and I need to circle back to this.” Our answers come from our own experience of this time, cognizant that it is in the service of our students that these opportunities for good and for considerations of justice to arise.
We each have it in us to create an environment of informed and principled thinking in which care for our students pays it forward with their own actionable care for themselves, for others, and this country where we live together. Let’s commit to it.
Because, as Leo says to Nikolai at the edge of the story:
“This is why we are here.”
Now in its noteworthy fifty-sixth year, the New Mexico Teacher of the Year Program began in 1963. Each year, all New Mexico school districts and Charter schools are invited to nominate an outstanding teacher to become New Mexico’s Teacher of the Year; this teacher represents New Mexico in the National Teacher of the Year competition.
New Mexico’s Teacher of the Year acts as the spokesperson for the teaching profession for New Mexico. The New Mexico Teacher of the Year program incorporates the New Mexico Public Education Department’s vision of a world-class educational system in which all New Mexico students are prepared to succeed in a diverse, and increasingly complex, world.
New Mexico Teacher of the Year State Awards Program
The New Mexico Teacher of the Year is chosen from the eighty-nine school districts and the state and local charter schools who have nominated an outstanding teacher by a panel of judges (i.e. past New Mexico Teachers of the Year, School District Superintendents, Nationally Board Certified Teachers working within New Mexico School Districts, School Administrators, and other teachers) representing New Mexico educators.
The mission of the New Mexico Public Education Department is to provide leadership, technical assistance and quality assurance to improve student performance and close the achievement gap. The New Mexico Teacher of the Year promotes excellence in teaching, is a source of inspiration to other teachers to strive for improving the quality of education within their own classrooms, therein providing the tools necessary for New Mexico students to succeed.
2021 New Mexico Teacher of the Year
Alisa Cooper de Uribe is a nine-year veteran, first grade Spanish immersion teacher who fosters international mindedness through multiple language learning. Growing up in New Mexico, she yearned to communicate in more than one language to honor the rich, multilingual traditions of her state. International travel, coupled with degrees in English and Spanish, opened the door to professional opportunities from opera to immigration.
The connections among multilingualism, cultural responsiveness, and workplace excellence were poignantly evident, and when her daughter was born with dual citizenship, multilingual education became a personal and professional priority. To provide this opportunity to others, Cooper de Uribe has taught first grade at New Mexico International School since 2012. Her classroom follows the 90/10 model of language immersion.
Having learned Spanish as an adult, she understands the importance of teaching bilingualism during childhood. She plays a key role in developing an International Baccalaureate Programme of Inquiry, and her transdisciplinary classroom culture emphasizes lifelong learning by elevating student voice and connecting lines of inquiry with community circles beyond the classroom walls.
With school leadership, Cooper de Uribe co-designed a professional development module for the national dual language conference, La Cosecha, highlighting connections between social-emotional and second-language learning. Her combined participation in her school’s advisory committee, pedagogical leadership team, and equity council supports a school community that highlights collaborative partnerships and caring open-mindedness. Cooper de Uribe holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Abilene Christian University and a Master of Arts in Spanish from Middlebury College.
Alisa can be reached at Alisa.NMTOY@state.nm.us